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Institution Statement for Digital Benin:
Information for Digital Benin – Lisa Graves, World Cultures Curator, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (Bristol Culture), UK, Sept 2021 Bristol Museum & Art Gallery owns one historic Benin Bronze head which is on display in the Curiosity gallery of the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery¹. It is not known... Read more Information for Digital Benin – Lisa Graves, World Cultures Curator, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (Bristol Culture), UK, Sept 2021
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery owns one historic Benin Bronze head which is on display in the Curiosity gallery of the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery¹. It is not known categorically whether it originated from the sacking of Benin City in 1897 or was acquired at some other time.
Bristol’s Benin bronze head (register number Ea7821) came to the collection in 1935 as the result of its transfer from Cranmore Ethnographical Museum, Kent (which closed in the 1940s). At the time the head was exchanged for a Rarotongan headdress. The registers of HG Beasley, of the Cranmore Museum have a record that at one point a head was ‘on loan at the Rijksmuseum, Stockholm. Bought A. Sjögren’’ (although this was probably the Swedish Royal Museum of Natural History - Naturhistoriska riksmuseet). This would suggest that the head was sold or donated to the Swedish Royal Museum of Natural History by the wife of Hjalmar Sjögren, Head of Mineralogy at that museum, from his personal collection.
We do not have a full record of exactly when the bronze head has been on public display at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. However, we do know that it had been on display on the first floor balcony of the front hall from about 1970 to 1997 alongside medals and a staff from a soldier that had been involved with the 1897 ‘punitive expedition’. (These latter items came from an uncle of a Bristol City Councillor.) This display was removed after complaints that it wasn’t appropriate to display the head in that way at a time when we had just introduced the first exhibition concerning Bristol’s role in Transatlantic slavery, A Respectable Trade? Bristol and Transatlantic slavery, and were canvassing public opinion no how to tackle these sensitive issues.
The head was part of the A Respectable Trade? Exhibition ([published in the exhibition catalogue](searchworks.stanford.edu/view/5332899)) and supporting [PortCities Bristol web site](www.discoveringbristol.org.uk/). Subsequently the head was placed into the Curiosity gallery of the Museum & Art Gallery when that gallery was opened in 2010 and where it still is on display. That gallery attempts to show that museum objects can be interpreted in many different ways relating to any observer’s unique perspective on life and offers two or three different examples per object. For the Benin head, that interpretation has been applied to demonstrate the arguments for keeping or repatriating the item and has asked the visitor to consider which way they feel would be the best future course of action. In addition, the head and three related items can be viewed [on-line](museums.bristol.gov.uk/narratives.php?irn=14324).
The Curiosity exhibit has been recognised for being open about the issues concerned although not necessarily being able to propose a resolution [eg](mobile.twitter.com/elginism/status/1079083599515795461).
In 2019 [The Uncomfortable Truths](www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/stories/uncomfortable-truths/) project added extra layers of interpretation into the display of the head.
¹One other item (Ea9870) an armlet purchased from Mrs Eaton in 1962 has been identified as ‘resembling others from the Benin c.1897 period’\*. We therefore regard it as possibly being from Benin and possibly an item that was looted in the 1897 event but with little evidence as yet, certainly nowhere near as probable as the head.
\*According to Flora Kaplan (NY University; Sociology and Anthropology Dept) it resembles other hammered pieces gathered in Benin in 1897. The hammered figures may represent Europeans, either traders or soldiers. Cuffs such as these were worn by Benin chiefs, and refer to a time when trade brought new prosperity to Benin. This maybe an old piece.