An MP has said the excuses given over the refusal to return artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes were “condescending” and a “form of racism”.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, Bell Ribeiro-Addy called on the British Museum and UK government to help repatriate the historic sculptures to Nigeria.
The bronzes were looted by a British military expedition in 1897 and are considered to be among Africa’s most culturally important artefacts.
The Labour MP for Streatham made the comments as part of a wide-ranging interview to mark Black History Month.
Ribeiro-Addy, who was born in the UK to Ghanaian parents, also spoke about what she loved about being a black Briton, improving education and how more needs to be done to help the Windrush generation.
She said the British Museum “absolutely” should return the Benin Bronzes and accused them of hiding behind the Museum Act.
The London institution holds nearly 1,000 artefacts taken from Benin – in what is now southern Nigeria – when it was annexed by the British Empire in a violent invasion.
Among them are hundreds of looted brass and bronze plaques, made in the 16th and 17th centuries, that adorned the walls of the royal palace of the Edo Kingdom.
It comes as the University of Cambridge is set to return a bronze cockerel later this month and Germany has promised to start handing back a “substantial” part of the artefacts.
Ribeiro-Addy said: “When we talk about reparations, people think about large sums of money. Actually it could just start with saying ‘you are equal to us we should never have stolen your belongings here’s them back’.
“That doesn’t mean that they should never be displayed in the British Museum, but when we borrow things from other countries we usually rent them and pay for them.
“To say that this shouldn’t be the case now is still treating people from those former colonies as if they are beneath the UK and that’s not right.
“Finders keepers isn’t really a well accepted notion…it’s not a moral notion in any way shape or form.
“The most upsetting thing about the British Museum is that 80 per cent of what they own at any one time is in the basement.
“If you’re keeping most of it in the basement, you are literally just looting.
“You’ve got the loot of empire and you’re hoarding it because you don’t even have it on display and those really really patronising arguments about not being able to take care of them properly. What exactly is that supposed to mean?
“It’s so rude and so condescending and actually it’s a form of racism in itself because it’s this idea of people that look a certain way and from certain countries not being good enough to do certain things.”
She added: “Sadly they’re hiding behind the law. They’re hiding behind the Museum Act, I believe, and I think that’s really a failure on the government.”
Ribeiro-Addy also suggested that returning such artefacts could help improve trade relations with countries too.
She said there was nothing the country could do to correct the “horrific” situations of slavery and colonialism, but that we could look forward to a place of “equality and respect”.
Nigerian artists have even offered to give the British Museum several modern works if it agrees to return its collection of Benin Bronzes.
But under the British Museum Act 1963, it is prohibited from handing over the vast majority of its artefacts.
Ribeiro-Addy, who was elected in 2019, made the comments while talking about why Black History Month was so important to her.
The 36-year-old said a key moment in her life was learning about how far back her family’s links to Britain go.
She added: “When I was young I just assumed I was like my parents – a Ghanaian person living in Britain – but that is not the case and I particularly learnt that when I went to Ghana where they were referring to me as the British person.
“I really realised just how black British I was and how, yes, I may be proud of my Ghanaian heritage, but this is very much my country and this is very much my home and that I had that ownership of it.
“Just because somebody else for their own racist reasons may not believe that I do that, that simply wasn’t the case.”
Ribeiro-Addy is related to Thomas Birch Freeman, the son of a freed slave, who was born in 1806 in Twyford.
She said being a black Briton and learning about black history was a “source of pride” and added: “I love the cultural things, I love the music, I love the fact that there are obviously quite defined musics from different countries.
“From Africa you have afrobeats and from the Caribbean you have you have bashment and reggae, but actually within the UK there’s a black British culture of music, grime, for example.
“And the celebrations of cultural heritage like carnival, absolutely love carnival.
“The food is fantastic and we also have our own spin on particular dishes so yes some things have been adopted from countries of our heritage but there’s also fusions that we come up with ourselves, which I think again define us as black Britons.”
She said there needed to be better black history education in schools, adding: “Our civil rights struggle here in the UK is not one that we learn about as much.
“When we’re pointing to black history – a lot of the time we’re pointing across the ocean to the US. Their stories are fantastic, I think they’re an important part of black history, but what about black British history. What about our own civil rights struggle?
“We look at Rosa Parks and the bus boycotts, what about the Bristol bus boycotts? All of those different things that have defined us.”
Ribeiro-Addy has also been helping victims of the Windrush scandal and warned it was “far from over” and a “national disgrace”.
“The community received apology upon apology and actually not enough has been done to ensure that everybody has received the compensation they were promised,” she said.
“In fact, they’re still being treated like foreign nationals because of the process by which they go and have to explain everything to get their citizenship.”
She has also raised the issue of hundreds of thousands of children born or raised in the UK who are priced out of British citizenship because of high fees.
Ribeiro-Addy also said fellow Labour MP Diane Abbott – for whom she used to work – was a huge source of inspiration.
“She is an icon and she’s an icon whose telephone number I have which is great,” Ribeiro-Addy said.
The British Museum and other European partners are in direct dialogue with Nigeria about their Benin collections and have a meeting this weekend.
The Benin Dialogue Group is working to establish a new museum in Benin City to facilitate a new permanent display, including significant collections of works currently in UK and European museums.
“We believe the strength of the British Museum collection resides in its breadth and depth, allowing millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time – whether through trade, migration, conquest, or peaceful exchange,” a spokeswoman for the British Museum said.
A UK Government spokesperson added: “All UK museums operate independently of the government with decisions relating to collections care and management, including whether to make loans of any objects, taken by the trustees of each institution.”
Last month the former culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the Benin Bronzes “properly reside” in the British Museum.
Earlier this year, he also told The Times: “Would they [Parthenon Sculptures] have survived the Nazis rampaging through Athens during World War II. It is a slightly trite argument but there is a truth. Would the Benin Bronzes have survived various international conflicts?”