A Brighter Future for the Benin Bronzes: Interview with Master Sonita Alleyne

A Brighter Future for the Benin Bronzes: Interview with Master Sonita Alleyne

. 10 min read

Sonita Alleyne became the Master of Jesus College, Cambridge in October 2019, and has worked extensively as a non-executive Director in both the private and public sector. She is currently on the advisory board of the UK’s Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and is a Deputy Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University.

You have this incredibly intersectional background with music, art, media, and academia. Can you just tell us a bit more about how you made that progression throughout your career, and how it affects your work today as the master of Jesus College?

It’s important to get in tune with the things that make you want to get out of bed in the morning, and you discover those things as you get into the workplace. Sometimes they can be informed by things that you did when you were studying. All through my academic career, I've always been an enabler. I've always liked organizing things. I've always liked making something happen in a space where it wasn't happening before. That energy draws people together, to collectively make something happen. An empty space can be organizing something—it can be a magazine, it can be something cultural, it can be a room where you talk about something and have some ideas. That energy is something that just constantly drives us and that, in a way, has carried that through into all the things I did. My very first time setting up a business was when I was 24. Again, it's that enabling - [thinking], what could we make? What can we create?

One of the very first projects I worked on was a radio station, and lots of people came together to make that happen. I've realized that there's a real cohesiveness to what I've done, whether it's looking at that empty space and how you make life more exciting, or how you enable other people to experience and play with their sense of agency. That seems [like] a very odd thing to say, but it’s how you create a platform for people to go, “Yeah, I can just do this!” I think that [this cohesiveness] has been an intersection between the things I've been interested in, which are spaces for tis creative music community. I've made those for the company, I set up all the various board roles I've had in what I would describe as a great plural career, which I think I still [have]. I like organizations which have a mission. And that mission is always about enabling people to know why they get up in the morning.

In 2021, you were involved within the first repatriation of a Benin bronze by any institution of higher learning. For our readers, could you describe the international significance behind these artifacts and some of the rationale behind your university's decision to repatriate?

We were the first institution in the world to give back any bronze by a day or so, but the Benin Bronze came to Jesus College in 1905, seven years after a punitive expedition in which the British took a lot of the bronzes which belonged to the king [of Benin] at the time. It was interesting because we, the college, did the research [on the bronze]. The Benin Bronze, which is a beautiful [statue of a] cockerel, probably represents the queen. Objects mean different things to people when they look at them. We looked [at the bronze] and thought that it was a beautiful object, but in Benin, it has a much greater spiritual significance.

The bronze had been given to the college by George Neville, who had turned up in Benin a couple of days after the British massacre and taken a number of items. Now, the reason he gave the cockerel to Jesus College was because we were founded by a man called Bishop Alcock, and his symbol was the cockerel. The stand it was displayed on said “this has been seized” in Latin—a few students translated this in about 2015 or 2016. Sometimes, there's a moment when people start to really engage and say, “how do we paint a fair world?”, and you can only paint a fair world with actions. My predecessor then engaged students and took the bronze out of the hall, and it was locked away. The view was to work with the university, which was very entrenched in the Benin dialogue group, a group of museums who were getting together to look at this as an issue. That research was done by the fellowship just before I arrived. At my first meeting, they asked if I had looked at the object. They had looked at the history and the moral issues as well, including the legal history, like [under] what laws [it was] brought into the UK. It doesn't appear that George Neville had actually properly declared the objects that he brought over from Benin. The laws at the time in the UK were such that those spoils of war were actually illegal, but they were legal if they were spoils of war against “primitive people.” When you add all that up, it really was a case of, well, it just doesn't belong to us. If you don’t think it does belong to you, and you hang on to it knowing what you know, then frankly, it’s your offense.

There's real cultural significance in saying it's not about the financial side. And I think that the product is worth quite a lot. But that didn't even come to [our minds]. We did all the things we had to do, which were contacting the Charity Commission and saying, “we want to engage in this.” They came back, saying “this is fine.” It took a while because the pandemic hit, and we had to work out who we were actually giving it back to. We had a lot of people saying that it was the wrong thing to do for a variety of reasons, which were quite colonial. But we just felt that it was the right thing to do. I think [the bronze] went back to the National Commission of Museums and Monuments, and also it ended up back at the Palace of Benin. And it's a real joy in finally getting something back. One of the party members that came on the day that we gave it back said that she remembered being there in the 70s, trying one of the first expeditions where people tried to buy back their stuff at auction. So it's good that we've come a long way from there.

I got a call shortly after we returned the bronze from a gallery in New York, and the gallery said that “we have a bronze, who did you give yours back to, and we would like to do the same.” They said it was like the Berlin Wall coming down for museums, so I think that was the international significance; all the reasons why you think you can't do things have gone away. If you look at the history of museums in the UK, the height of the museum collection was very Victorian, bringing everything here because we're the center of the earth. And then the world will come here and see all these things. But since then, we can travel and see things online. The idea of loans amongst museums is really quite advanced. Some museums have engaged in the idea of saying, “oh, yeah, we've got the bronzes, but we'll loan them back to you”, but I don’t think it morally stands. How can you loan someone back their own stuff?

With all the experience that you've had, making change and being affiliated with the arts, do you feel that your background helped prepare you for the work that you've done in repatriation? And in regards to cultural objects and artwork, do you feel that those are usually appropriately considered within the realm of ethics?

I think they do need to be considered, and they are being considered more. And the reason I think we consider them more is that we’ve changed, and there’s a global conversation which hinges on ideas of fairness and self-identification. You think about how you want to define yourself, then you think about how other people want to define themselves, and it grows. [You think about] the idea that it's fair to keep stuff which you look at and go, “Oh, that's a beautiful object”, but then someone else looks at it and goes, “That's my heritage. That's our heritage. It means a lot more for us to look at it than for you to look at it.” A lot of the museums have stuff which is just in storage. Why are you holding on to stuff? You can legally transfer stuff and get people to look at it. We've done so much damage in the world, historically, and I think all of us have actually been quite strong to acknowledge what's happened. But we then have to go, “okay, how do you go from there?”

I think that all you can be judged for is what you do in the moment. We're looking at our standards, our statues and monuments. We're looking at the objects we have, and how we got them. “Does it mean something more to other people? Okay, so what do we do about it? How do you repair that?” We have done a lot of damage to each other in the past. We talk about how global we are, and that idea of us being neighbors has been accelerated more. When I was at university just under 40 years ago, there was no internet. We can communicate well, us and our neighbors across the world, so I think there is that closeness. And after almost 40 years, what does that mean, to relate to each other? What does that mean in terms of me saying, “I want you to have a fair life. Because I can see you, I feel you, I can talk to you, and your voice is heard”?  I think that there's a real slow, pushing energy, which has always said that we want fairness. Generations come on board, but the way they search for fairness gets to be more profound, because they know more. They know what they’re looking for.

Many museums and universities are still in possession of items that have contested ownership or are just owned by simply another group of people who are not the ones running that museum or institution. In an idealized world, what would that relationship look like between these institutions and the original owners of the items?

I think that people want their items to be gazed on by their own people for whom the items have a real meaning. I mentioned all the reasons why people say they can't give things back, and some of them are quite colonial. It’s the museum directors who want to hold on to stuff. They say you can't give it back to X country, because they can't look after it enough, stuff will be lost, or it’s a wartime situation. With the Benin Bronze, I had stuff coming in from people saying, “Oh, if you give it back, they’ll sell it.” And these are really deeply offensive things to be saying about people. Think about the premise that countries can't look after themselves, that they don't have enough resources, they’re going to sell it, etc. What are you saying about people?

One of the best videos I saw was when [the] Benin Bronze was being given back directly. There was a shot of the Benin Bronze in the foreground, and looking at the bronze were two young kids. So that's what we're talking about, the stripping of our artistic value in the past, the different artistic and creative values, that kind of energy of putting things together, making something in a different space, that links all the things I've done in the past. Here at Jesus, as someone who's a head of this educational institution, it's about the whole space that we make, collectively, where all these different things that come together.

The past where people hundreds of years ago made something creatively is really, really beautiful, and has meaning. To keep that away from subsequent generations is very wrong. I think we're beginning to talk about it now. Cambridge University has quite a lot of bronzes, 116 to 130116-130, that are meant to be handed back. The British Museum has a lot of bronzes. Someone said, “Look, if we give back all the stuff that we had that was contested, we’ll have nothing left in the museum.” Things have changed. We can see things digitally. We've got loads of other stuff in the British Museum that’s about British stuff that was there. We can still fill our shelves, still fill things with interests, where it's the most valuable to have pride in what we invented and made.

What do you believe the role is of reparative justice in academia and in education? Do you feel that it's an obligation? Or where do you feel that lies within these different institutions?

I think it’s around who's there at the moment. Who are you engaging with? And who do you think we’re going to collectively engage with? [At] Jesus College, we're in the midst of a review at the moment. Reports have come back, we've done the research, and I'm the head of an institution which was involved in the slave trade. So that'll come out in the next few weeks, where we'll have to look at what our version of reparative justice is. But I do think that in educational establishments, there's the academic freedom to do the research. That research is looking at yourself, which it tends to be at the moment, or it is with other institutions around the world, not just in academia, who are looking at their past and saying, “Okay, how have we arrived at our privilege where we've got the wealth that we have?” And if they can track back and say it was there because of other people's misery, that's who we owe it to.

The thing about educational establishments is that they've got to stand for something. A bit of impartiality is kind of rooted in your research. But once you know your research, it's not going to be unknown. If you do nothing, it says something about you as an organization. If you're engaging with people who haven't been able to come to your institution because of legacies of enslavement, we’ve got to, as a college, invest. If you do nothing, what does that say about you? What does that say about an educational establishment in the modern day?

Cao spoke with Alleyne on November 10, 2023. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.