Western Lowland Gorilla Skull (NH.MER35.11)
This skull of a female Western Lowland Gorilla was collected on 5 March 1935, between the towns of Batouri and Lomie, an area of Cameroon that was under French colonial control from 1922 until 1960.
This carved wooden leopard is a work of art from the Kingdom of Benin, in present day Nigeria. Within the beliefs of the Kingdom of Benin, leopards were important animals.
This carved wooden leopard is a work of art from the Kingdom of Benin, in present day Nigeria. Within the beliefs of the Kingdom of Benin, leopards were important animals. The Oba (the ruler of Benin) was referred to as ‘The leopard of the House’ and images of leopards came to represent his dual role as someone both menacing and moderating. Leopards were a symbol of royalty and can often be found in Benin art. The Oba even kept pet leopards within his palace.
This leopard was likely looted from Benin during what has become known as ‘The Benin Expedition’. In February 1897 the British Navy led an expedition to Benin, to punish the Oba for the deaths of a British delegation that had been sent to the region a month earlier. The British Navy not only killed many Benin soldiers, but also set fire to the Oba’s palace complex and surrounding villages and looted thousands of pieces of Benin art, which were brought back to England before being sold and gifted to individuals and museums all over the world. The Oba was sent into exile and British forces took control of Benin, which became part of the British Empire until Nigerian independence in 1960.
The leopard was probably owned by a British solider or sold to a collector in England after the 1897 expedition. We don’t know who that was, but on the 5th September 1911 it was offered for auction at Stevens Auction House in London, along with another wooden carving from Benin. Percy Powell-Cotton bought these works of art, which remain in the Museum today.
Today there are many calls, particularly from Nigeria, for the return of Benin’s artworks to their place of origin. Benin art has become a focal point for the global debate around the restitution of cultural objects taken through violence during colonial conflicts. Many museums are analysing their collections – and their purpose – to decide the best place for these objects to be on display.