The Universal Museum’s Ruins

A Mounting Restitution Crisis is an Opportunity for Museums to Better Serve Global Communities

Steven Gambardella
11 min readMay 18, 2021
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image by Tomas Eidsvold on Unsplash

In February 1897 a punitive attack was launched by the British on the city of Benin, the capital of the West African empire of the same name. 1,400 soldiers took part in the operation equipped with the latest technology developed for bush fighting.

This arsenal included rockets, artillery with incendiary shells purposefully chosen to burn thatched roofs, flares to aid night fighting, and thirty-eight Maxim machine guns with around two-million rounds of ammunition.

The Maxim fired 10 bullets a second. By one account, victims were “cut in two” by the hails indiscriminately fired into the bush as three columns closed in on the capital. Rifle rounds were filed down to expand on impact with human skin.

To use the modern parlance, this was “asymmetric warfare”. The technology used by the British was prohibited from being sold to local African populations. Natives defended themselves with obsolete muskets, improvised canons, spears and bows. The Maxim was the Victorian equivalent of the Predator drone — designed to annihilate from safe distances.

Columns of gunships cruised along the capillaries of the Niger Delta, shelling and machine-gunning…