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Protester demanding Benin Bronzes toppled museum statues and scared staff, court finds

Craig Simpson
·2 mins read
The Benin Bronzes have been the subject of controversy and demands for repatriation
The Benin Bronzes have been the subject of controversy and demands for repatriation

A protestor pushed Benin Bronze statues off their plinths and left a museum manager terrified when he tried to seize the African artefacts, a court has found.

Lone demonstrator Isaiah Ogundele marched through galleries at the Museum of London Docklands galleries declaring his family were the victims of slavery and displayed artefacts were stolen from his people.

Stating he was “not over slavery” the 34-year-old from Nigeria demanded fearful staff hand two sculptures over to him or he would “smash” their display cases and seize the figures.

Some Benin Bronzes were forcefully taken from Nigeria by British imperial forces in the 19th century and are the subject of ongoing controversy and demands for repatriation.    

While enraged and “ranting” at staff about these figures he charged at the cabinet containing the statues and toppled the sculptures from their plinths, Stratford Magistrates' Court heard.

The court has found him guilty of harassing museum manager Henry Martin, who broke down after Ogundele’s arrest in the museum foyer and was left in fear of the easy public access to the cultural site containing references to slavery, sugar and empire. 

"I was worried," he said.  "It is a public building, people can just come in."

Ogundele’s conviction follows widespread reappraisal of the British Empire’s legacy in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, and renewed calls for treasures seized during the colonial era to be returned.

Campaigners for the return of the Benin Bronzes believe yesterday’s conviction,  the first related to the artefacts, will not be the last while they remain in the UK.

The statues in the Museum of London Dockland are in fact replicas of those houses in the British Museum.  

On the day of the incident, however, Mr Martin told magistrates that Ogundele “said the object had been stolen from his heritage”.

He added:  “He was talking about being a king, descended from kings.

“He said they had been stolen and he wanted to take them back, ‘I want to do it peacefully but I will smash the case if not’.

“‘These objects are from my family, my family has always been in slavery. I’m still not over slavery.”

Mr Martin said he was afraid of being struck by the angry Ogundele, particularly when he began to charge.

He said: “He ran towards, ran last past me, and pushed the case quite hard.  It tilted and tilted back again, almost falling over.

“That’s when the Benin heads fell off the plinths in their cases.”

Ogundele was convicted of harassment after a trial in absentia, with sentencing yet to take place.  

A campaigner for the Benin Bronzes to be returned present in court, Onyekachi Wambu, told the Daily Telegraph that there may be “many more” such cases as a “new generation” becomes frustrated with slow progress around the return cultural artefacts.