The Restitution of Knowledge

Principal Investigators: Professor Dan Hicks (Oxford) and Professor Bénédicte Savoy (Berlin)

Researchers: Dr Mary-Ann Middelkoop (Oxford), Dr des. Yann LeGall (Berlin)

Research Assistants: Jeanne-Ange Wagne and Elias Aguigah (Berlin)


‘The Restitution of Knowledge: Artefacts as Archives in the (post)colonial Museum, 1850-1939’ is a transnational collaboration between the University of Oxford and the Technische Universität Berlin, and forms part of African Restitution Research at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The £725,000 programme is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and the Oxford-Berlin Research Partnership. 

The project identifies, researches, documents and rethinks the history and ongoing contemporary significance of ‘plunder’ in ethnographic collections via the investigation of punitive expeditions, small wars and campaigns on the continent of Africa between 1850-1939, with comparative examples from elsewhere across the Global South drawn into the dialogue and outcomes as appropriate.

Alongside the iconic and well-known examples such as the Benin Bronzes, Ashanti gold and the Magdala Royal Collections, taken through military interventions in Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia respectively, there have been many smaller, lesser known and unwritten missions, expeditions, skirmishes, that range across West and East Africa, as well as Southern Africa.

Making an intervention in the rapidly emerging field of colonial-era provenance research, the project addresses an urgent need among museum professionals, historians and communities of origin alike for a systematic inventory of these incidents where objects, art and artefacts were taken in punitive expeditions – an inventory that is at present entirely lacking. It further aims to investigate the sale and display of objects during the immediate aftermath of these missions, before they entered public and private collections in Europe.

The project has several overall objectives:

  1. To reimagine museum collections as unique and neglected primary sources for the study of global histories of punitive expeditions and other instances of colonial spoliation in Africa, between 1850 and 1939.
  2. To compare and reconnect knowledge of fragmented histories and legacies of plunder and punitive missions in museum collections, between institutions and across national boundaries.
  3. To formalise, test and share a method for systematic provenance research of ethnographic collections in the context of colonial spoliation.
  4. To reframe current public, professional and academic debates around cultural restitution to encompass not just the issue of the return of property, but also the return of knowledge and the remembrance of loss.


British soldiers in Benin City, 1897 [2019.32.2.54]

British soldiers in Benin City, Nigeria, following its capture [2019.32.2.54]