Today, more than 800 plaques are held in European,
American, and Nigerian museum collections.
2 The Benin bronze plaques are often
considered individual artworks, but they were
created and displayed as a single monumental
installation. This essay reviews a few of my fi ndings
while studying the corpus as a whole. These
observations and hypotheses are fully explored
in The Benin Plaques: An Imperial Monument
(Routledge, 2017), where I combine my observations
with historical accounts to develop
hypotheses for the plaques’ dating, patronage,
methods of production, and organization within
the audience court.
Two plaques depict the oba’s audience hall,
showing bronze plaques lining the pillars
around the courtyard, and one of them in the
collection of the British Museum shows min-
FIG. 1 (below left): “Interior of
the royal palace, destroyed in
a fi re, bronzes on the ground.
Capt. C. H. P. Carter, 42nd, E. P.
Hill.” Unknown photographer,
Benin City, 1897.
Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford,
© Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.
Note that this photo depicts a storage area
and not the audience hall.
FIG. 2 (bottom): Artist’s
rendering of the view from the
entryway to the audience hall of
Drawing by Lumi, 2018. Only two plaques
were used in the reconstruction, merely
to give a sense of the visual impact of the
FIG. 3 (right): Narrow plaque:
four pages in front of the palace.
Copper alloy. H: 55 cm.
The British Museum, inv. Af1898,0115.46.
© The Trustees of the British Museum.
Note the rendering of plaques on the
columns supporting the roof.
By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch
The Benin Plaques:
Benin art presents a powerful court in
ivory and bronze,1 testifying to the military
might, royal splendor, and international connections
of the oba, or king. Since 1897, when a
British military force seized part of the royal collection
and sold much of it at auction (fi g. 1), the
fi nely carved ivories and detailed bronzes were
dispersed around the world. The battle in Benin
City in February 1897 marked a tragic end to
the Benin court’s political autonomy. Repatriation
of the kingdom’s cultural patrimony is a
question of active debate today. This scattering
of the Benin bronzes has prevented members of
the court and the scholarly community in Nigeria
and elsewhere from studying and understanding
the most singular artwork within the
corpus: the Benin bronze plaques. My research
seeks to reconstruct the history and installation
of the plaques within the majestic sixteenth-century
audience hall of the oba of Benin.