The Metadata Memoir

Minne Atairu (NG)

The 1897 British invasion of Benin Kingdom (located in present day Southern Nigeria) culminated in the looting of over 4,000 cultural artifacts, now collectively referred to as the Benin Bronzes. These artifacts were subsequently auctioned off and dispersed to various institutions and private collectors around the world. Today, an estimated 160 cultural institutions hold objects from the 1897 plunder.

In recent years, repatriation efforts have resulted in the return of a few Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian government. However, details about returned objects are not often disclosed to the Nigerian public. Public records, when they exist, are sparse and obscured by complex museum terminology. Compounding this issue, Western museums are required to delete publicly available object records once the repatriation process is complete.

In response to this opacity, I developed The Metadata Memoir—a decentralized archival system powered by a smart contract. The system is programmed to autonomously document repatriated objects in real-time. It achieves this by utilizing the New York Times and The Guardian news APIs to run a daily search for news related to repatriated Benin Bronzes. Upon identifying relevant news, the system generates documentation for each returned object. These records include the repatriation date, the repatriating institution, and dynamic fields for object name, material composition, and production date. To date, the smart contract has recorded 64 returns from 8 institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Smithsonian National Museum for African Art in Washington DC, and the Horniman Museum in London.

The Metadata Memoir is accessible in both Nigerian pidgin English (, and standard English ( Given the existence of over 300 dialects in Nigeria, the pidgin English version ensures broader language access across the country's linguistically diverse population.

Minne Atairu (NG) is a researcher and interdisciplinary artist interested in generative artificial intelligence. Utilizing AI-mediated processes and materials, Atairu's work critically examines and illuminates understudied gaps in Black historical archives. Minne’s academic research focuses on Generative AI, Art and Educational policy in urban K-12 Art classrooms. Minne has exhibited at The Shed, New York (2023); Frieze, London (2023); The Harvard Art Museums, Boston (2022); Markk Museum, Hamburg (2021); SOAS Brunei Gallery University of London, London (2022); Fleming Museum of Art, Vermont (2021). Minne is the recipient of The Graham Foundation Grant for Research (2023), the Artistic Dialogue Across Disciplines Grant (2022)Columbia University (2022), and the Lumen Prize for Art and Technology (2021).

Restitution as a concept requires that the process of returning stolen items to African governments and organizations be conducted in an open and transparent manner. Governments, museums, and other cultural institutions work together in the current movement to repatriate looted artifacts. The Metadata Memoir sheds light on the importance of community ownership and public trust for both the restitution procedure and the returned objects. 

A decentralized archive of artifact repatriation metadata is established through the astute application of blockchain technology, which inevitably promotes accountability and shared communal ownership of the restitution process. This enables any inquisitive mind to follow the path and return of artifacts using the corresponding meta-data it produces. 

In addition, the looting of  artifacts are often times discussed in the realm of an occurrence in a distant past. However, contrary to popular belief, the unethical pillage of cultural property happened in an era of organized society, with comprehensive documentation of auctions and profiteering off these cultural artifacts. This is highlighted through the project’s ability to place both present and historic eras in real time, bringing the past into the future and thereby making it tangible while transporting the present into the essence and palpability of colonial times.