A collection of the looted artefacts from the old Benin kingdom of today’s Nigeria, famously called Benin Bronzes, are currently being exhibited at the Humboldt Forum, a sprawling museum dedicated to history, art and culture, in Berlin.
They are a part of the artefacts, comprising sculptures and reliefs made of bronze and brass as well as works made of ivory, coral and wood, infamously stolen from the royal palaces of Benin in 1897 by British troops.
The exhibition, which was opened on 17 September to commemorate the final completion of the iconic museum, puts a selection of the Benin artefacts on display in two rooms where information on the artworks and the history of the kingdom is provided. Educational workshops are also planned on the exhibition. Some of the works being exhibited are expected to be finally returned to Nigeria, German officials say.
On 1 July, the German and Nigerian governments had signed an agreement in Berlin paving way for the return of 1,130 Benin Bronzes in the possession of German public museums to Nigeria. Germany already began repatriating the artefacts to Nigeria at the signing ceremony of the historic repatriation agreement with the symbolic handing over of two works to the Nigerian delegation.
The historic agreement also provides for the expansion of the Nigerian-German museum cooperation. Not all bronzes in the holdings of German museums will return to Nigeria immediately. Nigeria has agreed to lend some of the artworks to Germany so that they can continue to be shown in its museums.
“Both Sides intend that German public museums and institutions will continue to display Benin Bronzes on loan as set out in the transfer agreements,” the agreement says. Hence, the ongoing exhibition was planned in cooperation with partners in Nigeria.
British troops invaded Benin City, the capital of the Benin kingdom, in February 1897 ostensibly to avenge the killings of their soldiers in the city months earlier. During the punitive expedition, the old royal palace was razed to the ground, and Benin City itself was almost completely destroyed. The invaders took with them more than 5,000 objects of art in the royal palaces which they sold in London from where they became dispersed through trade across Europe and even beyond.
Berlin’s Ethnological Museum currently holds 530 Benin artefacts, including some 440 bronzes, which is considered the largest collection behind the British Museum in London. The pressure is also growing on the British Museum, which has around 700 bronzes, to also give back the cultural goods to Nigeria.
Germany is not the only country to have started returning stolen artefacts from the colonial era as France returned 26 objects from the royal houses of Abomey Kingdom to Benin Republic in November 2021.
Germany is however a European leader in restitution given the number of objects of artefact (1,130) it has committed to returning to Nigeria.