Commemorative head of a king (Kingdom of Benin, dated 17th-18th Century, made of copper alloy), one of the African artworks exhibited in the Bode Museum under the theme “Beyond Compare”, December 2018. Thousands of African artworks are in the possession of European museums, most of which were taken illegally from the continent during the era of colonialism/ Photo: Femi Awoniyi

German museums to return looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria

The artefacts are mostly from the British looting of the ancient Kingdom of Benin in the 19th century. Now German museums have now agreed to return the art treasures to Nigeria following years of demands for restitution

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German museums are to return the art treasures of the Benin bronzes considered as looted property to Nigeria next year. This was agreed on Thursday by a group of museum experts and political leaders at an online meeting with the federal government. Concrete steps of action and a roadmap for the return of “Benin bronzes” are to be announced by this summer.

“We face up to the historical and moral responsibility of bringing Germany’s colonial past to light and coming to terms with it,” said Monika Grütters (CDU), Minister of State for Culture, after the informal roundtable which she convened. “The handling of the Benin bronzes is a touchstone for this.” In addition to the greatest possible transparency, Grütters said that “above all, substantial restitutions are being sought”.

A list of all Benin bronzes in the possession of museums is to be published by 15 June.

“The fact that we have now succeeded in agreeing on a roadmap for the restitution of objects with the museums and their sponsors is a turning point in our approach to colonial history,” said Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) in Berlin. “We have been working intensively for months to create the framework for this.”

“This is a historic step,” said the President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger. “We hope to be able to start with restitutions as early as 2022.” According to Parzinger, “talks on substantial restitution and future cooperation” are planned with the Nigerian partners. This should also clarify “under which conditions Benin bronzes can continue to be shown in German museums”.

Bronzes from the royal palace of the then Kingdom of Benin can be found in numerous German museums. According to current plans, such valuable art treasures are also to be exhibited in Berlin’s Humboldt Forum. The Ethnological Museum has around 530 historical objects from the Kingdom of Benin, including about 440 bronzes. Most of the objects came from the British looting of 1897.

“The parties involved are striving to jointly achieve feasible results in the short term,” the joint statement says. This is to be accompanied by talks with the Nigerian side. In the process, it will also be discussed with the Nigerian partners “whether and how Benin bronzes can also be shown in Germany in the future as part of the cultural heritage of humanity”.

In addition to talks on the establishment of a museum planned for Benin City and the repatriations, the cooperation between German and Nigerian museums and institutions is to be further advanced. This includes, for example, the training of future curators and museum managers as well as the development of cultural infrastructures. The Federal Foreign Office’s Agency for International Museum Cooperation is to play an important role in this.

Nigeria has been pressing for the return of the artefacts for many years. The campaign received an especial boost during the tenure of the country’s current ambassador to Germany, Alhaji Yusuf Tuggar. On 16 December 2020, on the occasion of the opening of the Humboldt Forum, Ambassador Tuggar renewed the demand for the restitution of the treasures looted during the colonial period that are in the possession of German museums. In early 2021, the artistic intervention of Emeka Ogboh in collaboration with the Museum für Völkerkunde of Dresden in Germany also made the same the demand.

Sola Jolaoso

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