Berlin is negotiating the full restitution of hundreds of Benin bronzes in a policy change that has been welcomed in Nigeria, but will pressure the London and Oxford museums to also return artifacts looted from the former British West African empire in 1897.
More than 500 historical objects, including 440 bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria, are kept in the Ethnological Museum in the German capital. Half of the collection was to be exhibited this fall at the Humboldt Forum, a newly opened non-European art museum in the city center.
However, Hartmut Dorgerloh, director of the Humboldt Forum, told German media on Monday that the complex could display only replicas of the bronzes or leave symbolic empty spaces, and that the sculptures and reliefs could be returned to Nigeria as soon as autumn. .
The exhibition, which opens at the end of the year, will “critically engage” with the history of the West African kingdom and its capture by British troops, a spokesman for the Prussian Heritage Foundation told The Guardian.
“Especially in view of the current debate, we consider it essential to address this issue,” they said. “In principle, this does not exclude the restitution of the exhibited works.”
Andreas Görgen, head of the culture department at the German Foreign Ministry, visited Benin city last week to speak with the Nigerian government, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Under the terms of the agreement, as reported by the Art Newspaper, Germany would participate in archaeological excavations in the region, provide training to Nigerian museum employees, participate in the construction of a new museum in Benin, and return looted Benin bronzes. who were at the Berlin to the Restoration Legacy Trust, an NGO created in 2019.
The bronzes were looted by British soldiers and sailors on a punitive expedition to Benin City in 1897 and subsequently scattered throughout museums in Europe and North America. Benin’s largest collection of bronzes is in the British Museum, and another 300 objects are in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
The museums have formed a Benin dialogue group to support the new museum, whose plans have been drawn up by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, but until recently had agreed to only provide looted works on a revolving loan basis.
“This would be a hugely significant change,” said Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist and trustee of the Legacy Restoration Trust, which would receive the restored artifacts. “If Germany goes ahead with these plans, then any European country that clings to the Benin bronzes will no longer have a moral foundation to stand on.
“The time has come for the British Museum to finally join this debate. The current situation is a bit like a thief has stolen your watch and sold it to a pawn shop, but the pawn shop refuses to hand it over to the police. Has no sense.”
Bénédicte Savoy, a French art historian who resigned from the advisory board of the Humboldt Forum in 2017, criticized plans to exhibit Benin bronzes in Germany in a recent interview, telling Der Spiegel that “with each month, with each day, it is less likely that you can show the bronzes without being ashamed ”.
A spokesman for the British Museum, which is working with the Legacy Restoration Trust on an archeology project linked to the new museum, said in a statement: “The devastation and looting caused in Benin city during the British military expedition in 1897 they are fully recognized by the museum and the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of objects from Benin explained in gallery panels and on the museum website.
“We believe that the strength of the British Museum collection lies in its breadth and depth, enabling millions of visitors to understand the world’s cultures and how they interconnect over time, whether through trade, migration, conquest or peaceful exchange “.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism