Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments, and Yusuf Maitama Tuggar, Nigeria's ambassador to Germany, embarked on a truly historic mission, traveling through Germany to collect a first batch of Benin Bronzes. The looted cultural property was transferred back to Nigerian ownership in June 2022, more than 100 years after it was taken to Germany.
Iconic African art
More than 1,130 objects stored or displayed in German ethnological museums for many decades now belong to Nigeria once again: sculptures and reliefs made of bronze and brass, as well as works made of ivory, coral and wood.
They had been part of the palace of the then kingdom of Benin since the 16th century. In 1897, a British expedition conquered the kingdom, burned down the palace and almost completely destroyed Benin City, in the southwest of present-day Nigeria. The artifacts, more than 5,000 pieces, were looted and sold all over Europe via auctions in London. German institutions acquired the world's second largest collection.
In a 2018 report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, Senegalese social scientist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Benedicte Savoy examined the issue — and recommended the comprehensive restitution of African cultural assets taken during the colonial era. Macron pledged "restitution of African heritage in Africa." Belgium has followed suit, and Germany, too, has moved on the issue.
Five German museums involved
Objects from Germany's major ethnological institutions, Stuttgart's Linden Museum, Cologne's Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum and Hamburg's Museum of World Cultures and Arts, are being transported back to Nigeria. Tijani and Tuggar traveled to those institutions to sign contracts with the municipalities so the objects can leave Europe.
Of the 92 bronzes in Cologne's Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, 89 will stay on loan, for the time being; 52 exhibits are to be returned in 2023. A key, a throne and a bust are already headed straight to Nigeria.
The objects have a strong symbolic value, "they represent different facets of the Benin kingdom," Tijani told DW. He explained that Nigeria is currently building new venues to store and exhibit the collection.
The Ethnological museums in Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden are also restituting bronzes, as are 15 other museums with smaller collections.
Nigeria will celebrate the arrival of the first bronzes with a major exhibition featuring the bronzes. Planned for the first quarter of 2023, the exhibition will allow "Nigerians to see the returned objects," National Commission for Museums and Monuments Director General Tijani said. "Part of our history is returning, part of our identity."
"It's really a huge emotional moment for me," he added.
'Ambassadors of Nigeria'
"Pandora's box is open," said Rautenstrauch Joest Museum Director Nanette Snoep, adding it is a "new chapter for these museums and also a new chapter for international museum collaborations." The Dutch art historian and culture manager, long committed to restitution, believes the museums stand at the "beginning of a new story." The road is still long, she said, adding that ownership of the Benin bronzes is just the beginning of a process that still has many hurdles, for instance in matters of ownership that are not as well documented as in the case of the bronzes.
"We have to be very careful not to re-colonize restitution negotiations," Snoep said. "Decolonization processes are not easy. It hurts. It also means giving up privileges."
Some objects will stay at the Cologne museum as loans, however, Abba Isa Tijani said, "so that a vacuum is not created."
"They remain as ambassadors of Nigeria," he said, adding he sees a bright future for cooperation with the German museums.
This article was originally written in German.
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