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Benin Bronzes: From German museums off to Nigeria

Julia Hitz
December 16, 2022

Restitution begins: Many valuable cultural objects that once belonged to the kingdom of Benin and have been housed and displayed in German museums for more than 100 years will be on their way back to Nigeria.

Two men, Nigerian Ambassador to Germany Yusuf Maitama Tuggar (l) and Director General Abba Isa Tijani (r) of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments, pose and smile with Rautenstrauch Joest Museum Director Nanette Snoep (c) at a restitution ceremony in Cologne, Germany.
Yusuf Maitama Tuggar (l), Nanette Snoep (c) and Abba Isa Tijani (r) at a restitution ceremony in Cologne Image: Julia Hinz/DW

 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.

Benin bronzes on display during the exhibition 'I Miss You' at Cologne, Germany's Rautenstrauch Joest Museum
The last exhibition of the Benin bronzes in Cologne, entitled 'I Miss You,' opened in April 2022Image: Fadi Elias

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.

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and Benin's President Patrice Talon.
French President Emmanuel Macron met Benin's President Patrice Talon in 2021 to return 26 works of art Image: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

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.

A bronze head with headdress displayed in a dark museum room
One of the Benin bronze artifacts in Cologne Image: Julia Hinz/DW

"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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