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Benin Bronzes go on display in Berlin

September 15, 2022

The artifacts were stolen during the colonial era, but Germany agreed to return ones it has in possession to Nigeria. They will be displayed in the Humboldt Forum with information about their contentious heritage.

Benin Bronzes displayed in Berlin's Humboldtforum museum
Benin Bronzes, that were stolen in Africa during colonial times, on displayImage: Michael Sohn/AP/picture alliance

Dozens of Benin Bronzes that were stolen in Africa during the colonial era will go on display in Berlin from Saturday.

They'll be displayed in the new east wing of the Humboldt Forum in the German capital.

Two rooms in the sprawling museum are being dedicated to the art and the history of the kingdom, an exhibition realized "in close cooperation with partners in Nigeria."

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, whose collection is being exhibited at the Forum, transferred property rights of its 514 objects to Nigeria. Instead of the 220 objects to be exhibited initially, only 40 pieces will be shown to the public.

Earlier this year, Germany and Nigeria signed an agreement about the return of the objects from the famous Benin Bronzes collection.

About a third of the collection will remain in Berlin for an initial period of 10 years. After that period, the loan contract will expire and will need to be renegotiated with Nigeria.

Colonizers stole on a grand scale

The valuable artifacts — sculptures and reliefs made of bronze and brass, as well as works made of ivory, coral and wood — were stolen from the former Kingdom of Benin by British colonial forces in a brutal punitive expedition in 1897.

The royal palace from pre-colonial times was razed to the ground, and Benin City, in what is now south-western Nigeria, was almost completely destroyed.

Thousands of Benin bronzes, metal plaques and sculptures are now scattered around Europe, but many museums have begun looking at restituting the artworks.

The display in Berlin would include information on the looting, while educational workshops have also been planned around the display.

"When it comes to colonial injustice, I think we're on the right path," said Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the national museums in the German capital.

"We're nowhere near the end," Parzinger added, but the museums were open to continuing the journey to a better understanding of the past "together" with international partners.

The Benin Bronzes are coming home!

Some Benin bronzes already displayed in Nigeria

Germany already began repatriating other artifacts to Nigeria earlier this year.

Two Benin bronzes – a 35kg head of an oba, or king and one of a cockerel were returned to Nigeria and went on display in Benin City.

Nigeria was planning to build a museum in Benin City to bring together the works on their return.

Germany is not the only country to begin returning stolen artefacts. In November 2021, France returned 26 artifacts from the royal treasures of Abomey to the country of Benin, next to Nigeria.

Pressure is also growing on the British Museum, which has around 700 bronzes.

Correction: An eariler version of this story stated the figures would go on display one last time. This has been amended.

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lo/kb (AFP, AP)