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Benin's bronzes and the pitfalls of restitution

March 31, 2021

Germany's Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation will oversee the return of the statues to Nigeria, but it's going to be a complicated process.

Two sculptures of large humans flanked by two smaller people each from the Benin bronzes collection
Two sculptures of large humans flanked by two smaller people each from the Benin bronzes collectionImage: Bernd Settnik/ZB/picture-alliance

At the end of the 19th century, ethnological museums were established in major cities across Europe. Curators and scientists competed for the most valuable art treasures from other countries. What was not mentioned at the time, however, can no longer be hushed up today, and that is that there is blood on many objects.

This is also true of the so-called Benin bronzes, which have been the subject of a complex and multi-layered debate that could — after more than 100 years — lead to their restitution to Nigeria.

Monika Grütters, Germany's Minister of State for Culture, recently commissioned Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, to develop a strategy for museums that own looted art. That was a breakthrough.

Ethnographic museums and their doubtful heritage

Yusuf Tuggar, Nigeria's ambassador to Germany, wonders whether the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation is the right choice, however. "Unfortunately, it seems that the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation is still operating with a 20th-century mindset, not a 21st-century mindset," Tuggar told DW. The foundation embodies the basic idea of ethnological and anthropological museums that goes hand in hand with the same ideology that gave rise to colonialism: the cultural hegemony of the colonizer over that of the colonized, he added.

"When you dig deeper, you find that some of them were closely tied to this whole concept of eugenics; the study of other people who might have been considered less human," he said.

A caricature about the Congo conference in 1884, the cake reads: Africa
All colonial powers wanted a slice of the treasures of AfricaImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

Tuggar's criticism cannot be dismissed out of hand. The foundation has 440 Benin bronzes, the second largest collection in the world, clearly all looted artworks. What became known as Benin bronzes — in fact, they are not only sculptures and reliefs made of bronze, but also brass objects and artifacts made of ivory — were stolen in 1897 from the palace in Benin City in present-day Nigeria during a British punitive expedition.

Around 1,200 elite soldiers raided the city, pillaged and plundered the palace. Their booty, the bronzes and magnificent reliefs, ended up in the British Museum and at auctions, where they were snapped up by numerous European museums, including in Berlin. This is where a new ethnological museum had just opened in 1886 — the predecessor of today's Humboldt Forum and its ethnological collections, which will soon move into the reconstructed Hohenzollern Palace.

Exhibits in a museum, including figurines, tusks and panels
Exhibits from Benin at the Leipzig Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology)Image: Wolfgang Kluge/picture alliance

French President got the ball rolling

For years, organizers planned for the Benin bronzes to be the centerpiece of the exhibition when the museum reopens in the fall. The museum hasn't budged from its original plans, either. "It's more important than ever to have an exhibition about the bronzes," said curator Jonathan Fine, adding that the "history of the Kingdom of Benin, but also the injustice that happened in 1897, is really at the heart of the exhibition."

The goal, he says, was to use the show to advance the discussion and make people aware of why the bronzes are scattered around the world and why so many of them are in Berlin. "We want to clearly ask the question of what should happen to them in the future. That's why I'm very glad that the discussion has taken the turn it has," Fine said. Should the bronzes have been restituted by then, the idea is to resort to plaster casts of the artifacts.

The fact that politicians even use the word restitution as a possibility and as an option is the beginning of a huge change in the global geography of art, according to Benedicte Savoy, a historian who has been researching the topic of looted art for many years and recently published a book on the subject.

"The process started in 2016 when Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to return objects to Africa within five years," she said. Nothing happened until the French National Assembly decided in December 2019 to return 26 objects to the Republic of Benin, she said — and that got the ball rolling. Now, she said, the German side has picked up speed, too. Benin she added is still waiting for the artworks to return from France, but Macron has about a year to make good on his promise.

Wake-up call for Germany

Nevertheless, France's willingness to restitute the artworks was a wake-up call for Germany, which until then had taken a less clear position, if any at all. For years, Germany had tried to buy time by not publishing object lists, Savoy said, adding that "these lies are no longer possible."

Humboldtforum in Berlin
Humboldt Forum in Berlin hopes to show the famed Benin Bronzes Image: imago images/Schöning

Over the past few weeks, events in Germany have picked up speed with regard to the restitution debate. Twenty-five German institutions will publish their inventory lists in a central database "to achieve the greatest possible transparency in the comprehensive reappraisal of the history of the origin" of the holdings from a colonial context and "for the dialogue we are striving for with the societies of origin," Monika Grütters announced in a press release this week.

The move is significant because requests for restitution must first be submitted in writing, including details of which objects the country of origin demands back and why. However, since only a fraction of the artworks have ever been exhibited, it has so far been more of a guessing game for the African countries who would like to see their assets returned.

Debate over Benin bronzes

In fact, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is supported by Germany's federal and 16 state governments, is now prepared to return them, according to President Hermann Parzinger. This is a new development, as until now, there has only been talk of a permanent loan of the objects to Nigeria. "It will now be a matter of us talking with those responsible in Nigeria about how exactly to proceed," Parzinger told DW, attesting to the "willingness to make this process work now so that the Benin bronzes are returned but can still be seen all over the world."

Parzinger did not give details. However, he pointed out Monika Grütters had scheduled a meeting for April to find a unified position with the museums involved and, above all, the museum sponsors.

This text was translated from German.