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'Digital Benin' lists looted colonial artifacts

Torsten Landsberg
November 9, 2022

The new digital platform catalogs objects that were stolen from the Kingdom of Benin during the colonial era: Over 5,000 items across 20 countries have been identified.

An ancient African bust, with similar artworks in the background that are out of focus.
The Benin Bronzes Image: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/picture alliance/dpa

It is a decisive step toward the restitution of cultural heritage: Artworks from the former Kingdom of Benin, which are currently located in 131 museums in 20 countries, are listed on the "Digital Benin" online platform, which was presented in Berlin on Wednesday.

The project, which officially started two years ago, offers for the first time an overview of all items identified by official institutions.

Even though the debate surrounding the return of cultural assets to their countries of origin wasn't always smooth, the cooperation with the museums was open and constructive, Felicity Bodenstein, lecturer at the Sorbonne University in Paris and project manager of "Digital Benin," told DW.

Felicity Bodenstein, a woman posing for the camera in front of a green bamboo garden.
Felicity Bodenstein, lecturer at the Sorbonne University in ParisImage: Pierre Kitmacher

The idea for the project came four years ago when Bodenstein was working at the Technical University of Berlin in the team of French art historian Benedicte Savoy. In 2018, Savoy and Senegalese author and economist Felwine Sarr wrote a report on the restitution of African cultural assets for French President Emmanuel Macron. For the project, Bodenstein researched the history of the Benin bronzes scattered throughout Europe and America.

The Digital Benin project was realized with funding from the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation of more than €1.5 million ($1.5 million). Under the umbrella of Hamburg's Museum am Rothenbaum — Kulturen und Künste der Welt, an international team of scientific advisers was established. The investigators contacted museums all over the world to collect the data from their collections and listed the relevant items on the platform.

Altogether, 5,246 items located in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and Israel, as well as in 14 European countries, were cataloged at the launch of the platform.

It is, however, impossible to determine the precise number of items scattered around the world and hope for a conclusive list, explains Felicity Bodenstein. The many pieces that are lost or now in private collections — especially as the black market for such works continues to grow — cannot be traced.

Three ancient African busts, part of the objects known as the Benin Bronzes.
These Benin Bronzes landed in a museum in StuttgartImage: Louisa Off/REUTERS

Looted by British colonialists

In 1897, British troops conquered Benin City, then the capital of the Kingdom of Benin. The colonial rulers then ceded the kingdom to what was then the British protectorate of Nigeria. They also plundered the royal palace and other culturally important sites, shipping the objects all over the world.

A few years ago, a public debate arose about how to deal with the colonial legacy and how to return such cultural assets to the African countries of origin — including the trove of works of art made of bronze, ivory and wood that have become known as the "Benin Bronzes."

For Bodenstein, the project goes beyond restitution goals.

"There's more to it, including preserving knowledge surrounding the cultural assets," she explained. In some cases, for example, it was possible to determine the journey of the objects to their current location through soldiers' diaries or old catalogs from auction houses.

Beyond the colonial history of the artworks, the "Benin Digital" project manager says that her colleagues in Nigeria want to determine the original historical value of objects that embody the cultural identity of the societies that created them.

German to return looted art to Nigeria

This article was originally written in German.