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Germany to begin returning Benin Bronzes in 2022

Annabelle Steffes-Halmer
October 7, 2021

The different levels of government have agreed to return Benin bronzes to Nigeria. It is up in the air whether they can be exhibited as planned at the Humboldt Forum.

Benin Bronzes, a display of artifacts
Cologne's Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum has 94 Benin BronzesImage: Johan von Mirbach/DW

All state agencies in Germany agree on the "substantial return" of the valuable Benin bronzes cultural assets to Nigeria. State Minister of Culture Monika Grütters (CDU) also said that a coordinated stance on the German side is important "in order to reach the understanding we are seeking with the Nigerian side." The Minister of State for International Cultural Policy at the Federal Foreign Office, Michelle Müntefering, wants to resume the talks in Nigeria as early as next week.

In April, Grütters, the directors of the German museums holding such pieces in their collections and their Nigerian partners presented a concrete road map detailing that a first shipment of art treasures is to be returned as early as next year to Nigeria, in whose southwest lay the former kingdom of Benin. 

Hermann Parzinger, the director of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Germany's largest cultural institution, will lead the return talks with the Nigerian authorities.

In 1897, British colonial troops looted 3,500 to 4,000 bronzes from the royal palace in Benin City and set the city on fire.

About 1,100 bronzes were purchased in Germany, 440 of them in Berlin alone, which made it the second largest collection in the world.

The museums bought the artworks at auctions, so their possession is legal — but not legitimate, because they were acquired as a result of colonial violence in the first place.

Museums change point of view

For years, restitution faced such opposition, but now there's been a real change of heart also among museums, said Nanette Snoep, director of Cologne's Rautenstrach-Joest Museum (RJM). "Museums and politicians have become aware that there is a real need to decolonize museums. And decolonization also means restitution," she told DW.

Nanette Snoep, woman smiles into camera
Museum director Nanette Snoep has long urged restitution Image: DW/S. Oelze

Snoep, who was part of the team that met with Grütters in April, curated the exhibition "Resist! The Art of Resistance" at the Rautenstrach-Joest Museum, a "tribute to the women, men and children who resisted colonization and whose stories were rarely told or heard," as the museum's website puts it.

The Dutch-born artist has worked intensively with art from colonial contexts and has long advocated initiating restitution. "I was pleasantly surprised that we were unanimous in our support for restitution and the steps necessary to achieve it," Snoep said.

Publication of inventory lists

Among other things, the plan is to make a digital list of all Benin bronzes owned by German museums.

It would be a breakthrough: For restitution to take place, requests for return must be submitted by verbal note, including details of which objects are being demanded back and why.

However, since only a fraction of the holdings are and have ever been exhibited, it has so far been more of a guessing game for the countries looking for a return of objects.

Whether and how many objects will be first returned has not yet been determined, but specific objects are being negotiated, Grütters said back in April, adding "it is actually also about a legal transfer of ownership" and about a "substantial return."

Grütters' office and the Benin Dialogue Group — German museum officials and Nigerian government officials — are expected to discuss concrete steps. "Restitution is the right to one's own history. And that's why African voices are so crucial in this debate," argued Nanette Snoep, adding that it is entirely possible that the Nigerian partners are in favor of leaving some of the exhibits in German museums.

 Three Benin Bronze artworks
Benin Bronze artworks at the MKG museum in HamburgImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt

"We are pleased about this development," said Yusuf Tuggar, Nigeria's ambassador to Berlin. "For the first time in 124 years, a generation of young Nigerians will be able to physically see and be inspired by such masterpieces," he told DW, adding that Germany is doing the right thing. The negotiations show what can be achieved in the field of cultural diplomacy through cooperation between Nigeria and Germany, he said.

African intellectuals started the debate

The artworks have great emotional value and have become a symbol of colonial humiliation; some people see them as evidence of the persistence of colonial structures, which is why it is so important not to forget that the fight for restitution was initiated by African intellectuals in the 1970s and has now been won, said Snoep of the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum. "Many people are not aware of the mechanisms of neocolonialism and structural and institutional racism," she added.

Similar to the "Black Lives Matter" movement, the debate about the return of stolen artworks is first and foremost about identity and "ownership."

The first works of art are to be returned even before the new museum in Benin City, planned for 2024, is completed. In the meantime, the bronze sculptures, reliefs as well as brass and ivory artifacts will be housed in specially constructed depots. There is no doubt artworks from Berlin will be included — art that was to be an important part of the exhibition at the city's new Humboldt Forum museum.

Bronze leopard
The Bronze leopard is on display at the Leipzig enthnography museumImage: Wolfgang Kluge/picture alliance

The museum is prepared for the possibility of exhibiting without the originals. "We have to see whether it makes sense to leave gaps and add explanatory texts, or whether we should exhibit plaster casts of the objects we have," said Jonathan Fine, head of the museum's Ethnological Collection.

Klaus Lederer, Berlin's Senator for Culture said he could only imagine the Benin bronzes shown in a German museum after they have at least been legally restituted. "We would have to be extremely grateful for loans that could make it possible to experience these masterpieces in Berlin as well," he added.

There is still a lot that needs to be negotiated, and it remains to be seen when and how action will follow the German announcements.

Meanwhile, Germany's largest cultural institution, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), has decided on comprehensive structural reforms. "The autonomy of the museums, libraries, archives and research institutions  that belong to the SPK is to be significantly strengthened," the foundation said in a statement.

Established in 1957, SPK is often criticized as being out of step with the times — and will in future be run by a collegiate body with a full-time president whose members will be appointed for a set term.

This article has been translated from German.