In a major move, Germany says it expects to begin restituting its Benin bronzes to Nigeria next year.
The decision was made after culture minister Monika Grütters called an emergency meeting today with German museum heads, state culture ministers, and members of the foreign office for an unprecedented discussion on how to handle the fate of the Benin bronzes, thousands of which are in several museum collections across the nation. The items were looted from Nigeria in the late 19th century.
Within a day, the group had settled on a shared position: to begin restitution in 2022.
“We would like to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of people who were robbed of their cultural treasures during the colonial era,” Grütters said in a statement, adding that it was “a historic milestone in dealing with the colonial past.”
The date of the first restitutions corresponds to the planned opening of the Edo Museum of West African Art in Nigeria, which is being designed by British architect David Adjaye.
“Germany has thus taken a weighty step in the right direction in coming to terms with colonial injustice,” Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Foundation, told Artnet News.
He said the goal now is to quickly learn where all the bronzes are located within German public collections before launching into “rapid talks” with Nigeria about “substantial returns.”
View of main entrance and courtyard garden of the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin City, Nigeria. © Adjaye Associates.
After decades of foot-dragging on the issue, it seems that the debate has reached an inflection point.
In March, an official from Germany’s foreign office went to Nigeria and held talks with officials in Benin City about restitution, putting further pressure on German museums to find a shared position on what to do with their holdings.
The participants in the talk today agreed to draw out a roadmap by this summer. By June 15, they plan to have a list of all the Benin bronzes owned by museums on a shared centralized platform. In the Humboldt Forum in Berlin alone, there are 530 objects from Benin.
Where Benin bronzes are still shown in exhibitions in Germany, the nature of their acquisition must be presented, as per the agreement.
The Benin bronzes were looted by British soldiers in a punitive expedition in 1897 in which the Benin Royal Palace was ransacked and burned. The exquisite pieces, made largely in bronze but also other materials like ivory, were scattered around museums across the west.
The Edo Museum of West African Art is currently being built across the street from the former site of the palace in Benin City.
New and speedier talks with Nigeria are to begin in the coming weeks and will be coordinated by Parzinger and Barbara Plankensteiner, director of the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg on behalf of all German museums with Benin bronzes in their collections.
“It was agreed that discussions should also be held with the Nigerian side on how Benin bronzes can continue to be shown in Germany in the future as part of the artistic heritage of mankind,” Parzinger said. In previous talks, Nigeria signalled openness to the idea of collaboration.
Pressure has been mounting on European nations to address their colonial legacies, especially in the wake of French president Emmanuel Macron’s declaration in 2017 that African heritage should no longer be held in French museums.
In 2018, Germany published guidelines on how to manage its colonial holdings and, in 2019, it released dedicated funding for research into the provenance of these objects.
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