Debate on stolen art shifts as Germany wants to return Benin bronzes

These Benin bronzes might be returning home to Benin City, if the British government will let them. Image: Son of Groucho (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

After years of discussion, the Benin bronzes might finally return home to their region of origin, Nigeria. The collection of looted colonial art is currently spread across West-European museums, but that might end soon. Germany declared that the stolen art needs to return to its rightful owners, causing an extensive debate within Europe.

In addition to this, the head of the German foreign ministry’s culture department, Andreas Görgen, visited Nigeria to discuss the bronzes’ return, reported the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Since then, institutions such as the University of Aberdeen and the Humboldt Forum have stated they are willing to return their part of the collection. But how did the Benin bronzes end up in Europe in the first place? And what does their future hold? 

Place of Origin

British forces with captured bronzes, artefacts and tusks from Benin City.

The bronzes are a collection of art pieces mostly from Benin City, a city in modern-day Nigeria. The city used to be the most important town of the African Edo kingdom of Benin and known for its bronze and ivory sculpting. Many of these artefacts were stored in the city’s palace. The sculptures often represent an Oba, a Benin king. 

In 1897, British forces ransacked Benin City during a military expedition. They destroyed the palace and captured over 4000 artefacts. Many soldiers and administrators involved in the looting sold their spoils to museums and art collectors. The British Museum currently houses the largest collection of bronzes in the world, which can be viewed on their website.

Shifting Debate

Many carved tusks, known as oko’s, were also taken from Benin City in 1897. This object ended up in the Brooklyn Museum in New York, USA. Image: Brooklyn Museum Open Collection CC BY 3.0

Another institute with many Benin bronzes, the German Ethnological Museum, aimed to display half of the objects in a new museum, the Humboldt Forum. However, this museum for non-European art in Berlin now believes the exhibition should only feature replicas. Director Hartmut Dorgerloh thought the sculptures and other objects could return to Nigeria by autumn this year, The Guardian reported. 

Now that Germany is actively advocating the Benin bronzes’ return, other European countries are also thinking about giving back looted colonial art. Dutch researcher Jos van Beurden believes this is the result of decades of debating restoration. ”Ten years ago, this was unthinkable”, he told De Volkskrant. At that time, the lack of security and knowledge in the countries that want the objects back was emphasised. Now museums try to figure out how these pieces end up in our collection and if they should return it.

Division in the UK

In the UK, museums have reacted differently to the German decision to return the looted colonial art. The University of Aberdeen announced to return a Benin bronze, in a press release. The university purchased the object in 1957, but an ongoing review of its collection revealed that the Oba had been ”acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral.” You can check out the bronze in the video below (text continues below video).

Other regional museums, such as the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, said that if owners made a claim, the museum would return the objects, The Guardian reported. Other institutions mentioned similar statements or are further researching the origin of their bronzes before making a decision.

However, national institutions such as the British Museum are prevented from returning objects by the British Museum Act 1963 and the Heritage Act 1983. It is not the first time the museum received critique for not restoring stolen artefacts. Recently, Greece claimed to have new evidence of ownership of the Parthenon marbles on display in the British Museum.

Future Home

In the meantime, Nigeria is building a museum in Benin City to house the artefacts after returning home. The proposed Edo Museum of West African Art should open its doors in 2025. Apart from the museum, the building will include other cultural heritage infrastructure and the ruins of Oba’s Palace.

Source: British Museum, De Volkskrant (Dutch), Süddeutsche Zeitung (German), The Guardian (23-03-2021), The Guardian (26-03-2021), University of Aberdeen and Wikipedia

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