The German government is exploring the possibility of returning the Benin Bronzes held in the country’s museum collections.
Andreas Görgen, the head of the German Foreign Ministry’s culture department, visited Benin City last week to discuss the Bronzes with the governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki and other Nigerian officials, including representatives of the Legacy Restoration Trust – a new, independent body established in Benin City to work with international partners towards the restitution of the Bronzes; the trust will act as custodians of any objects restituted to Benin. On 18 March, Governor Obaseki’s office released a statement announcing the establishment of the Trust, also noting that Görgen has ‘pledged to collaborate with the state government to […] ensure the retrieval of objects’.
The German Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the discussions when approached by Apollo, but reports have suggested that, while any agreement is not yet finalised, further details could include a promise from Germany to participate in archaeological excavations in Benin City, as well as to support the construction of the new Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin and training of its employees. The Art Newspaper reports that Görgen expects the agreement to be finalised by this summer.
In another development, on Monday evening, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported Hartmut Dorgerloh, general director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, as having said at a press conference that when the Humboldt opens later this year, the museum will not exhibit any of the artefacts from Benin in the city’s ethnological collection, and that a decision about the return of the Bronzes could be made by the autumn. Dorgerloh has since said that the quotes in the report were misleading, stating: ‘As far as we know today, the Benin bronzes were largely acquired illegally. I share the conviction that there must and will be restitutions. The decisions on this will be made by the Trustees of the SPK [Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz; Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation].’
The director of the SPK, Hermann Parzinger, announced publicly in January that he supports restitution to Benin. In a statement sent to Apollo, the SPK reiterates that it has ‘never ruled out restitution in its talks with Nigeria’, and that it hopes the talks held with the German Foreign Ministry in Nigeria ‘will help speed a long-term solution for the cultural objects and art works from the Benin Kingdom’. Since representatives from both the federal government and other state governments also sit on the Foundation Council of the SPK, any decision it makes about the fate of the Bronzes may have ramifications for museums beyond Berlin; Hamburg, Stuttgart and Leipzig all house important collections. Barbara Plankensteiner, director of the MARKK museum of ethnography in Hamburg, told Apollo: ‘As co-spokesperson for the Benin Dialogue Group, I work closely with the Legacy Restoration Trust and the German Foreign Office to support the continued development of the EMOWAA museum project as the future home of these outstanding works of art.’
Enotie Ogbebor, an artist from Benin, tells Apollo: ‘It’s another big step in our journey towards the restitution of objects which were looted at the cost of so many lives and the destruction of our civilisation in the form in which it has existed for thousands of years, and we hope that as events unfold in the coming weeks, months and years we’ll be able to bring about some sort of recompense for the very disruptive act that was carried out against our society and our people.’
The Benin Bronzes – a collection of plaques, busts and other sculptures cast in brass, bronze and copper – were looted by British soldiers from Benin City in south-western Nigeria in 1897, along with carved ivories and other artefacts; they are now to be found in museums and private collections all over the world. The largest collection is held by the British Museum, but with more than 500 artefacts from Benin the ethnographical collections of Berlin are the second-largest worldwide.
The royal family of Benin has been calling for the return of the objects since the 1930s; in recent years, the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG) – which includes Nigerian representatives as well as museum professionals from the UK, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Sweden – has agreed to provide a permanent display for the new museum in Benin City, but so far only on the basis of rotating loans. In a statement sent to Apollo, the BDG says that ‘conversations are developing at a different pace in the various countries for initiating permanent returns’. Should Germany commit to the full restitution of objects, it will increase pressure on other governments to follow suit.