Two significant developments have taken place this week in the long-running dispute over the Benin bronzes, the cultural treasures that were looted by the British army from Benin City, Nigeria, in 1897 and ended up in museums across Europe and America.
On Monday, the director of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum – the new museum of non-European art due to open in the German capital later this year – told the media that the museum had entered talks with Nigeria to fully restitute its Benin bronze holdings.
Hartmut Dorgerloh reportedly said the institution may instead exhibit replicas of the bronzes or leave “symbolic” empty spaces. The restitution could take place as early as autumn.
Dorgerloh’s announcement came after a visit to Benin City last week by the culture director of Germany’s ministry of foreign affairs. The plans are not official yet, but government figures in Germany have indicated their support for the restitution, with foreign minister Heiko Maas tweeting: “The question of the return of cultural goods is part of dealing honestly with colonial history. It is a question of justice.”
The development was followed by an announcement yesterday that the University of Aberdeen is planning the unconditional return of one of the Benin sculptures, The Head of an Oba, from its museum collections – making it the first institution to fully repatriate a bronze to Nigeria.
Aberdeen’s head of museums and special collections, Neil Curtis, said an ongoing review had identified the sculpture as “having been acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral” and the university had decided to take a “proactive approach” to resolving what should be done with it. Practical arrangements are now under way for the repatriation and a celebratory event is being planned to mark the occasion.
The historic developments come after years of campaigning by supporters of restitution, notably the late Labour MP Bernie Grant, as well as repeated calls for the return of the sculptures by Nigeria’s state and federal governments. The bronzes will eventually be cared for in a purpose-built facility designed by architect David Adjaye, the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), which is being developed in Benin City.
The Benin Dialogue Group was formed in 2010 to bring together museum and government representatives from Nigeria and Europe to discuss a way forward. The plans for the new Benin City museum, informed by support and expertise from European institutions, emerged out of the group's discussions.
However the move by Berlin and Aberdeen to fully repatriate artefacts marks a departure from the model of long-term loans that had previously been agreed by the dialogue group, and is likely to put pressure on other European institutions to follow suit.
The news has been welcomed by members of the group. Enotie Ogbebor, a Benin City-based artist and expert on the bronzes, told Museums Journal that the Humboldt Forum’s announcement “is a huge step in the right direction”.
“It is our hope that this recent development will speed up the process of restitution and increase support for our proposed museum project in Benin city,” he said. “The need to right the wrongs of the past which occurred with the British invasion of Benin kingdom, the massacre of our people and the looting of her treasures is now more dire than ever to start a much-needed process of healing and closure.”
“This is absolutely a landmark decision and will have a profound impact on ethnographic collections for many years to come,” said Felicity Bodenstein of the Sorbonne in Paris, who also sits on the group. “Nearly all European and North American museums with extra-European art collections hold at least one Benin artwork.”
The development does not mean that all of the 5,000-plus pieces held in public collections will be returned, she said, but it means “that every museum is now faced with a choice to react or to ignore this move”.
“It will no longer be possible to leave colonial looting and colonial collections acquired through the abuse of power unstudied or presented without explanation to the public,” she said.
“As plans for a new museum in Benin City gather momentum, this is a positive sign of support and hopefully the first of many others to come that will perhaps contribute to curbing the neocolonial forms of cooperation that have continued to dominate Euro-African relations in heritage matters.”
Bodenstein emphasised that the Humboldt had been driven by pressure from “smaller but also very active museums where concrete steps have been under way for months and even years before this announcement”.
She said: “It would be unfair for [German historian] Hermann Parzinger and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation to steal the show simply because they have the biggest collections, as indeed they have been the slowest to react to critique.”
The Aberdeen news has been hailed by UK museum stakeholders, with Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) tweeting: “We welcome the important discussions stemming from the announcement today by @uoacollections and all the work being done in this area. This work is going to gain momentum in the years to come and MGS will make sure that the sector is supported to respond.”
It is not yet clear what impact the developments will have on other institutions with Benin bronze holdings. A spokeswoman for the British Museum (BM), which has around 900 objects from Benin kingdom in its collection, said the institution is working directly with colleagues in Nigeria on the issue.
In a statement, the BM said: “We are currently collaborating with the Legacy Restoration Trust in Nigeria and Adjaye Associates on a major new archaeology project, linked to the construction of the EMOWAA. This innovative collaboration will investigate the archaeology of the Kingdom of Benin, including archaeological remains buried below the proposed site of the new museum. The EMOWAA will reunite Benin artworks from international collections. The Benin Dialogue Group, of which the BM is a member, will work with EMOWAA to help develop this new permanent display of Benin works of art.
“The devastation and plunder wreaked upon Benin City during the British military expedition in 1897 is fully acknowledged by the museum and the circumstances around the acquisition of Benin objects explained in gallery panels and on the museum’s website.
“We believe the strength of the BM collection resides in its breadth and depth, allowing millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time – whether through trade, migration, conquest, or peaceful exchange.”