Museums in Germany have agreed a coordinated approach to their handling of Benin bronzes following talks with the country’s culture minister Monika Grütters last week.
The meeting saw the directors of German cultural institutions come together with government officials to set out a series of concrete steps on how the country will deal with the artefacts going forward.
A statement by Grütters following the meeting said the participants were “in agreement that addressing Germany’s colonial past is an important issue for the whole of society and a core task for cultural policy” and “reaffirmed their willingness in principle to make substantial returns” to Nigeria.
A new museum, Edo Museum of West African Art (Emowaa), is currently being developed in Benin City to house the objects.
The meeting followed a commitment by the director of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum in March to repatriate the institution’s Benin bronze holdings – a development that was hailed as a groundbreaking step forward in the long-running dispute over the artefacts, which were looted from Benin City by British troops in 1897.
The steps agreed by participants include increasing transparency around Benin bronzes, intensifying talks with Nigeria about return processes and future cooperation, and determining a procedure and timetable for returning the artefacts.
Germany’s museums plan to “create extensive transparency” with regard to Benin bronzes in their collections. This will include publishing a list of all bronzes held by German museums within the next month, and providing comprehensive documentation of the provenance of the objects going forward. The participants also agreed to include comprehensive information on the acquisition context of any Benin bronzes that are shown in exhibitions.
An independent portal for collections from colonial contexts will be created within the German Digital Library to ensure that all Benin bronzes – and, eventually, other collections from colonial contexts – held in German institutions are accessible online.
The participants committed to continuing talks with representatives in Nigeria about the returns process, the development of Emowaa, and “specialist inter-museum cooperation” between the two countries, including training for museum professionals and developing cultural infrastructure.
The talks will also explore “whether and how Benin bronzes, as part of humanity’s cultural heritage, can in future be shown in Germany as well”.
A timetable for returning the bronzes will be agreed this summer, with the first returns expected to be made in the course of 2022.