Trustees approve return of Benin bronzes held in Berlin museums
Berlin’s museums could return their first Benin bronzes to Nigeria next year after their governing body gave the go-ahead for negotiations to begin on repatriation.
Trustees of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the federal government body that oversees the city’s state museums, authorised its director Hermann Panzinger to “negotiate the return of objects from the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin as part of the joint negotiations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the competent authorities in Nigeria”.
The board has requested that a “detailed plan for the further negotiation steps” is presented at its next meeting, with a view to beginning returns as early as 2022.
Berlin’s Ethnological Museum has around 520 items from the kingdom of Benin in its collection. About 440 of those are thought to be linked to the 1897 looting of the Benin City by British troops.
Parzinger welcomed the board’s decision, saying: “We can now agree on concrete steps and a timetable with the Nigerian side in order to really get substantial returns.
“Nevertheless, we also want to talk about how we can show Benin bronzes in Germany and especially in the Humboldt Forum. That is also the great concern of everyone involved in Nigeria. It has been agreed with our Nigerian partners that we will continue our talks promptly and in Berlin.”
The Ethnological Museum, which forms part of Berlin’s new Humboldt Forum museum complex, is planning an exhibition on the kingdom of Benin and the 1897 invasion early next year.
The development comes after the German government outlined “concrete steps” to repatriate the bronzes to Nigeria in April. The country’s commitment to the return of the bronzes has been hailed as a landmark breakthrough in the long-running dispute over the looted artefacts.
An online database of Benin bronzes held in German museum collections launched in June and lists 1,130 artefacts.
In a separate announcement this week, the governor of Nigeria’s Edo State revealed plans to accelerate the development of the Edo Museum of West African Art (Emowaa), the museum and research institution that will eventually house the returned artefacts.
According to local media, governor Godwin Obaseki unveiled designs for an early-phase “museum pavilion” designed by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, which is scheduled to open in Benin City by the end of next year.
The pavilion will be the first building within a larger museum complex and will include state-of-the-art facilities for conservation, study, exhibition and public programming.
Obaseki said: “The integration of Emowaa into the daily life of our people, and its impact on a greatly improved urban fabric, will begin with the opening of the Emowaa Pavilion. In his well-thought-out design, David Adjaye has served all the requirements of the still-developing museum and at the same time created a place that will welcome and embrace all members of the public.”
The pavilion will also house laboratories for studying artefacts unearthed during an archaeological excavation taking place on the wider Emowaa site, which is being undertaken by the Legacy Restoration Trust in partnership with members of the Benin Dialogue Group.
Procedure for repatriation
In a further development, National Museums Scotland’s (NMS) trustees last week approved a formal procedure for dealing with repatriation requests – one of the first to be put in place by a UK national museum.
The document outlines what the criteria are for considering requests from claimants outside the UK, and how requests will be considered and managed.
It stipulates that requests should be submitted in writing by a recognised national agency with support from a national government and be “endorsed by a community descended from those to whom the objects are demonstrably ancestral”.
Claimants must provide evidence showing that the objects were removed illegally or without voluntary permission, or acquired from an individual or group that did not have the authority to approve the transfer.
An NMS spokeswoman said: “National Museums Scotland has had for some time a policy to consider requests to transfer objects from its collection to non-UK claimants on a case-by-case basis. A procedure setting out how requests will be considered and managed was approved recently by our trustees.”