514 Berlin Benin bronzes return to Nigerian ownership

News from 08/25/2022

The "Benin bronzes" officially belong to Nigeria again. About a third of the transferred objects will remain on loan in Berlin and will be exhibited in the Humboldt Forum.

Bildcollage mit Fotos dreier Beninbronzen
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum / Jörg von Bruchhausen

On 25 august 2022, Hermann Parzinger, President of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SPK), and Abba Isa Tijani, Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), signed the contract on the transfer of ownership of the Benin objects from the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin to Nigeria.

The agreement regards 512 objects which came to Berlin in the aftermath of the so-called British Punitive Expedition and looting of Benin in 1897. This is the most extensive transfer of ownership of museum objects from a colonial context to date. The first objects will be physically returned to Nigeria within this year. About a third of the transferred objects will remain on loan in Berlin for an initial period of ten years, renewable by mutual consent and will be exhibited in the Humboldt Forum.

For years, nationally and internationally, attempts have been made to find a solution for the "Benin bronzes" which, after the conquest of the Kingdom of Benin by British troops in 1897, entered into the possession of various collections worldwide. As a result of the conquest, Oba Ovonramwen, the last independent king, was exiled to Calabar, and the royal palace was looted. Thousands of objects were shipped to London as war booty and sold there. Hundreds more of the looted objects initially remained in colonial Nigeria, but subsequently found their way to European and North American museums through networks of European and African businessmen and traders. Amongst many others, the Berlin museum benefited from the colonial system and its "acquisitions" enforced by violence.

Since 2010, it has been a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, in which European Museums discuss the future of Benin objects in their collections with Nigerian partners. The negotiations between Germany and Nigeria at government level which started in 2021, were brought to a conclusion with the signing of a Bilateral Political Declaration in July 2022. This declaration serves as the framework for returns of Benin-objects from all museums in Germany. In this context, two other objects from the Berlin collection had already been transferred and handed over to Nigeria.

Two rooms in the Humboldt Forum are dedicated to art from the Kingdom of Benin and its history. The commemorative head of a queen mother or iyoba, a showpiece of the art of courtly Benin, will be the central object in the first room. In this room, the significance and history of the objects and and their return will be explained. A video installation shows 10 persons who participated in the process. For the second room, some 30 historical objects have been selected to illustrate the full range of Benin's courtly art. They are juxtaposed with contemporary art from Nigeria that still employs traditional techniques today. An ample discussion area offers space for educational activities, workshops and discussions. The display at the Humboldt Forum has been closely coordinated with the Nigerian partners. Over the next ten years, it will be modified regularly in order to give the public an understanding of the diversity and enormous quality of historical and contemporary art from Nigeria. The Nigerian side will also be involved in shaping the education program, for example with NCMM staff members who are already in Berlin as part of a residency.

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