Germany sets out plans to return Benin bronzes

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Germany sets out plans to return Benin bronzes
A display of Benin Bronzes at the British Museum in London, Dec. 10, 2019. Germany will begin returning a “substantial” number of the priceless artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes from its museums to Nigeria next year, its culture ministry said on Thursday night, April 29, 2021. Lauren Fleishman/The New York Times.

by Alex Marshall

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Germany will begin returning a “substantial” number of the priceless artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes from its museums to Nigeria next year, its culture ministry said Thursday night.

The artifacts, which the British army looted in an 1897 raid on Benin City in what is now Nigeria, are scattered through museums and private collections around the world. Germany’s announcement, the first by a national government with a timetable attached, comes as momentum is growing on both sides of the Atlantic to return the stolen objects.

An online meeting of government officials, regional legislators and museum administrators reached an agreement that German institutions — which own hundreds of the bronzes — would step up talks with Nigerian partners and strive to make the first returns next year.

“We are facing the historical and moral responsibility to bring Germany’s colonial past to light and to come to terms with it,” Monika Grütters, Germany’s culture minister, said in a news release. “Dealing with the Benin Bronzes is a touchstone.”

The bronzes (which, despite the name, include items made from ivory, brass and wood) will probably be housed in the planned Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, which architect David Adjaye is designing on behalf of the Legacy Restoration Trust, a group that represents Nigeria’s government, regional authorities and the royal court of Benin.

The trust hopes to open the museum in 2025, although the timeline has already been pushed back several times.

Victor Ehikhamenor, a trustee, welcomed the German announcement.

“If this works, it will create a blueprint for others,” he said in a telephone interview.

Germany will publish an inventory of all the Benin Bronzes in its museums by June 15, according to a declaration signed at Thursday’s meeting. Details of those items’ provenance, including if they were looted, will be made available by the end of the year. The declaration stresses, however, that Germany hopes some bronzes will remain in the country.

Ehikhamenor said he had no problem with items being on display in Germany, as long as their legal ownership was transferred to the museum in Benin City.

“We want to have a global conversation, but it has to be an equitable one,” Ehikhamenor said. “We can no longer be in a colonial hierarchy anymore.”

Germans have long struggled to atone for the country’s Nazi past, but in recent years, the public debate has also shifted to examine Germany’s role as a colonial power in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. In 2019, Germany’s 16 regions, which are responsible for cultural policy, signed an agreement saying they would work toward returning artifacts taken from former colonies.

In Britain, whose army carried out the 1897 raid, steps toward returning the bronzes are being taken by the institutions that hold them, rather than by the government. In March, London's Horniman Museum, which owns 49 items from Benin City, published a policy document that said it would consider the “possible return” of any item in its collection that was taken by force or theft. Days later, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland said it would return a sculpture of an oba, or ruler, of the Kingdom of Benin, which was stolen in the 1897 raid.

Yet some of the country’s largest museums — such as the British Museum, which owns more than 900 of the items, including arguably some of the finest — are regulated by Parliament and cannot permanently return items from their collections without a change in the law. Britain’s culture ministry did not reply to a request for comment Friday.

The British Museum is a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, a network of European Museums that has been meeting with Nigerian representatives for more than a decade to discuss what to do about the bronzes. The group is also helping to develop the Edo Museum of West African Art and to finance and staff archaeological work on the museum site, scheduled to start this fall.

Ehikhamenor likened the British Museum’s involvement in restitution talks to a McDonald’s worker who refuses to make burgers.

“Their presence there has not led to the kind of conversations we are hearing from other museums in Europe,” he said.

But he added that he hoped Germany’s announcement would change things.

“If Germany is finding ways to have this conversation with us, I think the British should begin to find a way,” he said.

A British Museum spokeswoman acknowledged in a statement that the bronzes were taken in circumstances of “devastation and plunder” and said that this was “explained in gallery panels and on the museum’s website.”

While Europe’s museums have had discussions with Nigeria for years, U.S. institutions have only recently begun to act on the bronzes in their collections. The Fowler Museum, part of the University of California, has contacted Nigerian officials about the future of 18 Benin Bronzes that it holds, said museum director Marla Berns.

The Smithsonian has convened a working group to develop a policy around the colonial and looted art in its collection, said Christine Kreamer, deputy director of the National Museum of African Art, which has 42 Benin Bronzes, although not all of them were looted. She said other Smithsonian museums, including the National Museum of Natural History, also have some. The working group’s first meeting is next week, she said.

“U.S. museums have been a little slow to move forward on this,” Kreamer said, attributing this to their lack of involvement in colonialism. “The time is now beyond right."

The Metropolitan Museum, which has about 160 items from Benin City, including a renowned ivory mask, has not made any announcements about restitution. Those works “were largely given to the institution in the 1970s and 1990s by individuals who acquired them on the art market,” a spokesman said in a statement Thursday, adding that the museum was aware of Germany’s new plan.

Ehikhamenor said the Metropolitan Museum, much like the British Museum, was “dancing around these objects.” But, he added, “American institutions’ time will come.”

Philip Ihenacho, a financier who is leading the fundraising drive for the Edo Museum of West African Art, said in a telephone interview that the newfound willingness of some governments and museums to talk about returning the Benin Bronzes was a game changer.

“With the momentum that seems to be behind some of the discussions, we feel more and more confident that the challenge is no longer going to be persuading people to give objects back,” he said. "The challenge is going to be how to build an institution that is worthy of receiving the objects.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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