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The Benin Collection in Berlin

The Ethnologisches Museum of the State Museums of Berlin has one of the largest collections of historical objects from the Kingdom of Benin (today part of Nigeria). Almost none of them would be in Berlin if in 1897 British troops had not invaded the kingdom, plundered its palaces and shrines, and sent the ruling king (Oba) Ovonramwen into exile. Today historical "bronzes" and ivory objects from Benin are seen as symbols of colonial collecting and their presence outside Nigeria is widely understood as a sign of colonial injustice.

The Kingdom of Benin

Benin was long one of the most powerful states in West Africa. Its rulers traced their lineage to the kingdom of Ile-Ife and they became wealthy and powerful in the 16th and 17th century by conquering neighboring cities and states and becoming important partners in the new global networks of trade that linked Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.

Relief plaque depicting a king (oba) and four attendants. 16th century, III C 8208.

Relief plaque depicting a king (oba) and four attendants. 16th century, III C 8208. Photo: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum / Claudia Obrocki

The British Invasion

Benin retained its independence through the 19th century. It held a monopoly on trade in large areas in and around the Niger delta, which stood in the way of the plans of British commercial and political interests represented by the Royal Niger Company and the Niger Coast Protectorate. Following a dispute over whether Benin had maintained its rights to set prices and levy taxes, a British delegation entered the kingdom against the wishes of the Oba. When the delegation was attacked, British leaders used the events as an excuse to invade.

Plunder was not the aim of the British invaders. Despite long-standing agreements with the rulers of Benin, they sought to destroy Benin's independence, exploit its resources and subject its people to colonial rule. But British members of the so-called punitive expedition that invaded divided up many of the ivory tusks, sculptures, sumptuous coral and brass and ivory objects that formed the royal collection and brought them to Britain. 

Memorial head of a queen mother (iyoba). 18th century, III C 8490. Photo: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum / Martin Franken

Memorial head of a queen mother (iyoba). 18th century, III C 8490.

Loot

Some of the objects from Benin were given to Queen Victoria; others were kept by British officers; others were sold to private dealers, such as William Downing Webster or to firms such as Fenton & Sons, or were sold at auction. Yet many of the objects that had been plundered remained in Nigeria, at least for a time, where they were bought and sold by local networks of notables and businessmen, both from Europe and from Africa. Many of these eventually were brought to Europe and sold into the burgeoning market for ethnographic objects and works of art from around the world - a market that was in no small way influenced by the works of art from Benin that flooded onto it.

A Collection for Berlin

Berlin's collection of objects from the kingdom of Benin began with a small carved ivory saltcellar (III C 4890 a, b) which entered the Kunstkammer of the Kings of Prussia by the early 19th century. However, the remainder of the collection today entered the museum only after the British invasion. After the founding director of Hamburg's Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Justus Brinckmann, lectured on a number of cast brass works, Berlin's Felix von Luschan became enamored of the idea of gaining a large and important collection for the Royal Prussian Museum für Völkerkunde. He contacted British dealers, sought to acquire objects from auctions in London; and reached out to his contacts in Africa, such as German Consul Eduard Schmidt, an employee of the Woermann-Linie, to get as many objects as possible as he could directly in western Africa itself.

Salt cellar, 16th century, III C 4890 a,b.

Salt cellar, 16th century, III C 4890 a,b. Photo: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum / Dietrich Graf

As a result of von Luschan's efforts, Berlin assembled a collection of more than 600 objects, and became a lynchpin in spreading the fever for objects from Benin to other musuems and collectors.

Today, as a result of the Second World War the collection is smaller. 503 historical objects made in the Kingdom of Benin are part of the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum today and two bronzes are in the collections of the Museum Berggruen. The two bronzes were acquired by the collector Heinz Berggruen, and were sold to the Berlin museums in 2000 with his collection of modern art. This list (PDF, 2.1 MB, in German) offers an overview of these objects, as well as how and when they came into the Berlin collections. A more detailed presentation in the context of the online collection of the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin is in development.

Bibliography

Coombes, Annie E. 1994. Reinventing Africa: museums, material culture, and popular imagination in late Victorian and Edwardian England. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Egharevba, Jacob U. 1991. A short history of Benin. Ibadan: Ibadan Univ. Press.

Egharevba, Jacob U. 1947. Benin laws and customs. Lagos: Service Press.

Hicks, Dan. 2020. The Brutish Museums The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. London: Pluto Press.

Lundén, Staffan. 2016. Displaying loot: the Benin objects and the British Museum. Göteborg: Göteborgs Universitet.

Luschan, Felix von. 1919. Die Altertümer von Benin. 3 vols. Veröffentlichungen aus dem Museum für Völkerkunde, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vol. VIII-X. Berlin und Leipzig. De Gruyter.

Plankensteiner, Barbara. 2007. Benin kings and rituals ; court arts from Nigeria ; an exhibition of the Museum für Völkerkunde Wien - Kunsthistorisches Museum ; Museum für Völkerkunde Wien, May 9 - September 3, 2007 ... The Art Institute of Chicago, June 27 - September 21, 2008.