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Return of Benin Bronzes from the Ethnologisches Museum: Artefacts Now in Nigerian Hands

Ethnologisches Museum

Today, a contract was signed transferring ownership of the Benin objects from the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz to Nigeria. Around a third of the artefacts will remain in Berlin on loan. Further collaboration is planned. 

The agreement covers 512 objects that came to Berlin in the aftermath of the so-called British Punitive Expedition and looting of Benin in 1897. They will now be returned to Nigerian hands. 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 by the end of the year. About a third of the transferred objects will remain on loan in Berlin for an initial period of 10 years, and will be on display in the Humboldt Forum.  

Return of the Benin Objects

“This return will serve as an example for all museums in Germany that have collections stemming colonial contexts. I am very pleased that further agreements to return such collections will follow over the coming months. All these efforts build the foundations for continued and closer cultural collaborations between Nigeria and Germany,”

stated Minister of Culture Claudia Roth.

For years, both in Germany and internationally, attempts have been made to find an appropriate solution for the “Benin bronzes” which ended up in various collections around the world after the conquest of the Kingdom of Benin by British troops in 1897. In the wake of the fall of the Kingdom, the last independent regent, Oba Ovonramwen, was exiled to the city of Calabar, and the royal palace was looted.

Thousands of objects were shipped to London as the spoils of war, where they were subsequently sold. Hundreds more of the looted objects initially remained in colonial Nigeria, but eventually found their way to European and North American museums via networks of European and African businesspeople and traders.

The Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin was among the many beneficiaries of the colonial system and the “acquisitions” its violence enabled. Since 2010, the Ethnologisches Museum has been a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, in which European museums discuss the future of artefacts from Benin in their collections together with Nigerian partners. The negotiations between the German and Nigerian government began in 2021 and were brought to a conclusion with the signing of a Joint Declaration in July 2022. This declaration provides a framework for the return of objects from Benin for all museums in Germany. 

Loans to Remain in Berlin: Benin Display at the Humboldt Forum

The loaned objects encompass all types of art from Benin. Lars-Christian Koch, Director of the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, says:

“I am grateful that we can show the outstanding art from Benin at the Humboldt Forum in all its facets. Together with our Nigerian partners, we have completely revised the original plan for the display. We will be telling the story of the Kingdom of Benin and its conquest by British forces, and in addition to the historical objects, we will also be showing works by contemporary artists, including films, textiles and works cast in bronze that are still produced today according to traditional methods.”

There are two rooms in the Humboldt Forum that are dedicated to art from the Kingdom of Benin and its history. The commemorative head of a queen mother or iyoba, a highlight of the art of courtly Benin, will be the central object in the first room. This room will explore the significance and history of the objects, and of their return to present-day Nigeria. A video installation features 10 of the individuals who were involved 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. A large discussion area provides space for educational activities, workshops and dialogue.

The display at the Humboldt Forum has been closely coordinated with Nigerian partners. Over the next 10 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 programme, with education staff from NCMM are already in Berlin as part of a residency.