"We are facing the historical and moral responsibility to bring Germany's colonial past to light and to come to terms with it. Dealing with the Benin bronzes is a touchstone for this. The declaration passed yesterday is a historic milestone in dealing with the colonial past. I am happy and grateful that we could agree on the common goal of developing a coordinated position in Germany and reaching a common understanding with the Nigerian side. In addition to the greatest possible transparency, substantial returns are sought above all. We want to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of the people who were robbed of their cultural treasures during the colonial era’’.' Monika Grütters, German Federal Minister for Culture. (1)
I must confess that when I heard about the decision taken by the German authorities on 29th April 2021 to restitute looted Benin artefacts in German museums and institutions, including the Humboldt Forum and the Ethnological Museum, Berlin, I was surprised. In recent times, the German authorities had given indications that they were moving in that direction. (2) Still, so little trust can one have in European governments and institutions regarding the restitution of looted African artefacts. The safest position has been to wait and see what comes out of their encouraging pronouncements that are often contradictory or subject to multiple interpretations.
Our last article indicated that the Prussian Foundation for Cultural Legacy and the Minister for Culture, Monica Grütters, had announced plans for consultations with museums and institutions holding Benin artefacts to develop a national strategy on the Benin artefacts. This proposed meeting appeared to us as a delaying measure since such a consultation would require time in order to create a national plan for institutions with different interests. And why had that not been done earlier? Discussions on the Humboldt Forum and restitution of looted Benin artefacts started a decade ago. That national strategy has been developed within a short period, despite the pandemic. What was the decision?
On 29th April 2020, the Minister for Culture, Monica Grütters, called a meeting to consider further handling of Benin artefacts. (3) Attending the meeting were directors of German museums holding large numbers of Benin artefacts, Cultural Affairs Ministers of the Länder, and City of Cologne as holder of the artefacts at Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, and the German Foreign Ministry.
The participants agreed that what happens with the Benin Bronzes is a vital element of Germany’s handling of collections from colonial contexts, which is also a subject of international attention. They reaffirmed their willingness to make substantial returns of the Benin Bronzes.
Further talks on returns and future cooperation with Nigeria at an early date are planned which will aim to reach an understanding with the Nigerian partners on how Benin Bronzes will continue to be displayed in Germany and to determine concrete actions and a timetable for the upcoming talks.
The participants invited other museums and institutions not present at the meeting but holding Benin objects to join in the process outlined above.’
The participants also agreed to ensure great transparency in the handling of Benin artefacts. The Contact Point for Collections from Colonial Contexts would publish a list of all Benin bronzes on its website(www.cp.de by 15 June 2021. In addition, the museums will provide comprehensive documentation of the provenance of the Benin artefacts which would be made publicly accessible on the website of the Contact Point by the end of 2021. When Benin artefacts are shown in exhibitions, comprehensive information will be provided on the context of their acquisitions.
As part of the three-part strategy adopted by the meeting, an independent portal for collections from colonial contexts will be established within the German Digital Library, making Benin bronzes accessible. In future, all other Benin collections from colonial contexts held by German institutions would be accessible online.
Among the items of future talks between the Germans and Nigerians would be ‘how the Benin bronzes, as part of humanity’s cultural heritage, can in future be shown in Germany as well’.
Cooperation between Nigeria and Germany would include training for future curators and museum managers and developing cultural infrastructures. The International Museum Cooperation Agency, now being established, will provide support for cooperation.
By the summer of 2021, the participants would provide concrete actions, and a timetable for the restitution of the Benin bronzes whilst the German Federal Foreign Ministry will hold talks with the Legacy Royal Trust and other Nigerian agencies participating in this process. Participants will endeavour speedily to obtain results that can be implemented, and the funding bodies and their museums will put in place the legal and organizational conditions required.
The Federal Government will have further discussions with Nigerian partners in the next few weeks. The participants affirmed that the coming negotiations would aim to produce concrete results. The museums and their funding bodies
would ‘take the next steps with ‘the necessary urgency, sensitivity and determination to attain results.’
What impressed me about this latest effort by Germany, is the sense of urgency?
that permeates the whole statement. But before we get too impressed by this
aspect, we should recall that Germany has had more than 100 years to solve the
question of the looted Benin artefacts and so any sense of urgency may have been created by the Germans themselves and their refusal in the past to take the restitution seriously. Instead, like most European holders of looted African artefacts, they sought to gain time by presenting useless arguments and pretending to ignore the issue whilst NGO’s, individual scholars and critics insisted on discussing restitution.
Definite dates for accomplishing concrete tasks have been given, and so we can measure these promises against the dates mentioned.
I was surprised that the desire of the Germans to keep some Benin bronzes was
couched in terms of the artefacts being part of the heritage of humanity.
This concept always caused anger with Africans who saw it as a ploy for the Europeans to hold on to looted artefacts. Can Germany not hold artefacts of other nations if they are legitimately acquired and not looted even if those objects cannot be considered as part of the heritage of humanity? Have Germans not given up completely the discredited concept of a universal museum?
The British Museum informs us that it is involved in excavations in Benin
City and in the construction of the new Edo Museum of West African Art. The British Museum is apparently aware of the pain and suffering caused to the Benin people by the 1897 attack. The British Guardian reported a statement by a spokesperson for the British Museum, that the museum is working with the Legacy Restoration Trust on an archaeology project linked to the new museum:
“The devastation and plunder wreaked upon Benin City during the British military expedition in 1897 is fully acknowledged by the museum and the circumstances around the acquisition of Benin objects are explained in gallery panels and on the museum’s website.
“We believe the strength of the British Museum collection resides in its breadth and depth, allowing millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time – whether through trade, migration, conquest, or peaceful exchange.” (4)
The British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum have not expressed any
intention of returning looted artefacts. They spread rumours that are
surprisingly swallowed by many, including those who should know better, that they are prevented by the British Museum Act 1963 to return objects in the museum. However, the Act provides in its section 5 that the British Museum may dispose of items under its control under certain circumstances. This provision is interpreted by the museum as a prohibition. Since when did ‘may’ indicate a prohibition in the English language? Some of those ostensibly favouring restitution accept this false interpretation of the British Museum Act and pass it on to others. Their strategy appears to be aimed at putting maximum pressure on holders of few Benin bronzes to restitute the artefacts so that the museums holding large numbers can keep their loot.
The British Museum is ignoring all signs of progress in restitution and playing this role in the Benin Dialogue Group that does not publish any details of its discussions because they do not seem interested in educating the African and European publics on this matter. They have not even stated how long the proposed loans to Nigeria will be. It was probably the venerable museum in Bloomsbury that introduced the idea of loans of Benin bronzes to the Nigerians and persuaded the Group to delete the topic of restitution from its agenda. I was criticised for reporting on this. (5) Fortunately, the idea of loans of Benin artefacts to Nigeria is becoming less favourable.
We should also note that that the Culture Secretary of the UK, Oliver Dowden
has urged museums and other cultural institution to ‘constantly defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down. The minister also threatened museums that did not follow his injunctions with cut of funds. (6)
This British position contrasts with statement of the Dutch Minister of Culture, Ingrid van Engelshoven, that a stolen item should not be part of the national treasure: “There is no place in the Dutch State Collection for cultural heritage objects that were acquired through theft.’(7)
The British Government does not seem to be bothered by the fact that
most European States are moving in the direction of restitution whilst some British institutions keep on providing statements of discredited past ideas. Once Germany implements its plans, many States, including Britain, will not be able to resist the pull of restitution.
What the Germans have presented is a strategy that should work to speed up the
process of restitution provided everyone plays their assigned role. Experience, however, has taught us that in matters of restitution, anything can happen to provide a valid excuse for not fulfilling promises.
Germany should be congratulated for the bold steps and aims of restitution outlined in the statement of 30th April 2021. The German authorities have come a long way from the positions they represented even a few months ago. Germany may well become the first Western State that makes serious restitution of African artefacts. They have understood that restitution of looted African artefacts is a necessary part of facing their colonial past. They have understood that the NGO’s and others who criticised the Humboldt Forum and the retention of looted African artefacts are not necessarily enemies of Germany. They seem to appreciate the sub-title of the Sarr-Savoy report, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics. (8) This is a chance for a new basis for the relationship between Africa and Europe, based on mutual respect and not on force, deceit, and violence.
The peoples of Benin and Nigeria, as well as the Nigerian government should also be praised for holding fast to their belief and hope that the artefacts looted in 1897, despite all contrary indications, would come back.
Germany seems to have accepted that the colonial adventure was an evil
enterprise that deprived African peoples of their property, including cultural
artefacts. Germany has to implement this new understanding of the colonial enterprise regarding former German colonies such as Togo, Cameroon, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Namibia, with special reference to the genocide of Herero and Nama. One cannot condemn the colonial looting of artefacts and leave out general colonial despoliation or genocides.
Confronting Germany’s historical and moral responsibility and seeking to enter
into new relations with the descendants of the disinherited is undoubtedly more than restituting artefacts, however substantial that may be.
African peoples and governments must intensify efforts to recover our looted artefacts. Ethiopian gold, silver and manuscripts and Asante gold, to mention only a few looted items, still have to be returned. There are no more valid European arguments and excuses for holding onto looted African cultural artefacts.
1. ‘’Wir stellen uns der historischen und moralischen Verantwortung, Deutschlands koloniale Vergangenheit ans Licht zu holen und aufzuarbeiten. Der Umgang mit den Benin-Bronzen ist dafür ein Prüfstein. Die gestern verabschiedete Erklärung ist eine historische Wegmarke im Umgang mit der kolonialen Vergangenheit. Ich bin froh und dankbar, dass wir uns auf das gemeinsame Ziel verständigen konnten, eine abgestimmte Haltung in Deutschland zu entwickeln und zu einer gemeinsamen Verständigung mit der nigerianischen Seite zu gelangen. Neben größtmöglicher Transparenz werden vor allem substanzielle Rückgaben angestrebt. So möchten wir zur Verständigung und zur Versöhnung mit den Nachkommen der Menschen beitragen, die in der Zeit des Kolonialismus ihrer kulturellen Schätze beraubt wurden. Wir planen erste Rückgaben im Verlauf des Jahres 2022.“ Monika Grütters.
Erklärung zum Umgang mit Benin-Bronzen-Grütters: Wichtige Wegmarke für Verständigung und Versöhnung
2. K. Opoku, ‘Hermann Par zinger’s Leap Forward in Restitution of African Artefacts’.
3 Statement on the handling of the Benin Bronzes in German museums and institutions
4. The Guardian, Berlin's plan to return Benin bronzes piles pressure on UK museums.
5. K. Opoku, Benin Dialogue Group Removes Restitution of Benin Artefacts from its agenda.
6. Culture Secretary wrote in his letter, inter alia: ‘History is ridden with moral complexity. Statues and other historical objects were created by generations with different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong. Some represent figures who have said or done things which we may find deeply offensive and would not defend today. But though we may now disagree with those who created them or who they represent, they play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults.
It is for this reason that the Government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects. Historic England, as the Government’s adviser on the historic environment, have said that removing difficult and contentious parts of it risks harming our understanding of our collective past. Rather than erasing these objects, we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety, however challenging this may be. Our aim should be to use them to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad’. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/922293/22-09-20_Letter_to_DCMS_ALBs.docx
7. The Art newspaper, Netherlands takes lead in Europe’s efforts to return artefacts to former colonies.
8. Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoir, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics http://restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf
Altar group with Oba Akenzua, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum/Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany.
Stool of Oba Eresoyen, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum/Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany.
Queen-Mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Commemorative head of a Queen-Mother, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Germany. Photo Martin Franken.
Commemorative head of an oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Dresden Ethnology Museum, Dresden, Germany.
Altar with Oba Ewuakpe and attendants, Benin, Nigeria ,now in Ethnologisches Museum/Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany.