Made of bronze, brass and ivory, these sculptures, bas-reliefs and objects come from the royal palace of the former kingdom of Benin, located in present-day Nigeria.
Germany has around 1,100 Beninese objects – most of them looted by British troops in 1897 – in about 20 German museums, around half of which are housed in the Humboldt Forum’s ethnological museum in Berlin. The remaining 600 or so pieces are held in Stuttgart, Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden.
Most are expected to return to Africa soon. In the autumn of 2021, representatives from both parties in Lagos signed an agreement providing for the transfer of ownership rights to Nigeria. “The German government and people have taken a bold step in agreeing to return the artefacts voluntarily, and without too much pressure from Nigeria,” Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the Nigerian minister of information and culture, said at the time.
The process leading to actual returns is expected to start during the second quarter of 2022, with the transfer of ownership of some objects. “Substantial returns” are due to follow, although no practical details have yet been provided.
According to some sources, the majority of the bronzes are expected to be returned to Nigeria before the Edo Museum of West African Art (Emowaa) – Benin City’s newest museum, which is planned for 2024 – is completed.
“We are pleased with this development,” Yusuf Tuggar, Nigeria’s ambassador to Berlin, said in late 2021. “For the first time in 124 years, a generation of young Nigerians will be able to physically see and be inspired by such masterpieces. Germany is doing the right thing.”
The two countries have agreed that some of the bronzes currently on display in German museums should remain there on loan. “We will discuss with the Nigerian side whether and how the Beninese bronzes can also be exhibited in Germany as part of the world’s cultural heritage,” said Monika Grütters, former minister of state for culture and media.
In the meantime, a digital list of all Beninese bronzes currently in the possession of German institutions will be compiled. Until now, the claimant countries have had to guess which museum the objects are in, as only a fraction of them are on display.
In order for such restitutions to take place, the request for return must be sent in the diplomatic form of a “note verbale” – a document used for communicating between embassies and ministries. The note must include information about the requisitioned objects and the reasons for the request.
For the planned transfer of ownership to take place by the summer, consent of the federal government, federal states (Länder) and municipalities is required. The federal government has already made a commitment to the Berlin museums, as have the city of Cologne and the state governments of Hamburg and Baden-Württemberg.
The latter is among those that want to implement the first returns in 2022. In the event of a federal delay, “we reserve the right to take action ourselves”, says Teresia Bauer, Germany’s minister for science, research and art. The Linden Museum in Stuttgart, one of Germany’s largest ethnological museums, took over part of the collections of the former colonial museum in Berlin in 1917.
Pinned down by the Sarr-Savoy report
In May 2019, the Cape Cross stone cross – a 15th-century object that guided Portuguese explorers – was moved from the German Historical Museum in Berlin and taken back to Namibia. Two months earlier, Baden-Württemberg had returned the Bible and whip of Namibian national hero Hendrik Witbooi (leader of the Nama people, a victim of genocide by German colonial troops).
These items had previously been part of the Linden Museum collection. So far, Germany is the only European country that has been actively returning cultural property.
The end of 2018 marked the explosive publication of the Rapport sur la Restitution du Patrimoine Culturel Africain. Vers une Nouvelle Éthique Relationnelle. President Emmanuel Macron commissioned Bénédicte Savoy (a French art historian) and Felwine Sarr (a Senegalese academic) to write the report, which changed the rules of the game.
The Humboldt Forum – which at the time was still under construction, but opened its doors in July 2021 – was at the centre of criticism. The two authors reproached it for its lack of research into the provenance of its non-European collections, which have hundreds of pieces of dubious origin.
We need innovative museum concepts in our post-colonial and globally interconnected world.
Savoy, who teaches in Berlin and was a member of the Humboldt Forum’s expert advisory board until 2017, has been pushing for looted pieces held in France and Germany to be returned for years.
Last October, France returned 26 works that had first been looted from the Abomey palace in the 19th century and then formed part of the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac’s collections to Benin. This return was made possible thanks to a specific law passed in 2020, which derogates from the principle of inalienability of property held in French public institutions.
The Humboldt Forum’s inauguration and the ongoing discussions on restitution in Europe, especially in France, have greatly fuelled the debate on the subject in Germany – and changed minds. According to experts, Germany’s many ethnological museums still hold a very large number of objects dating back to the colonial period.
The collection of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation’s Ethnological Museum (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz) alone contains about half a million items. However, not all of these works have necessarily been stolen or looted, says Hermann Parzinger, the foundation’s president. “There are an incredible number of everyday objects that have neither sacred significance nor artistic value that researchers have collected to learn more about these cultures.”
Within this context, Germany launched TheMuseumsLab, a programme that facilitates exchange and provides further training to young museum experts and managers from Africa and Germany, in May 2021. Funded by the Federal Foreign Office in close cooperation with the ministry for economic cooperation and development as well as the Federal Government’s office for culture and media, it is intended to become a platform that provides both joint training and transferable skills to individuals and institutions.
TheMuseumsLab is an important step towards creating an international museum cooperation agency. Based on the Agence France Muséums created in 2007, Germany wants to help its museums be better represented abroad. Its objectives are to promote the development of a common brand for German museums, support large-scale international exhibition cooperation and train museum experts by encouraging “exchanges” of curators and works – especially with Nigeria and Africa in general.
In Benin, Germany wants to actively support the Emowaa’s development. “In doing so, we are pursuing nothing less than a goal that we have already set ourselves in the coalition agreement: to make progress by accepting our colonial history through cultural exchange,” says Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign affairs minister between 2018 and 2021. “We need innovative museum concepts in our post-colonial and globally interconnected world,” says Carola Lentz, president of the Goethe-Institut.
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