With their wide eyes, intricate head coverings and elaborate armour, the Benin bronzes are among the most prized possessions of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum.
But the 16th-18th century metal plaques and sculptures that once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin may never see the light of day in a German museum again.
After years of negotiations, Germany announced in April that it will begin returning the bronzes, looted during the colonial era, to what is now Nigeria from next year.
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The move is one of a series of recent steps by Germany towards atoning for crimes committed in the colonial era, including the official recognition in May that it committed genocide in Namibia.
“I believe that all parts of society are becoming more aware now that Germany has a colonial history, too,” said Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which runs the Berlin museum.
“Awareness (of this period) was somewhat obscured by the great catastrophes of the 20th century – the world wars, the Holocaust. But we are slowly becoming more conscious of this historical period and its implications.”
One reason for this, according to Parzinger, is the completion of the Humboldt Forum, a controversial new museum complex housed in a reconstructed Prussian palace in the heart of Berlin.
The complex, which opened in December, has attracted fierce criticism for planning to show colonial artifacts such as the Benin bronzes in what used to be the main residence of the Hohenzollerns, instigators of German colonialism.
Juergen Zimmerer, a professor of history specialising in the colonial era at the University of Hamburg, also believes the Black Lives Matter movement has “played a role” in mobilising support for a new approach to colonial history in Germany.
The Benin bronzes, among the most highly regarded works of African art, are now scattered around European museums after being looted by the British at the end of the 19th century.
The Ethnological Museum in Berlin has 530 historical objects from the ancient kingdom, including 440 bronzes — considered the most important collection outside London’s British Museum.
Conversations are ongoing about the details of returning the artworks and whether Berlin may still keep some.
“We would like to continue showing art from Benin in the Humboldt Forum,” Parzinger said. “The important thing is that we have a dialogue about this and a common idea with the people in charge in Nigeria.”
Some of the bronzes were put on display in the Leipzig Museum of Ethnology in 2002. Photo: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb | Wolfgang Kluge
Theophilus Umogbai, a curator with the National Museum in Benin City, said the plans to return the bronzes were a “welcome development” for a country that has “always clamoured for the repatriation of these stolen artifacts”.
“We are also calling on other museums in Europe and other nations to return the artifacts to Benin, the original owners of the works,” he added.
In particular, Germany’s move raises the pressure on the British Museum, which has some 700 Benin bronzes.
Elsewhere in Europe, similar action is underway to return looted artifacts.
The Dutch government in February voted to begin repatriating artifacts to former colonies such as Indonesia, with culture minister Ingrid van
Engelshoven declaring there was “no place in the Dutch State Collection for cultural heritage objects that were acquired through theft”.
In France, following a landmark speech by President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, a plan was approved last year to return 27 pieces of African art to Benin and Senegal.
“Crime against humanity”
Though smaller than those of France and Britain, Germany’s colonial empire encompassed parts of several African countries, including present-day Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Namibia and Cameroon.
Long before the advent of Nazi concentration camps, the country was responsible for mass killings of indigenous Herero and Nama people in Namibia that many historians refer to as the first genocide of the 20th century.
Over the last years, Germany has returned skulls and other human remains to Namibia that it had sent to Berlin during the period for “scientific” experiments.
In May, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced that Germany will now officially refer to the killings in Namibia as “genocide” and promised a billion euros in financial support to descendants of the victims.
But many Namibians have rejected the deal, arguing that descendants of the Herero and Nama were not involved in the negotiations and the Namibian government was strong-armed into the accord.
Historian Zimmerer, too, finds it “regrettable” that Germany is not going further to truly face up to the atrocities of the colonial period.
“In Germany — and this applies to all European societies — there must be a clear acknowledgement that colonialism was a structurally racist system of injustice and a crime against humanity,” he said.