In 1897, British forces raided the ancient Kingdom of Benin, present-day Nigeria, and plundered thousands of artifacts known as Benin Bronzes. Those artifacts have since filled museums and private collections all over the world, with a large portion of them in Europe.
Germany’s minister for culture, Monika Gruetters, said the Benin Bronzes were a key test for the way the country deals with its colonial past.
Confronting a dark past
“We are confronting our historic and moral responsibility,” she said.
Gruetters said the goal is to contribute to “understanding and reconciliation” with the descendants of those whose cultural treasures were stolen in colonial times. The first returns are planned for 2022 she said.
There are far more of these historical objects scattered across the globe than in their native country, according to author Dan Hicks. He told Art News that 45 institutions in the United Kingdom and 38 in the United States hold Benin Bronzes, compared to just nine in Nigeria.
Outrage over stolen artifacts
Pressure from activists all over the world has been mounting for countries to acknowledge and reconcile their colonial pasts. The British Museum has come under increasing pressure to return the Bronzes in their possession in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.
The British Museum has told the BBC that it is “committed to facilitating a permanent display of Benin material” in Edo, but has not specified how many items would be returned, adding “the selection of objects will be determined through discussion with our Nigerian colleagues”. The British Museum doesn’t currently have plans to return parts of it’s collections.
Professor of global history at the University of Hamburg Juergen Zimmerer has done extensive historical research on the Benin Bronzes. He said the decision by Germany will likely affect the wider debate about how institutions in former colonial countries should handle such artifacts.
“The pressure will grow, because the British position of simply not addressing the issue of restitution is no longer sustainable”, said Zimmerer.