In the UK and Germany this March, headway was made in the long campaign to restitute the Benin Bronzes, the thousands of artifacts that British troops looted from present-day Nigeria in a punitive mission in 1897. In Scotland, the University of Aberdeen announced that it would return a Benin Late Period bust, making it one of the first public institutions to commit to fully repatriating a Benin bronze. Meanwhile, a German delegation met with Nigerian officials to discuss a concerted restitution strategy, with an eye to the hundreds of Benin Bronzes in the collection of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.
Nigeria has been petitioning for the return of the stolen Benin Bronzes — a group of artifacts including brass reliefs, bronze sculptures, and ivory carvings — since the country gained independence in 1960. Today, the largest known collection of these objects resides in the British Museum, which has more than 900 examples in its holdings. However, as Oxford University curator Dan Hicks notes in his book The Brutish Museums, the Benin Bronzes are dispersed across more than 160 museum collections worldwide, including many regional museum collections.
One such regional museum, the University of Aberdeen, acquired a bronze sculpture of an Oba, or Benin king, at auction in 1957. In an ongoing review of the collection, the museum determined that the sculpture had been “acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral,” explained Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections, in a statement. The university commenced a dialogue with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, the Edo State Government, and the Royal Court of the Oba in Benin. With an expert panel’s unanimous recommendation that the bust be repatriated, the university has begun making arrangements for the sculpture’s return, which could occur within weeks.
In a statement, Nigeria’s culture minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed said: “The reaching out by the University of Aberdeen and eventual release of the priceless antiquity is a step in the right direction. Other holders of Nigerian antiquity ought to emulate this to bring fairness to the burning issue of repatriation.”
In Germany, there are at least 25 institutions with Benin Bronzes in their collections, with a particular concentration — over 500 objects, including 440 bronzes — at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, a new consortium of museums that had its virtual opening in December, has been criticized for plans to exhibit these cultural artifacts in spite of their questionable provenance. (The museum recently floated the idea of displaying replicas or text in the objects’ stead.) The fate of these objects, which are owned by the state, is presently in the hands of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.
On a diplomatic trip to Benin City in March, Andreas Görgen, Germany’s director of cultural affairs, met with Godwin Obaseki, the governor of Edo, to discuss the matter of restitution. They reached a multi-pronged agreement, which could be finalized this summer. The Art Newspaper reported that Germany agreed to “take part in archaeological excavations in the region, provide training for Nigerian museum employees, participate in the construction of a planned new museum in Benin, and return looted sculptures and reliefs in German museum collections.”
The planned museum, where the repatriated bronzes will likely land, is the Edo Museum of West African Art, a cultural hub designed by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye that is slated to open in Benin City — right where the 1897 attack occurred — in 2025.
The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation convened after the foreign ministry’s diplomatic trip to Benin City. It released a statement saying: “In the case of the Benin bronzes, a solution will be found that also considers the return of objects as an option.” The foundation emphasized that “it is an important first step that all Benin bronzes in Berlin are digitized and accessible online.” German culture minister Monika Grütters, who chairs the foundation, plans to meet with culture ministers, museum directors, and foreign ministry representatives this April to work out a national strategy for the restitution of the artifacts.
Bénédicte Savoy, the art historian who co-authored the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report, which made a case for the restitution of looted colonial-era artifacts in France, sounded skeptical in conversation with German newspaper SZ. “It’s nice if it happens now,” she said of the German government’s recent efforts. “But the demand for returns has been in the room since 1972. You could have done that back then.”