May 17, 2021

Redressing the Crimes of the Past

The Benin bronzes have become a touchstone to test Europe’s commitment to returning African heritage plundered in the colonial era. While Germany is leading the way, the United Kingdom is still dragging its heels.

The Benin bronzes in British Museum, London
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Can Germany persuade the United Kingdom to redress the crimes of its past? It seems an odd role reversal, but that is the course that events are taking in the debate over the Benin bronzes.

Thousands of these exquisitely crafted sculptures—made of ivory and brass as well as bronze—were looted by British troops in a bloody 1897 raid on the Royal Palace in the kingdom of Benin, in modern-day Nigeria. They are now scattered in museums across the Western world. Some are 500 years old. They tell the story of an enduring and powerful civilization.

The Benin bronzes have become a touchstone to test Europe’s commitment to decolonizing museums and restituting African heritage plundered in the colonial era. Germany is carving a path for the return of the sculptures in its museums to Nigeria that other European institutions seem bound to follow. Some may do so readily and soon; others—most notably the British Museum, which holds around 900 Benin treasures, the largest contingent—are still resisting, and may only return them after much pressure, foot dragging, and an array of delaying tactics.

As the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe sees it: “There is simply no moral ground for the confiscation of African artefacts in Western museums. It will take the time it will take, but the movement is unstoppable.”

A simmering decades-old debate over the return of colonial-era acquisitions in European museums burst to the surface in 2017, when French President Emmanuel Macron, in a speech in Burkina Faso, pledged to permanently return African heritage in France to Africa.

Since then, a number of countries have taken concrete steps. In 2019, Germany’s 16 federal states approved guidelines creating the conditions for the repatriation of artefacts in public collections taken “in ways that are legally or morally unjustifiable today” from former colonies. Germany has also established a central help desk (Kontaktstelle) to provide information about colonial-era heritage and has committed funding for museums to conduct provenance research.

UK Drags its Heels

In January, the Dutch government became the first in Europe to approve a central mechanism for repatriating stolen cultural heritage and pledged to return, unconditionally, any objects in the national collections looted from Dutch colonies. France last year passed a law allowing the restitution of 27 looted artefacts to former colonies.

Meanwhile, however, progress in the UK has been halting. The Arts Council England has delayed delivering guidelines for museums on handling colonial-era plunder that were initially due to be published last autumn.

Across Europe—including in Germany and the UK—the repatriation of human remains to their communities of origin has become routine museum business. Some artefacts have been restituted to former colonies. But the now very real prospect of a return to Nigeria of the Benin bronzes held in German museums is a turning point in the process.

The bronzes have an emblematic value, in part because of the brutal circumstances of their loss, but also because they are among the most important African artworks in European museums. They include elaborate cast plaques, commemorative heads of leaders, animal and human figures, items of royal regalia, and personal ornaments. They were produced from the 16th century onwards by guilds working for the royal court of the oba, or king.

Many had a ritual significance in honoring ancestors. Perhaps the most cherished of these precious artefacts are the plaques which once decorated the Benin Royal Palace and provide an important historical record of the kingdom. “The looting was like a book being torn to pieces and then the pages were put in different places,” says Kokunre Eghafona, a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Benin.

A Decades-long Debate

In a “punitive expedition” against the kingdom of Benin in 1897, British troops ransacked the oba’s palace and looted its treasures, which were then sold to museums across Europe and America. Dan Hicks, a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the author of a recently published book about the Benin bronzes called “The Brutish Museums,” estimates that there are more than 10,000 items strewn across more than 160 museums worldwide and countless private collections. 

While Macron’s initiative added new impetus to the debate on colonial-era heritage in European museums, the discussion about the Benin bronzes has rumbled on for decades. The Benin Dialogue Group, founded in 2007, organized regular meetings between the Nigerian stakeholders and the curators at museums with substantial holdings of Benin bronzes, including the Berlin Ethnological Museum, the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg, the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and Dutch and Swedish National Museums of World Cultures, and Vienna’s Weltmuseum.

The group agreed to loan Benin bronzes to Nigeria on a rotating loan basis. It also spawned Digital Benin, a project to reunite the royal art at least in the virtual world. But perhaps most importantly, it lent encouragement to the Nigerian partners—the Edo State government, the royal court of Benin, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments—which have set up the Legacy Restoration Trust to manage negotiations with the Western holders of looted treasures and to oversee construction of a new museum complex designed by David Adjaye, to be located next to the oba’s palace in Benin.

In March, Andreas Görgen, the head of the German Foreign Ministry’s culture department, visited Benin City for discussions with Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki and other Nigerian officials. Under the terms of an agreement that Görgen expects will be finalized by the summer, Germany would take part in archaeological excavations, provide training for Nigerian museum employees, participate in the construction of the new museum, and restitute looted Benin sculptures and reliefs in German museum collections.

A Question of Justice

For German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, “the question of returning cultural heritage is part of an honest approach to colonial history. It’s a question of justice.” Around 25 German museums are known to possess items looted by British troops in the sacking of the royal palace in the kingdom of Benin in 1897. Those most affected are Berlin’s Ethnological Museum (soon to open in the Humboldt Forum), Dresden’s Museum für Völkerkunde, the Grassi Museum in Leipzig, Cologne’s Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, and Hamburg’s Museum am Rothenbaum.

In April, German Culture Minister Monika Grütters, museum directors and state culture ministers met to define a “national strategy” on the Benin bronzes in German museum collections and develop a timetable for their restitution, with the aim of returning the first objects in 2022.

The Guardian was quick to point out that Germany’s commitment to return the bronzes “piles pressure” on the British Museum. More pressure was “piled” (according to The Telegraph and The Times) when the University of Aberdeen said it will return a sculpture of an oba’s head to Nigeria because it was “acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral” and described the Benin looting as “one of the most notorious examples of the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with 19th-century European colonial expansion.”

But the British Museum (whose director, incidentally, is the German art historian Hartwig Fischer) is practiced at deflecting that kind of pressure. “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 explained in gallery panels and on the museum’s website,” it said in a statement. As though that should be enough to satisfy any potential claimant for looted art.

Berlin’s Ethnological Museum has the second-largest collection of Benin bronzes in Europe. Jonathan Fine, the head curator, says it possesses about 440 looted objects. “Precisely because this issue is so pressing it’s important for museums to engage with it, and not just at the level of rhetoric or moving a couple of labels around,” he says.

Fine is curating an exhibition of the Benin bronzes for the newly opened Humboldt Forum that will open in 2022. Given the current discussions with Nigeria, it’s not clear now what their status will be by the time of the exhibition. Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation which oversees Berlin’s museums, wrote in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on March 27 that the museum plans to show about half, which “by no means excludes later returns of the objects to be shown.”

Colonial “Blind Spot”

One room of the two-room exhibition, Fine says, “focuses on the invasion, the violence, what the plunder looked like and how after the plunder, works of art, ritual objects, and everyday objects were scattered throughout the world.” A centerpiece of the show will be “interviews with stakeholders from Nigeria and from European institutions talking about what the Benin bronzes are, what their loss has meant and what should happen to them in the future,” he added.

British museums will be watching this German confrontation with unappetizing aspects of Britain’s past with interest. Some might question why Berlin is choosing to address British colonial history in one of its first shows in the newly reconstructed Prussian royal palace in the heart of the capital instead of, say, German looting in Tanzania or Namibia. But the symbolic value of the Benin bronzesas well as their quantity and qualityis hard to beat.

Grütters has described the colonial past as a “blind spot” in Germany’s culture of remembrance. That blind spot persists in the UKwhat Hicks describes as a “Queen Victoria-sized hole in our historical consciousness in terms of our role internationally.” But he views Europe as a whole at the beginning of “a new reckoning with the incredibly violent later phases of empire”including the UK, even if the message hasn’t got through to all the museumsor the government.

The most prominent cultural policy of the current UK government has been to protect statues of slave traders from Black Lives Matter protesters. Leaders resist discussion about restituting museum treasuresor sidetrack the debate by focusing on the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum. These were removed from Greece in a very different context and should be addressed separately from the Benin bronzes. The marbles were not seized by military force in a brutal attack against a culture and people.

Nazi-looted Art

Unlike the UK, Germany has many decades of experience in confronting its past atrocities. It is often observed that the word Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) has no equivalent in English. But nor does the more proactive (and perhaps slightly more pronounceable for non-native-speakers) word Aufarbeitung, which encompasses everything from remembering, researching, and documenting the crimes of the past to educating the next generation about them. Restitution is a part of that work.

German museums have handed back thousands of artworks looted by the Nazis to the heirs of Jewish collectors. But the initiative for international principles on returning Nazi-looted art in public collections did not come from Germanythe momentum behind the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-looted art came from the United State, where many of the families most affected by Nazi plunder now live.

And in the case of colonial-era plunder, it should be the communities of origin that call the shots. These are not only in Africamuch of Dutch museums’ decolonization effort, for example, is focused on Indonesiabut Africa has a central role to play. In Addis Ababa in February, African Union leaders made culture and heritage their key theme for this year, with workshops planned on the restitution of stolen cultural heritage.

Across the continent, activists are gearing up campaigns, and museums are heeding the call. The Nairobi National Museum is currently showing an exhibition featuring research into Kenyan objects held in museums around the world, called Invisible Inventories. The research project, funded by the Goethe Institute and the Kulturstiftung des Bundes, has so far uncovered more than 32,000 objects in 30 institutions worldwide.

It will be particularly important to listen to the needs and priorities of African museum and heritage professionals. El Hadji Malick Ndiaye, a Dakar-based art historian, sees the restitution debate as nothing less than an opportunity to recalibrate cultural diplomacy between European and African states. At the moment, he says, African museums collaborate with European partners on exhibitions in Europe, but it’s a one-way street: European museums seldom contribute to exhibitions in Africa.

Correcting the Errors of History

Restitution could build trust and open the door to more cooperation. It also “poses the challenge to African states to attach more importance to museum policy” and “will contribute to a real awareness of heritage and its impact on society,” Ndiaye says.

Kimani Njgogu of the Nairobi-based public policy organization Twaweza Communications is holding webinars with researchers and activists in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda to define restitution strategies. To Njgogu, Germany’s moves towards handing over the Benin bronzes are “inspirational.”

“It’s recognition that these things are possible and our requests for moral responsibility are being heard,” he says. “We would have expected more from other colonial powers and Germany was not as present (in Africa) as France and the UK, but Germany is more deliberate in terms of correcting the errors of history. We need much more consciousness of that responsibility to fix things related to the past.”

Catherine Hickley is Germany correspondent for The Art Newspaper and a contributor to the New York Times arts pages. The author of a book about the Gurlitt art trove (The Munich Art Hoard: Hitler’s Dealer and his Secret Legacy), she is also an expert in art restitution issues.