Benin: a castle full of stolen goods
Germany is the first country in Europe to announce the return of its share of Benin bronzes to Nigeria by 2022. Thousands of these works of art were looted by the British at the end of the 19th century. But while negotiations on the procedure are underway in Germany, historians and curators in Europe and Africa are demanding a more comprehensive approach towards the return of the stolen colonial objects.
The German debate over the restitution of colonial artifacts culminates in a shining white castle in the heart of Berlin. The Humboldt Forum, named after famous explorer Alexander von Humboldt – himself an avid collector of flora, fauna and alien human remains – opened in July this year after a long and expensive reconstruction. It has become the most controversial museum in the capital for a variety of reasons, from the state investing 564 million euros to rebuild a castle from scratch, to its dome crowned with a cross and an inscription propagating superiority of the Christian faith, at the exhibition of an orb imperial palace dedicated to a former German billionaire. But the main reason the Humboldt Forum has encountered so much opposition and contempt is its aim to house one of the largest ethnological collections in the world: statues, masks, instruments, vessels, jewelry, and everyday objects, including many were stolen from the former colonies of Germany or its European neighbors.
One of the highlights of the museum’s exhibit should have been the Benin Bronzes, a collection of thousands of metal plaques and sculptures taken by British forces from the Royal Palace of the Kingdom of Benin in the 19th century. They were transferred to Europe where they aroused great admiration for the elaborate art of a people considered savage and uncivilized. The Bronzes were sold to the colonizing world and are now exhibited in France, Austria, Germany, Great Britain and the United States. Some have disappeared in private collections. 200 of the valuable items were expected to draw visitors to the east wing of the Humboldt Forum from mid-2022. But it now appears that their assigned place will have to be filled otherwise.
In April, the German government announced that the country would be the first in Europe to return its share of the bronzes to its homeland, in what is now Nigeria. The move was sparked by the diplomatic efforts of Yusuf Tuggar, Nigerian Ambassador to Germany, and comes at a time when Nigeria is building a prestigious new national museum in Benin-City, southern Nigeria, where the bronzes were originally stolen. While the Bronzes of Benin in Germany wait to return home, historians call for an even more in-depth examination of the ethnological collections, and a broader approach to restitution. Indeed, the Benin bronzes are only one example among the hundreds of thousands of artifacts taken by force in the former colonies. Ethnological collections in Europe are filled with colonial spoils, much of which is not even on display, but remains unoccupied in storage rooms across the continent.
The golden age of plunder
Much shorter than that of France and Britain and overshadowed by the Holocaust, Germany’s colonial past has been a neglected chapter in its history. Yet Germany not only committed the first genocide of the 20th century against the Herero and Nama populations in what is now Namibia, but it also laid the foundation for some of its most dangerous racist ideologies on the pseudo -science carried out in its colonies at the time. . And when it comes to restitution debates, Berlin is not a bad place to start. After all, this is where European countries divided the African continent among themselves at the Berlin Conference in 1884 – 13 years before the British torched and looted the Benin Palace to consolidate their power over what ‘they considered their territory.
The Berlin conference was followed by what Bénédicte Savoy, one of the most prominent historians in the field of renditions today, calls “the 34 years of ethnological museums”. Without those years, there wouldn’t be a Humboldt Forum today, says Savoy in a podcast episode on the matter. The hype about the theft, collection and shipping of goods from the colonies was at its peak during those years that ended with World War I, she says. Hundreds of thousands of objects were brought to Europe by merchants, missionaries and colonial officers, where they were sold, traded and displayed. 75,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa remain in German collections to this day – including 1,100 bronzes from Benin, purchased in London by the Royal Museum of Ethnology in Berlin at the beginning of the 20th century and scattered in various museums in the country.
Germany’s step towards restitution of Benin bronzes may be one of the first, but the restitution debate is far from new. In his book “Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat” (to be published in English in 2022), Savoy documents the demands of African intellectuals and politicians for the return of stolen objects from the 1960s, when 18 old colonies became independent. . Savoy describes how the German Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, SPK), custodian of German ethnological collections, nipped in the bud any attempt at restitution by lying about the quantity and origin of its African objects, and in manipulating the public and political debate in its favor. One of the main arguments of the head of the SPK at the time was that Germany did not steal the bronzes, but bought them legally.
Getting rid of an old hierarchical arrangement
Today, after years of public controversy, museums like the Humboldt Forum conscientiously mention their colonial history on several occasions in their permanent and temporary exhibitions. But that doesn’t change the fact that the objects in question are still there, insists Savoy. “It is dishonest transparency when they claim – after public criticism – that they are providing provenance information,” she said at a panel discussion titled “Decolonizing Worlds” at the Literature Festival in Berlin in September. Each object on display now has a plaque giving the facts about its origin – who collected, sold or bought it – but according to Savoy these plaques are still not very critical of the violent historical context. “Museums act in a neutral way, but they are the expression of the nationalist and imperialist ideology of the 19th century,” she says.
Regarding the Bronzes from Benin, Birgit Jöbstl, spokesperson for the SPK, explained that negotiations with their Nigerian partners were underway, and that “substantial returns are planned for 2022”. However, it seems that plans to exhibit the bronzes at the Humboldt Forum are still alive. “Their presentation will deal with the history of the Kingdom of Benin, its conquest by English troops as well as the provenance of the Beninese artefacts,” Jöbstl wrote in an email to Justice Info, adding that about half of the 400 The Bronzes of Benin in Berlin were to be exhibited there. “These plans will be reviewed during talks with Nigerian officials.”
It remains to be seen how quickly and at what speed the restitution of the Bronzes will be carried out and what consequences this operation will have on all the other objects stolen in Germany and in Europe. Meanwhile, Savoy, along with other historians and curators from Europe and Africa, demands a whole new way of thinking about museums. “Historically, we’ve been the subject and the whole world the object. We look at it without ever being looked back,” she says. Collective curation is the way to go in the future, she believes. But she warns that cooperation between museums or permanent loans of objects cannot be an excuse to avoid restitution. “Renditions help shake up an old pecking order and redefine the relationship, allowing post-racist coexistence,” she says.