In a rare and nearly unprecedented step, Germany has promised to begin returning the Benin Bronzes held by state-run institutions in 2022. The push to send back the objects was announced on Thursday by the German culture ministry.
The Benin Bronzes are a group of thousands of objects that were plundered from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, during a colonial conquest by British troops in 1897. In the more than 120 years since, these objects have been spread around the globe, and are now held in the collections of institutions such as the British Museum in London, the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and more.
For decades, the return of these objects has been controversial. Proponents of repatriation argue that sending back the Benin Bronzes would be a way for institutions to grapple with histories of colonialism. Detractors claim that, in repatriating the objects, institutions are ceding cultural heritage to a country that may not have the means to properly care for it. Some scholars have argued that Benin Bronzes aren’t safe in Western museums, either.
In a declaration on Thursday following an online roundtable, a spread of German museum leaders and politicians made clear their view that the Benin Bronzes were brought to Europe by colonial means. “The participants agree that the processing of the German Colonial past is an important task for society as a whole,” that declaration reads. Its signatories include Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Heritage Foundation, which oversees the collections of various state-run museums in Berlin; Lars-Christian Koch, collection manager of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin; and Barbara Plankensteiner, director of the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg and a founder of Digital Benin, a project that seeks to map the provenance of the Benin Bronzes.
Monika Grütters, Germany’s culture minister, echoed that sentiment, saying in a statement, “In addition to the greatest possible transparency, we aim for substantial returns. In this way we would like to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of the people who were robbed of their cultural treasures during the colonial era.”
The declaration set out three goals for German officials and museum leaders: to develop complete and transparent provenances for each object by the end of 2021, to strive toward a more open dialogue with Nigeria, and to draw up a concrete timetable for the return of the objects in the state’s holdings. The document did not state how many Benin Bronzes are owned by Germany, though it is known that the Ethnological Museum in Berlin holds 530 such works. Last month, Berlin’s newly inaugurated Humboldt Forum, which shows objects owned by the Ethnological Museum, said it would not put its Benin Bronzes on view.
No other Western nation has been as unequivocal in its support for returning Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, although in recent months, certain institutions in England and Scotland have begun taking steps toward repatriation. In March, the University of Aberdeen’s museum said it would send back its sole Benin Bronze, becoming the first institution to commit to doing so. Meanwhile, the Church of England said it had entered “discussions” on returning the Benin Bronzes it owns.
When Germany begins returning its Benin Bronzes, they will likely head to the Edo Museum of West African Art, a new David Adjaye–designed museum set to open in Benin City in 2025.