Home Arts The Germans hesitate on the return of the Beninese bronzes to Nigeria

The Germans hesitate on the return of the Beninese bronzes to Nigeria

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“We are here to right a wrong,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during a visit to Abuja, Nigeria in December during a visit to return 20 Beninese bronzes from German museums. looted by British troops in 1897. “What we are back is part of your story, part of who you are.

Months later, doubts begin to surface in the media. “World Heritage in danger”, warned the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung at the end of February, following an article by a retired professor of ethnology, Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, suggesting that the sculptures were at risk of being stolen in Nigeria. “It is unclear if the Nigerian people will benefit from the returns,” wrote Die Welt on March 14, wondering if the artifacts would be on display. “Return to Benin” headlined the weekly Die Zeit: “And now what?”


Abba Tijani, Director General of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), has heard these doubts before. “Do we have the facilities? Do we have the capabilities? These questions come up all the time,” he says. “There’s no way I’m committing to take artifacts if I can’t take care of them or if we don’t have qualified personnel. Only a small number have been repatriated. I want to make sure we have the capacity to take care of them.

The German government, states and museums last year transferred ownership of 1,117 Beninese bronzes from five German museum collections to Nigeria, where the NCMM is responsible. The 22 bronzes returned so far (two at a ceremony in Berlin in July, 20 more in December) are the cutting edge: hundreds more are expected to return this year. The five most important museum collections – in Berlin, Dresden, Stuttgart, Cologne and Hamburg – will keep around a third of the objects in the form of long-term loans.

“It has highlighted the need for better museum infrastructure in Nigeria”

The prospect of hundreds of looted treasures returning to Nigeria has given impetus to a series of museum building projects. “It has highlighted the need for better museum infrastructure in Nigeria,” says Phillip Ihenacho, Executive Chairman of the EMOWAA Trust. Two storage facilities are planned in Benin City. The Nigerian government has approved funding for a new repository that can house 3,000 bronzes, Tijani said, adding that it will have state-of-the-art security, including surveillance. In addition, the EMOWAA Trust is constructing a facility sponsored by the Edo State and partially funded by the German government; it is not known whether the returning bronzes will be kept there.

The EMOWAA Trust is raising funds to build the Edo West African Art Museum, designed by David Adjaye. The idea, says Ihenacho, “is not to simply be a receptacle for the Benin bronzes; we are looking much wider.

Upgrade program

Meanwhile, the NCMM plans to upgrade its existing museum to become the Royal Museum of Benin, the main showcase for looted treasures. And outgoing Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has announced plans for a National Unity Museum in Abuja.

Barbara Plankensteiner, director of the MARKK Museum of World Cultures in Hamburg, is optimistic about the belated backlash from the German press. The argument that looted African artefacts are safer in Western museums than in their home countries “dates from the 1970s or 1980s,” she says.

MARKK’s 2021 Looted History exhibition showcased the bronzes in his collection. “What we mainly heard from the visitors was that now they understood the context much better, they felt that returning the bronzes was the right thing to do,” she says. “There were almost no dissenting voices.”

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