In a joint statement published on Thursday, the German Ministry of Culture, ministers of state and museum directors committed themselves to a “substantial return” of Benin bronzes – works of art made of bronze, brass and ivory that were used by the British army in a raid the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria in 1897.
The bronzes were later distributed around the world and hundreds are currently kept in German museums. Nigeria has sought their return for decades.
Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie, historian and researcher at the Nigerian Institute for Benin Studies, welcomed the statement and said Germany was “a leader in the global restitution movement”.
“Other European nations should be ready and open to accept that all objects looted in 1897 belong to the Benin people,” he said via email. “Like Germany, they too should initiate or join the dialogue in order to discuss the future of these objects.
“That decision was a party truce, not a win-win or the winner will take it all. I will tell my children about this historic moment.”
Federal Minister of Culture Monika Grütters described the declaration as a “historic milestone”.
“We face the historical and moral responsibility to shed light on Germany’s colonial past,” Grütters said in a statement. “We want to contribute to an understanding and a reconciliation with the descendants of the people who were robbed of their cultural treasures during the colonial era.”
The statement includes plans for returning the first pieces in the next year and a roadmap that includes an additional refund without specifying which artifacts or how many.
A Benin bronze depicted in Berlin shows a high-ranking dignitary with a sword and a rectangular bell, accompanied by two horn blowers, a brass plaque.Recognition: Adam Eastland / Alamy
The governor of Edo, Godwin Obaseki, who hosted the delegation, then announced the start of a “Legacy Restoration Trust” and expressed the hope that international cooperation would extend beyond the return of items.
“We believe that our collaboration should not only result in the works being returned, but also understand the meaning and significance of those works from our history,” Obaseki said in a statement.
Thursday’s statement, however, has received mixed response from scholars on the refund field. Professor Jürgen Zimmerer, colonial historian at the University of Hamburg, described it as a “disappointment” not to go any further.
“There’s a general ‘substantial refund’ commitment, but that’s pretty vague,” he told CNN. “No set schedule for the reimbursement has been presented.”
However, Professor Dan Hicks, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University and author of a book on the Benin Bronzes, believes the declaration is a step forward.
“This clear statement from such a powerful group of German museum directors who are expressing their willingness to substantially return Benin bronzes will be very welcome to many,” said Hicks.
“The rapid developments in Germany will move the needle on this question … and also put it on the agenda for the trustee committees, directors, curators and museum visitors in more than 150 museums worldwide that own Benin collections.”
The bronzes are now recognized as one of the finest works of art made in Africa, and individual pieces have been sold for millions of dollars at auction.
However, UK laws prohibit national museums from returning parts of their collections, which has proven to be a significant barrier. The British Museum, which houses the largest collection of Benin bronzes, has been a frequent destination for activists.
Above: Benin Bronzes, exhibited in Hamburg, Germany, in 2018.