Germany is to become the first country to hand back the Benin bronzes looted by British soldiers in the late nineteenth century, after the culture minister, Monika Grütters, announced it would start returning a “substantial” part of the artefacts held in its museums to Nigeria from next year.
“We face up to our historic and moral responsibility to shine a light and work on Germany’s historic past,” Grütters said after museum experts and political leaders struck an agreement at a summit on Thursday.
“The treatment of the Benin bronzes is a touchstone [of this process]”.
Germany will present a binding roadmap for the legal and logistical aspects of the restitution process by the end of June, with the first objects to be handed over in 2022, said the minister, a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The bronzes, which were looted by British soldiers and sailors on a punitive expedition to Benin City in 1897, were subsequently sold to museums in Europe and North America.
The single largest collection of Benin bronzes is held by the British Museum, but about 1,100 artefacts have ended up in German museums in Hamburg, Cologne, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Dresden. At least 440 are kept within the collection of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum, and were due to go display this autumn at the Humboldt Forum, a newly opened museum of non-European art in the city centre.
However, last month, Hartmut Dorgerloh, the director of the Humboldt Forum, let slip in an interview that the museum was considering displaying only replicas or leaving symbolic empty spaces, with the originals returning to Nigeria instead.
Officials in Berlin declined to confirm concrete plans for restituting the works, saying negotiations with the Nigerian side were still ongoing – until this week.
The decision was pushed along by some German federal states announcing they would go their own way if there was no joint agreement, as well as a jostle between the chancellory and the foreign ministry – headed by CDU and Social Democrat politicians whose parties could be left out of power after elections in September.
A decisions on the restitution was also facilitated by the fact that the Benin bronzes can be returned to a politically neutral body, the newly founded Legacy Restoration Trust. Both the Nigerian government and the royal family of Benin have in the past laid claim to the artefacts.
The Benin bronzes could in the future be held at the Edo Museum of West African Art, a new museum in Benin City designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye. Germany says it will help fund a pavilion to hold some restituted artefacts until the museum is completed in 2025.
“Germany’s bold decision to return looted classic arts from the kingdom of Benin to their rightful owners is definitely applauded and goes in the right direction,” said Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist and trustee of the Legacy Restoration Trust. “This is a huge step towards righting what is wrong, especially coming from a country that was a super-power in colonisation. Germany has chartered a path for other Western countries struggling to find the right way to handle restitution cases.”
Jürgen Zimmerer, a historian of colonialism at Hamburg University, was more critical, saying the government’s announcement amounted to a face-saving exercise rather than an emphatic gesture appropriate to the historic context.
“Instead of unconditionally committing itself to returning all looted art, there is only vague talk of a substantial part”, said Zimmerer. “How this part is determined, and by whom, is left unsaid.”