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Berlin’s plan to return Benin bronzes piles pressure on UK museums

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Berlin

Berlin is negotiating to fully restitute hundreds of the Benin bronzes in a shift of policy that has been welcomed in Nigeria but will put pressure on museums in London and Oxford to also return artefacts looted from Britain’s former west African empire in 1897.

More than 500 historical objects including 440 bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria, are held at the Ethnological Museum in the German capital. Half of the collection was due to go on display this autumn at the Humboldt Forum, a newly opened museum of non-European art in the city centre.

However, Hartmut Dorgerloh, the director of the Humboldt Forum, told German media on Monday, 22 March, that the complex could instead exhibit only replicas of the bronzes or leave symbolic empty spaces, and that the sculptures and reliefs could be returned to Nigeria as soon as the autumn.

The exhibition, due to open at the end of the year, would critically engage with the history of the West African kingdom and its capture by British troops, a spokesperson for the Prussian heritage foundation said.

Andreas Görgen, the head of the German foreign ministry’s culture department, visited Benin City last week for discussions with the Nigerian government, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Under the terms of the agreement as reported by the Art Newspaper, Germany would take part in archaeological excavations in the region, provide training for Nigerian museum employees, participate in the construction of a new museum in Benin, and restitute the looted Benin bronzes held in Berlin to the Restoration Legacy Trust, an NGO set up in 2019.

The bronzes were looted by British soldiers and sailors on a punitive expedition to Benin City in 1897 and subsequently scattered across museums in Europe and North America. The single largest collection of Benin bronzes is held by the British Museum, and a further 300 objects are held at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

The museums have formed a Benin dialogue group to support the new museum, plans for which have been drawn up by the Tanzanian-born British architect David Adjaye, but until recently they had agreed only to provide looted works on a rotating loan basis.

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