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A Benin Bronze from the collection of the Five Continents Museum in Munich, Germany (Wikimedia Commons)

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Germany’s Culture Minister Monika Grütters announced Friday, April 30, that the country will return a “substantial” portion of the Benin Bronzes held in German museums to Nigeria starting next year. 

“We face up to our historic and moral responsibility to shine a light and work on Germany’s historic past,” Grütters said following a meeting with Nigerian officials, adding that the treatment of the Benin bronzes is a “touchstone” of this process.

The Benin bronzes were looted by British soldiers and sailors during an 1897 expedition to Benin City. They were later sold to museums across Europe and North America, with the largest single collection of 900 pieces currently held at London’s British Museum. Museums across Germany hold about 1,100 of the artifacts, with at least 440 of them kept in the collection of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum. Some of these artifacts were slated for an exhibition this year at the disputed Humboldt Forum, though a museum official has hinted that the possibility of displaying replicas instead or leaving symbolically empty spaces in the exhibition halls.

Promising “the greatest possible transparency,” Grütters said that a committee financed by the federal government and the federal states will publish a list of all Benin bronzes owned by German museums by June 15, 2021. The museums will also document the provenances of these objects by the end of 2021 and make the information accessible to the public. The first items will be returned to Nigeria in 2022. The full restitution is expected to be completed by 2025.

According to the Guardian, the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye for Nigeria’s Legacy Restoration Trust, is being considered as a future home for the returned artifacts.

“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, in an interview with the Guardian. “This is a huge step towards righting what is wrong, especially coming from a country that was a superpower in colonization. Germany has chartered a path for other western countries struggling to find the right way to handle restitution cases.”

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an...

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