The debate about the colonial art of plunder continues in German museums

Museum, Ausstellung, Kunst, Geschichte, Historie

Spaces with Announcement: Benin Bronze from today’s Nigeria is considered a touchstone for the future of Africa’s cultural treasures at the Berlin Humboldt Forum. Bronze is synonymous with colonial injustice.

Of Sigrid Half Monday, April 12, 2021, at 5:25 am.|Last updated: Sunday, April 11, 2021, 12:52 pm. Reading Time: 4 minutes |

The presentation of the Benin Bronze at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin is becoming increasingly questionable. From autumn 2021, approximately 200 of the total 440 bronze works from the former Kingdom of Benin were to be presented at the reconstructed Hohenzollern Palace. Now the question is whether they will stay in Berlin or will they be reimbursed.

The renewed debate about works of art was initiated by Hartmut Dorgloh, general manager of the new culture tanker in the center of Berlin. In a telephone interview with “Pseududits Zitung”, he said a decision would have to be made by September 2021 about the return of the statues and relief. The highlight was the highlight of the new presentation of the Berlin Ethnological Museum at the Humboldt Forum. With the restoration of works of art – whether in full or in part – the Humboldt Forum can break out of its myth into negative headlines and become a global pioneer in dealing with the colonial art of plundering the Federal Republic of Germany.

Synonymous with colonial injustice

Nigerian Ambassador, Yusuf M. Tugar confirmed in a guest article in “Frankfurt Allgemine Zeitung” from early April that his country was seeking the return of his country and did not limit himself to the Benin Bronze. The former kingdom of Benin is located in western Nigeria.

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Bronzes of the Benin Royal Palace – 500-year-old artists’ plaques, monuments as well as animal and human figures – have become synonymous with colonial injustice. Most of these works of art are now in Europe, in the British Museum, but also in other British museums, for example in Aberdeen, Scotland. There, as in Cambridge, a return to works of art is also being considered, the Guardian wrote recently.

Forcibly robbed

The second largest Benin collection after London is housed by the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin, followed by the museums in Leipzig and Dresden. Leontine Meijer-van Mensch, director of Saxony’s ethnographic collections, has also repeatedly insisted that these works should go back.

Unlike other art treasures of the colonial era, in the case of bronze, it is clear that they were forcibly stolen. In 1897, the British invaded the Kingdom of Benin and looted the palace. Bronzes came to London as trophies and were distributed or auctioned to British museums. German museums acquired about 1,100 bronze.

Africa’s struggle for its art

New owners in the German Empire knew they were buying stolen goods, says French art historian Benedicte Savoy. The professor, who teaches in Berlin and Paris and advises African successor states to French President Emmanuel Macron on questions of restoration, has just published a book entitled “Africa’s struggle for its art“. In it, she proves that the first withdrawal request from Nigeria, among others, is about 50 years old.

The museum’s curators feared the loss of the importance of their collections – as they do now – and claimed sole rights over works of art whose colonial origins they suppressed. For Benedict Savoy, it is an expression of “structural racism”, which continues to have influence even today. The latter in Africa argued that there was no lack of expertise and infrastructure to properly store artifacts.

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Talks with Nigeria

There are developments now in the case of Benin. Hermann Perzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which falls under the Berlin Ethnological Museum, discusses with Nigeria as part of the International Benin Dialogue Group and plans to build a museum in Benin City in 2024.

The idea of ​​showing only Bronze replicas in future Humboldt forums, according to Parzinger in a recent FAZ article, is absurd, and not in line with Nigeria’s wish. Permanent loans and temporary exhibitions are being negotiated with the participation of Nigerian partners. The full story must be told in a future presentation.

No time limit

On the other hand, Ambassador Yusuf M. Tugar asserted in his reply that in 2019 Nigeria once again asked the federal government to return all the stolen cultural goods. He sees the recent meeting of the head of the Department for Culture in the German Foreign Ministry, with Andreas Gorgen, Nigerian representatives, including museum institutions and the Governor of Edo State, whose territory lies the former Kingdom of Benin, as a German federal. Important step towards a bilateral solution with the Republic.

The deadline and the results of returning the bronze from Berlin to Benin for the Humboldt Forum have not yet been determined. In late March, the Humboldt Forum only announced that it was making a new plan for Benin Hall.

Politics is the last word

However, politics has a final say. Minister of State for Culture Monica Gruyter (CDU) wants to negotiate with all those involved in Germany for April and declare Germany as a “touchstone for dealing with collections from colonial contexts”.

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Nearly 50 years ago, argues art historian Savoy in “Africa’s Struggle for Art”, people played with time and it was not a future option. His appeal seems to be taking effect and the ball is rolling. (epd / me)

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