Berlin museum head: Benin Bronzes return paves way for future policy

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Credit line: dpa picture alliance / Alamy / Alamy / Profimedia

Germany’s decision to return its collection of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria could provide a template for dealing with other cultural restitution claims, the head of the foundation that controls Berlin’s state museums said on Sunday.

“Where there is a clear context of illegality, the procedure used with the Benin Bronzes in transferring ownership rights is an important and correct step,” Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, told dpa in Berlin.

He pointed to an arrangement with the Nigerian authorities that will allow a large part of the collection to remain in Berlin on loan as an ideal solution, “as this outstanding art needs to continue to be on view around the world.”

On Tuesday, Germany returned 20 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria in a ceremony in Abuja. The artefacts had been held in museums in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Stuttgart and Dresden/Leipzig.

Around 20 German museums held a collection of more than 1,100 artefacts looted from the palace of the Kingdom of Benin, part of modern-day Nigeria, during a punitive expedition conducted by British troops in 1897.

“By international comparison, Germany has achieved a lot,” Parzinger said. “Not only in Berlin, but also in Hamburg, Cologne, Stuttgart and Leipzig, a great deal has been achieved.”

The 514 Benin artefacts held by the Berlin foundation were by far the largest return in the context of colonization, he said. Parzinger added that there was now clarity on the items that would remain in Germany on long-term loan and what would be sent back to Nigeria in stages.

“This has laid down a marker that will be taken note of internationally,” he said.

The foundation planned as well to return items that had not been looted. “We have returned artefacts to Namibia that were not associated with illegality, but that fill a historical gap there,” Parzinger said.

“The Ngonnso figure will be returned to Cameroon, because this deity is of great significance to the identity of the society that it came from,” he said.

Returns had also been made to Tanzania of items taken in the 1905-07 Maji Maji Rebellion against German colonial rule. “They are of enormous significance to people’s commemorative culture,” he said.

Parzinger added that German and European museums were well aware that returns were just one aspect, and that cooperation in the field of cultural heritage opened up opportunities to develop a new relationship with the global south. 

“That’s were I see the actual potential,” he said. (dpa)

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