From Willingness to Restitution
The Returning of the Benin Bronzes

Restitution – Three Benin bronzes were exhibited in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg.
The Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg researched the provenance of three Benin bronzes and presented the results in an exhibition. 14.02.2018 | Photo (detail): Daniel Bockwoldt © picture alliance / dpa

The German government expressed its “willingness in principle to make substantial returns of Benin Bronzes”, but the road to restitution is not easy. Cultural historian, art and heritage specialist Dr. Oluwatoyin Zainab Sogbesan on issues of ownership and the importance of the Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian identity.

The German Minister of State for Culture and the Media, Monika Grütters, expressed in a statement on 29th April the “willingness in principle to make substantial returns of Benin Bronzes" and the "aim to make the first returns in the course of 2022”. How do you assess this decision? Do you trust in the realisation of the announcement?

The press release published 29th April regarding restitution of Benin Bronzes by the German government is timely and laudable. The decision ascertains the ingenuity of Benin and open acknowledgement of their worth. However, accomplishment of the statement is rather unconvincing. The restitution discourse is yet to become an inclusive topic in Nigerian institutions – privileged elites alone seem involved. 

The keywords in the statement are “willingness” and “substantial”. Two imprecise terms that denote improbability of realisation. It is high time Nigeria’s heritage and culture is understood from within, not from Western perspectives. However, a proper understanding of the Nigerian situation will enable the German government to commit honestly to the restitution plan.
Over the past years the Nigerian ambassador in Germany Yusuf Tuggar has called for the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. His demands remained unheard. The German government now wants to “reach a common understanding with the Nigerian side”. From your perspective, what could this common understanding look like?
The common workable form will be a loan structure where Nigeria has the ownership right, drafted with the understanding of the Edo people. Benin Bronzes’ multiple implications beyond their initial cultural and religious contexts must be brought to the fore. To this end, the willingness of the German government to “reach a common understanding with the Nigerian side” indicates an acknowledgement of ownership. Such ownership could attract some form of transfer of rights.
Western museums have made huge financial returns from exhibiting Benin Bronzes. Profits made from their acquisition are yet to benefit the Edo people. The time has come to reassess, rewrite and restitute. However, accurate documentation of the process is required. This will encourage forms of collaborative practices with transparency. It is only with inclusive participation and collaborative partnership that the Benin Bronzes can continue to tell a distinctive but global story.
Do you think the German decision to restitute the bronzes could be a an example for other countries returning Benin Bronzes or other stolen artefacts to Nigeria?
The German government are at the forefront of the restitution race. But an established working model is necessary before other countries can join in. Swiss museums are working to clarify the provenance of their Benin collections whilst the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are ready to return them. Though issues surrounding restitution can be very complicated, the main point is that Benin Bronzes were not sporadically collected but stolen.
Despite understanding that their forceful removal, legal acquisition through purchase could complicate repatriation. Hence, countries who chose to return objects acquired legally are only doing so from a moral standpoint. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced the return of bronzes. Nevertheless, their statement highlighted concerns about Nigeria’s contribution to the continuous trade of the Benin collection. It pointed out that:
“In 1950-1951, the British Museum transferred these two plaques (and 24 others) to the National Museum in Lagos. Although they were never deaccessioned by the National Museum, the two plaques entered the international art market at an unknown date and under unclear circumstances and were eventually acquired by a New Yorker collector.”
Which importance do the bronzes have for the museums landscape in Nigeria? In particular for the future Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA).
In the west, Benin Bronzes have always been displayed to showcase subordinate, disregarded, marginalised practices of representation. The essence is further lost through artistic mode of display. But within Nigerian museums’ landscapes, the bronzes will offer the Indigenous perspective the chance to lead museum presentation. By extension, inclusive intergenerational programmes that will facilitate better understanding of the bronzes will emerge. It is a chance for Nigerian museums to prove that there has always been “pure” and “precious” ancient art in Africa.
With respect to the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), the bronzes will not be the only focus. The proposed design considers culture and lifestyle of the people. Within the museum are spaces designed for various events ranging from a contemporary art space to an event hall. These different activities will most likely attract the public to the museum space. However, if care is not taken, the ambitious EMOWAA will become an elitist space. Thus, excluding the people museums seek to attract and educate. As such its representation and interpretations will be guided by cultural diversity, thus fostering collaborations with regional and international institutions.
Which influence will the restitution have on the Nigerian cultural scene?
The Nigerian cultural scene has suffered a great deal of decline in the past due to colonialism, resulting in commercialisation and introduction of new religions. Christianity and Islam elicited the rejection of traditional ways of worship viewed as idolatry. This caused further denunciation of traditional names and lifestyles that included celebration of festivals, thus relegating art pieces to ceremonial worship at the shrine. Nonetheless, artist specialising in ceremonial objects for the purpose of traditional worship are relentless in their creation.
The restitution however influences self-realisation of inherent identity. Identity though is not static but evolves with the changing of time and context, though it is distinctive. Such identity will be reinforced through histories and shared memories of the past. From a museum perspective, the collections in their storage relating to Benin will be utilised to reaffirm individual and communal identity. Restitution is about taking back control and reiterate the Benin story from an Edo perspective.
Do you have the impression that Europeans museums currently experience a reckoning of their colonial past?
It is possible that European museums are currently experiencing a reckoning of their colonial past. However, it is the step they take towards acknowledging their part in the devaluation of another culture and how they intend to re-address the situation that really matters. For instance, they do not only possess physical artefacts belonging to other cultures but also the copyright of the digital photographs. For them it is a win-win situation.
Though Edo people are not able to travel to see their cultural artefacts, the photographs they see are not owned by them. All rights belong to institutions in the global North like the British Museum. So until steps are taken to relinquish these artefacts (physical and digital rights), all that is being done is superficial. Proceeds from exhibitions of the Benin Bronzes also needs to be discussed as part of the restitution deal.
Do you think that the restitution of cultural heritage from colonial contexts opens new possibilities for cultural exchange between Germany, other European countries and the countries of origin?
Cultural heritage from colonial contexts opens new possibilities for cultural exchange between Germany, other European countries and the countries of origin. This is because over time these artefacts have gained additional identity and interpretation as their ownership and context changes. Their story is incomplete without acknowledging their time in Western institution. Whilst in the care of colonial institutions, they were cared for and preserved, hence we can still identify with them.
The possibilities are endless as it starts to open doors for inclusive collaborations where all cultures are respected and valued: Partnerships should follow at different levels to facilitate genuine professional development and capacity building. Indigenous voices will be heard and respected as custodians whilst curators become facilitators.

This interview was conducted in written form. The questions were asked by Stephanie Müller, online editor at the “Zeitgeister” magazine.