Germany will begin returning a “substantial” number of the priceless artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes from its museums to Nigeria next year, its culture ministry said on Thursday night.
The artifacts, which the British army looted in an 1897 raid on Benin City in what is now Nigeria, are scattered through museums and private collections around the world. Germany’s announcement, the first by a national government with a timetable attached, comes as momentum is growing on both sides of the Atlantic to return the stolen objects.
An online meeting of government officials, regional legislators and museum administrators reached an agreement that German institutions — which own hundreds of the bronzes — would step up talks with Nigerian partners and strive to make the first returns next year.
“We are facing the historical and moral responsibility to bring Germany’s colonial past to light and to come to terms with it,” Monika Grütters, Germany’s culture minister, said in a news release. “Dealing with the Benin Bronzes is a touchstone,” she added.
the architect David Adjaye is designing on behalf of the Legacy Restoration Trust — a group that represents Nigeria’s government, regional authorities and the royal court of Benin.
The trust hopes to open the museum in 2025, although the timeline has already been pushed back several times.
Victor Ehikhamenor, a trustee, welcomed the German announcement. “If this works, it will create a blueprint for others,” he said in a telephone interview.
Germany will publish an inventory of all the Benin Bronzes in its museums by June 15, according to a declaration signed at Thursday’s meeting. Details of those items’ provenance, including if they were looted, will be made available by the end of the year. The declaration stresses, however, that Germany hopes some bronzes will remain in the country.
Ehikhamenor said he had no problem with items being on display in Germany, as long as their legal ownership was transferred to the museum in Benin City. “We want to have a global conversation, but it has to be an equitable one,” Ehikhamenor said. “We can no longer be in a colonial hierarchy anymore.”
published a policy document that said it would consider the “possible return” of any item in its collection that was taken by force or theft. Days later, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland said it would return a sculpture of an oba, or ruler, of the Kingdom of Benin, which was stolen in the 1897 raid.
Yet some of the country’s largest museums — such as the British Museum, which owns more than 900 of the items, including arguably some of the finest — are regulated by Parliament and cannot permanently return items from their collections without a change in the law. Britain’s culture ministry did not reply to a request for comment on Friday.
The British Museum is a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, a network of European Museums which has been meeting with Nigerian representatives for more than a decade to discuss what to do about the bronzes. The group is also helping to develop the Edo Museum of West African Art, and to finance and staff archaeological work on the museum site, scheduled to start this fall.
Ehikhamenor likened the British Museum’s involvement in restitution talks to a McDonald’s worker who refuses to make burgers. “Their presence there has not led to the kind of conversations we are hearing from other museums in Europe,” he said. But he added that he hoped Germany’s announcement would change things. “If Germany is finding ways to have this conversation with us, I think the British should begin to find a way,” he said.