The so-called ‘Benin Bronzes’ have received widespread interest in the recent debates about looted objects from colonial contexts in European museums. The term refers to several thousands of cultural objects dating from the 15th to the 19th century, which were looted by the British Army during their conquest of the Benin kingdom in today’s Nigeria in 1897. The importance of these objects within the debates around restitution stems from their undeniably violent looting that marks the beginning of their dislocation to Europe on the one hand. On the other hand, decades of claims for restitution testify to their cultural and historical significance in Nigeria. After these claims had remained unsuccessful for a long time, the debates have been gaining momentum in the past decade. Finally, in 2020 the Federal Republic of Germany decided to restitute the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria and now the restitution – at least of those Bronzes held by German museums – is imminent: In July representatives of the German and Nigerian government signed an agreement to this effect and in December Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock and minister for culture Claudia Roth traveled to Nigeria, returning the first twenty Bronzes to their society of origin.
All this provides for the timeliness of the conference The Benin Bronzes. Globalising the Colonial Looting of Art held on the 25th and 26th of October at the University of Hamburg. It brought together international experts to discuss current research on the Benin Bronzes and marked the successful conclusion of a multi-year cooperative research project of the same name. This project was headed by Prof. Dr. Jürgen Zimmerer (University of Hamburg/Research center for Hamburg’s (post)colonial legacy) who was joined by Prof. Dr. Benson Osarhieme Osadolor as project partner. He is a professor of history and international studies at the University of Benin and an expert on the military system of the Benin kingdom as well as British imperial history.
The project included three PhD-researchers from Nigeria and Germany who explored different aspects of the Benin objects’ history: Dr. Idahosa Osagie Ojo (Benson Idahosa University, Benin City/Nigerian Defence Academy Kaduna) researched their violent appropriation and dislocation by the British Army, while Jonas Ehrsam (UHH) investigated their distribution and sale on the European markets. Finally, Isabel Eiser (UHH) focused on their shifting symbolic and discursive meanings. Despite the restrictions imposed on international travel by the Covid-19-pandemic, all three scholarship holders were able to travel to Germany and Nigeria respectively for archival research, interviews and project workshops. This fruitful cooperation now culminated in the international concluding conference, which brought together important voices from the debate on the Benin objects, notably from Germany and Nigeria, and facilitated an exchange of their current research as well as their stances on the restitution question.
The conference included three panels in which the focus points of the three scholarship holders were represented. For each topic external researchers were invited in order to place the project’s results in a broader context. In the first panel Colonial Looting – Soldiers and Traders in the Contact Zones hosted by Paul Dahl (UHH), Dr. Isahosa Osagie Ojo presented his PhD thesis on The Colonial Looting and Internationalisation of the Benin Bronzes. His findings were complemented by Dr. Julia Binter’s (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz Berlin) presentation of her research on Trade, Imperial Contact and Relating to the Past in the Niger Delta. In the second panel Traders and Markets – Moving Colonial Loot hosted by Dr. Julian zur Lage (UHH), Talip Törün (Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin) presented rich source material concerning the German Maritime Markets for non-European Artefacts, while Jonas Ehrsam unfortunately had to cancel his participation. Lastly, Dr. Diana Natermann (UHH) hosted the third panel titled Shifting the Paradigm – Layers of Identity in Looted Objects, in which Isabel Eiser’s presentation of her research on Becoming an Emblem. From Colonial Propaganda to Decolonial Movement. A Discourse Analysis on the ‘Benin Bronzes’ was complemented by Dr. Sani Yakubu Adam’s (Bayero University Kano) introduction on his findings on Colonial Loot and Competing Narratives of African Art.
These discussions on current research on the Benin objects were framed by a keynote speech and a concluding round-table debate which aimed at contextualising the project’s results in broader academic and political discussions.
The renowned retired UN lawyer and expert on the restitution debate, Dr. Kwame Opoku, held the keynote speech on The Benin Bronzes, Restitution and Decolonization. The Debate on Colonial Loot and Reparations. He was introduced and the ensuing discussion hosted by Kim Sebastian Todzi (UHH). In his enlightening remarks Dr. Opoku put the current debates in the context of a long history of restitution claims, which started in 1935, when the Oba of Benin unsuccessfully requested the United Kingdom to return two looted thrones, which were then located in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin. Dr. Opoku traced the history of the Benin Bronzes’ restitution, from this inauspicious starting point to the present, highlighting both the progress which was made in the past years and the blind spots of the current discussions. He called for a cautious view on Germany’s restitution plans: Not only should the return of all Benin objects from Germany – also from those institutions which were not included in the agreement – be ensured, but also a narrowing of the perspective on only the Benin objects be prevented. He highlighted, that “there are literally thousands of African artefacts which are in Europe, a lot in Germany” and named the Ashanti gold and the bust of Nefertiti among others. He interpreted the unwillingness of European museums and states to restitute African artefacts as a sign of a more general refusal “to accept the end of colonial and imperialistic ideology”. With this he opened up the question of how debates on restitution relate to the issue of how Germany and Europe deal with their colonial legacy in general.
Dr. Kwame Opoku’s Digital Keynote:
The concluding discussion of the conference titled Loot and Restitution: Where do we go from here? brought together the project partner Prof. Dr. Benson Osarhieme Osadolor with three more experts from Nigeria and Germany in a round-table discussion: Prof. Dr. Kokunre Agbontaen Eghafona is a professor at the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Benin. She specializes in cultural resource management and museum studies and researches curatorial, conservation and exhibition practices of the Benin people during the pre-colonial era. The third Nigerian expert on the panel was Prof. Dr. Ojong Echum Tangban, who is a distinguished professor at the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna. His fields of expertise are amongst others the socio-economic and military history of Nigeria. Prof. Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner, the director of Hamburg’s ethnological museum, the Museum am Rothenbaum – World Cultures and Arts (MARKK) completed the panel. She curated two exhibitions on Benin and Nigeria, is co-founder of the Benin Dialogue Group and was tasked with coordinating the restitution of the Benin Bronzes from German museums. The debate was hosted by Dr. Diana Natermann, who is a Post-doc researcher at the project World Order Narratives of the Global South (WONAGO), specialising amongst others in memory studies and (post-)colonial theory with a focus on discourses and policies of restitution.
The panelists covered varied aspects of the restitution process – including the complexities of the negotiation around the restitution of the Benin Bronzes, their historical, cultural, political and spiritual meanings for different actors, communities and generations and the question of how the objects should be ‘resocialised’ in Benin City and Nigeria.
Video of the concluding discussion:
“Benin is a catalyst in the restitution question”, summarized Prof. Dr. Kokunre Agbontaen Eghafona in an interview for L.I.S.A., the platform of the Gerda Henkel Stiftung, which funded the project. The video that contains her interview and other impressions of the conference is the conclusion of the seven-part video series documenting the project on the L.I.S.A. website of the Gerda Henkel Stiftung (available in both English and German). It begins with its kick-off-event and follows the three historians to the archives, their interview partners and project workshops, thus documenting their research process and cooperation. It ends with the concluding conference, which Prof. Dr. Eghafona sees as offering a way forward for the restitution debate in general.
And indeed, the public debates on the restitution of the Benin objects have been informed by academic research conducted in this and other research projects. In 2018, when the project started, the fact that the vast majority of the Benin objects were violently looted was not yet commonly accepted. In the past four years the debates around the Benin Bronzes moved from the question of whether these objects are loot to questions of how they were taken, moved and used and how they should thus be returned. These debates culminated in the decision to restitute them to their society of origin, which may become a precedent for numerous other object groups from colonial contexts that are to date in the possession of European museums.