Germany to return Benin Bronzes looted during colonial era

Authorities have said on Friday that Germany is returning hundreds of objects known as the Benin Bronzes, which were mainly stolen from West Africa by a British colonial expedition and then sold to collections all over the world, including German museums. 

Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, praised an agreement reached with Nigerian museums and authorities to collaborate on a compensation plan for a large number of objects, calling it a “watershed moment in dealing with our colonial past.” 

Monika Gruetters, Germany’s culture minister, said the Benin Bronzes were a litmus test for the country’s approach to its colonial history. 

She said, “We are facing our historic and moral obligation.” 

The aim, according to Gruetters, is to help the descendants of those whose cultural treasures were stolen during colonial times gain “understanding and reconciliation.” She mentioned that the first returns would be made next year.

The proposals are welcomed by historians, but they do not go far enough, according to one. 

“Unfortunately, there is neither a specific timetable nor an absolute promise to return all looted artifacts,” said Juergen Zimmerer, a global history professor at the University of Hamburg. 

He also stated that it’s unclear how many items will be returned or whether civil society groups’ attempts to secure the restitution will be acknowledged. 

In 1897, a British colonial expedition looted large quantities of treasures from the Kingdom of Benin’s royal palace, including various bas-reliefs and sculptures. 

Although hundreds of pieces ended up in the British Museum, others were sold to museums around the world, including the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, which houses one of the world’s largest collections of historical objects from the Kingdom of Benin, with an estimated 530 items, including 440 bronzes. 

Sections of the British Museum’s collection will not be returned at this time.

“The devastation and plunder wreaked upon Benin City during the British military expedition in 1897 is fully acknowledged,” the British Museum said in a statement, adding that the circumstances around the acquisition of Benin objects is explained in gallery panels and on its website.

“We believe the strength of the British Museum collection resides in its breadth and depth, allowing millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time – whether through trade, migration, conquest or peaceful exchange,” it said.

Educator, writer and legal researcher at Alafarika for Studies and Consultancy.

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