Last month, the head of the Foreign Ministry's cultural department Andreas Görgen travelled to Nigeria to meet with Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki, starting negotiations which will lead to the full restitution of Germany’s artefacts that were looted from Benin City in 1897.
The agreement, to be finalised this summer, envisions a partnership going beyond simply the return of artefacts, to collaboration for the construction of a new museum in Nigeria to house the artworks and the provision of training for its museum employees. There remains much to be done, but these tangible commitments represent a major turning point in European attitudes towards restitution of artefacts ravaged during the colonial era.
Obaseki said of his work with the German Foreign Ministry: “We believe that our collaboration should transcend to not only returning the works but also understanding the significance and meaning of those works from our history." On this basis, an upcoming exhibition showing Benin artefacts at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin will interweave the history of the objects into the narrative. It will focus both on the history of the Benin Kingdom and the brutal plunder by British troops, interspersed with perspectives from consultations and interviews with Nigerian partners.
The artefacts were ransacked from the Royal Palace and sacred sites in Benin City, following a British expedition in 1897 during which an unknown, but very high number of Benin people were massacred. The Admiralty gave around 40% of the loot to the British Museum, distributed a number of artefacts amongst members of the armed forces and sold the remainder at auction, where the majority were purchased by German museums.
Inevitably, this will increase the pressure on museums around Europe whose restitution efforts are either non-existent or lack the requisite momentum. All eyes are on the British Museum in particular, which today holds 900 Benin artefacts, a collection which has grown following multiple acquisitions of private collections over the last century.