Major museums in Europe have agreed to loan major artifacts to Nigeria for a new museum the country plans to open in 2021. The Royal Museum of the African Nation will house a rotating exhibit of artifacts, including bronzes from the Benin which were looted during the expedition to Benin in 1897. The agreement marks an important milestone after years of negotiations between European institutions and Nigerian authorities.
The announcement came at a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group – which includes Nigerian representatives and European museum officials – in the Netherlands earlier this month. Together, museum leaders from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Great Britain have agreed to facilitate an exhibition at the institution scheduled within three years. Further details, including which items will be loaned over which period of time, have yet to be confirmed.
“I am pleased that we are making progress in our efforts to give our people the opportunity to re-access our heritage which has been plundered,” Prince Gregory Akenzua (Enogie of Evbobanosa) said in a statement.
The objects in question were looted by the British army during a so-called “punitive expedition” in 1897. The army took around 4,000 intricate sculptures, including bronze works now known as bronzes. of Benin, from the king’s palace in the former kingdom of Benin.
A century later, the vast majority of these bronzes ended up in some of the most important museums in the world, including the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In June, Godwin Obaseki, the governor of Edo state in southern Nigeria, where the city of Benin is located, announced that he was in talks with European museums over the possibility of a loan.
Some critics say the current proposal doesn’t go far enough, however. “The return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria is certainly a step in the right direction as it recognizes that European ownership is problematic,” Jürgen Zimmerer, professor of world history at the University of Hamburg told artnet News. “This should not, however, replace a discussion of ownership and restitution.”
Christian Kopp of the Berlin Postkolonial organization takes this idea even further. He calls the proposal the result of a “shameful power policy”, arguing that “it is we Europeans who should ask for loans, after having legally returned all looted African treasures to their rightful owners”.
In a statement, the Benin Dialogue Group – which has met periodically since 2007 to discuss the issue – said the loans are not the end point of negotiations. The group points out that Nigeria has not waived any claim to outright ownership of the objects. The group will meet again in 2019 in Benin City, Nigeria, before meeting in 2020 at the British Museum in London.
Among the museums likely to be most affected by these negotiations is the upcoming Humboldt Forum in Berlin, which should open next year. The collection includes some 580 bronzes from Benin. “I am happy that after years of effort a way has been found for all participants,” said Hermann Parzinger, chairman of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the Humbolt Forum, in a statement. “It shows how important it is to talk together, to be open, to connect and to think in a solution-oriented way.”
Many museum experts will follow the discussions closely conversations about the restitution of objects from the colonial era reached its climax all over the world. “It could be a model for other trans- and international cooperation,” Larissa Föster of the Center for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage at the Humboldt Forum told artnet News. Föster is also a member of a working group which drafted a 136-page document for the German Museum Association this spring which seeks to reconsider the country’s restitution policies. The group will meet again this fall to review the document.
French President Emmanuel Macron, for his part, declared that “in the next five years, I hope that the conditions will be met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa”.
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