Daniel Buckwald / picture union through Getty Images
German authorities say they have reached an agreement with Nigeria to return some of the looted artifacts known as the Benin Bronze.
Thousands of plaques and sculptures were looted from the ancient Kingdom of Benin – now southern Nigeria, not the modern nation of Benin – by British troops in an attack in 1897 and were eventually acquired by museums largely in Europe and the United States.
For the past decade, a consortium known as the Dialogue Group in Benin has been working to repatriate these works and create a permanent exhibition in Benin City, in partnership with museums in Germany and other European countries. German authorities announced on Thursday that they would work with Nigeria on plans to return some of its bronze medals next year.
“Participants agree that tackling Germany’s colonial past is an important issue for society as a whole and a key task of cultural policy,” they wrote in a joint statement.
German officials are seeking to return the first of their bronze medals next year and will publish more specific plans and schedules by this summer. They said they “reaffirmed their principled readiness to make significant returns” to the artifacts, but left the door open to detain some of them.
“Discussions with Nigerian partners include not only the return and cooperation projects in Nigeria, but also whether and how the Benin Bronze, as part of the cultural heritage of mankind, can be shown in Germany in the future,” they said.
Numerous German museums are in possession of bronze bronzes, officials said. They invited those who are not part of the dialogue group in Benin to join their efforts.
There are many more of these historic sites scattered around the world than in their home country, according to author Dan Hicks. He told Art News that 45 institutions in the United Kingdom and 38 in the United States hold bronze medals, compared to only nine in Nigeria.
The Ethnological Museum in Berlin is home to one of the world’s largest collections of artifacts from the ancient kingdom, according to The Associated Press. Its inventory is expected to include about 530 items, including 440 bronze. And about 900 such artifacts are stored in the British Museum alone.
Activists are increasingly calling on cultural institutions to repatriate their Benin bronze bronzes – widely seen as a symbol of colonial conquest – to Nigeria, although few have actually done so.
The French state promised two years ago to repatriate 26 such artifacts by 2021, but as Art News reported this month, no one has yet left the country permanently.
And while the British government has said institutions should “retain and explain” conflicting artifacts, some regional museums in the UK appear to disagree, according to the Guardian.
The University of Scotland in Aberdeen announced last month that it would immediately return a bust it acquired in the 1950s, citing ethical concerns.
“Our committee concluded that this was acquired as booty and therefore we did not feel we had a moral title,” said Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections at the University of Aberdeen.
The next meeting of the dialogue group in Benin is scheduled for 27 May.