How to deal with the Benin bronzes? This project shows the way

After the opening of the collections of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in the western wing of the Humboldt Forum, the second part of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art in the east wing are now looking forward with even more anticipation. The legendary Benin bronzes will also be presented there from the middle of next year. They had sparked heated debates over the past few years.

How do you show art that clearly comes from a predatory context? British troops looted the palace of the Kingdom of Benin (now Edo State, Nigeria) in February 1897 and brought between 3,000 and 5,000 works of art made of bronze, ivory and wood outside the country, which are now known as Benin bronzes. Are they still allowed to be exhibited in German museums, as art historian Bénédicte Savoy, who teaches at the Berlin Technical University, asks provocatively?

While the countdown is on for the curators at the Humboldt Forum, the “Digital Benin” research project is also entering its home straight in 2022. For two years, 18 experts from Germany and Nigeria, Europe and the USA worked on digitally collating the Benin bronzes scattered around the world and making them accessible on a website.

The project, financed with 1.2 million euros by the Ernst von Siemens Foundation, is a milestone in the further handling of the bronzes, and an important contribution to objectifying the discussion about their restitution. The online platform will be anchored at the future Palace Museum in Benin City, where some pieces from European and US museums are likely to return – even if only on loan.

As part of the event series “Colloquium Provenance Research” of the German Center for Cultural Property Losses, the IT specialist and director of the Institute for Digital Heritage, Anne Luther, and the senior researcher in Nigeria, Godfrey Akhator-Obogie, presented the interim results of “Digital Benin”. At the end of the day, over 2000 objects from around 120 museums will be listed, a Sisyphean task, as each museum works with its own registration system. Anne Luther, however, gave a vivid demonstration of how a separate digital vocabulary was developed for the website in order to keep the various information compatible.

The next year should be exciting

Even more interesting, however, was what Godfrey Akhator-Obogie brought to the colloquium. He is not only driving forward the digitization of objects from the National Museum in Lagos that have so far only been recorded on cardboard, but is also active as a field researcher in Nigeria. For example, he presented video clips that showed how certain objects are still used in rituals, which shapes and symbols have been handed down to the wood carvers to this day. Larissa Förster, who heads the Department of Cultural and Collection Goods from Colonial Contexts at the Center for the Loss of Cultural Property and who invited them to the colloquium, was definitely “thrilled”. This, too, is one of the long-term tasks of “Digital Benin”: to keep the cultural heritage alive. The “development of existing knowledge resources”, as it is called on the website of the Hamburg Museum am Rothenbaum (MARKK), where the research project is located, is an important building block for this.

Obviously, more is happening behind the scenes of the museum than is visible to the public in the exhibition area – especially after the disappointing first appearance of the Berlin Ethnological Museum. It sounds encouraging why MARKK director Barbara Plankensteiner sees her house as the ideal location for the start of “Digital Benin”: The port of Hamburg was an interface for the transfer of numerous Benin plants. Hamburg commercial agents and German emissaries had played a key role in this. The scientific interest of Hamburg museum people, in turn, fueled the obsession with collecting in Germany. Complicity is seldom formulated so clearly.

In April, the Minister of State for Culture and the German member museums of the international “Benin Dialogue Group” announced the return of Benin bronzes for 2022. Finally! The next year should be exciting – for Benin and German museums.

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