According to authorities, Germany plans to return to Nigeria the artifacts known as the Benin bronzes that are preserved in its museums in Nigeria from next year.
A colonial expedition of British soldiers seized thousands of castings and metal sculptures in 1897 during a raid on the British-ruled Kingdom of Benin, then separated from Nigeria.
The “bronzes,” actually embossed copper alloy sculptures, many depicting court figures, were auctioned off and spread among institutions from New Zealand to Germany and the United States, with the collection largest in London.
In recent years, calls have increased to return what was stolen, fueled in part by a decolonization movement that sweeps across Europe.
“We face our historical and moral responsibility,” German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters said in a joint statement issued with the German Foreign Ministry and museums on Thursday afternoon.
“We want to contribute to a common understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of people whose cultural treasures were stolen during the times of colonialism,” Gruetters added, noting that the first returns are scheduled for coming.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas welcomed an agreement reached with museums and Nigerian authorities to work on a plan to return a “substantial” number of artifacts, calling it of “turning point to deal with our colonial history”.
One historian welcomed the plans, but said they did not go far enough.
“Unfortunately, there is no precise time plan or unconditional commitment to restoring all the looted artifacts,” said Juergen Zimmerer, a professor of global history at Hamburg University.
He also noted that it was not yet clear how many objects would be returned or whether the effort of civil society groups that had called for restitution would be recognized.
The Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin has more than 500 historical artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin in its collections, most of them bronze.
Last month, the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, became one of the first public institutions to agree to the unconditional return of a looted bronze.
The British Museum, which contains hundreds of sculptures, has formed a dialogue group in Benin alongside several museums to discuss its display in the city of Benin, some officially on loan.
In the state of Edo in Nigeria, of which Benin is the capital, plans are underway to build a center to store and study the returned artifacts in late 2021 and a permanent museum in 2025.
The National Museum of Ireland is also working to return stolen artifacts. The Church of England, which did not take part in the looting but received two bronze busts in 1982, has also indicated it would repatriate them.
Although taken with a pinch of salt, these ads are welcome in Nigeria, according to artist and historian Peju Layiwola.
For years, he has used his works of art to publicize the bronzes, believing them to be irrefutable evidence of Benin City’s precolonial sophistication.
“It can be seen by looking at metal working that it was a highly developed civilization, as it still is,” Layiwola, a descendant of Benin’s royal family, told Al Jazeera earlier this month.
“Artists were not only skilled in their metal sculpting, but also in their understanding of aesthetics, in their ability to permeate cultural meanings; meanings that are still relevant today ”.
Despite its deep cultural resonance, few Nigerians today have seen a bronze looted in person, the vast majority stored abroad.
This, Layiwola said, deprives them of the agency for its own history, making it difficult for them to reach an agreement with an ugly colonial past.
“We were told that our culture was vulgar, that our religion was fetish, that we were pagans. Therefore, we must have some kind of reorientation, a new way of seeing African culture as a total culture, not defined by others, ”added Layiwola.
“Bronze recovery is key to that.”