After years of pressure, Germany recently announced that an agreement had been reached to return hundreds of priceless artefacts and artworks that had been looted from Nigeria in colonial times and were on display in German museums. Commonly called the Benin Bronzes, these beautiful and technically remarkable artworks have come to symbolise the broader restitution debate. Why has it taken so long, will other countries follow Germany and what happens next? We asked a leading expert on colonial German history and a prominent voice in the debate around the artefacts, Dr Jürgen Zimmerer, to tell us.
The Benin Bronzes – or rather Benin objects, because not all of them are made of metal; some are ivory or wood – are objects originating from the Kingdom of Benin, in today’s Nigeria. When the British Empire invaded the kingdom in 1897, thousands of the objects were looted, partially to pay for the costs of the military expedition.
They were later auctioned off in London and elsewhere and soon became central pieces in the collection of many museums in the Global North. Due to their artistic brilliance, they changed the way Europeans saw African art, as they could no longer pretend that there was no art in Africa but only craftsmanship, as the old racist colonial stereotype had it. Nevertheless the Europeans, and later the US, had no problem keeping the loot.
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