When we go into a museum of art or history we are presented with thousands of precious objects: the best of what humanity has made in terms cultural value. Everything from the paintings of the Old Masters to the objects ancient peoples used for rituals can be found behind velvet ropes and under glass cubes. But, most of us don’t often ponder where these incredible artifacts came from. Sadly, many of the most prized possessions in Europe were obtained through looting that took place between the 16th and 20th centuries. In an unprecedented move the powers that be in Germany have decided to return thousands of ill-gotten artifacts to Nigeria, something that many advocates of African art have been requesting for decades.

Benin Bronze on display in Munich
Benin Bronze of a warrior which was on display at the Five Continents Museum in Munich. Via: Daderot/ Wiki Commons

The collection of objects are known together as the Benin Bronzes and feature sculptures and detailed cast bronze plagues. These ornaments once adorned the royal palace in what was once part of Benin (now that area is in Nigeria). The kingdom is a significant part of the Edo people’s heritage and was a touchstone for African culture for centuries. Advance metallurgy using welding and the lost wax technique, artworks of all kinds, systems of trade, and even a female branch of the army were just a few of the accomplishments of this pre-colonial society.

In 1897 an expedition of British explorers and their large crew of guides and porters were headed to the Benin royal palace. They were ambushed by warriors acting under the orders of local chiefs who didn’t want foreigners to interfere with the sacred rites that were taking place in the city during that time.

Only 2 people survived the attack which killed 200 Africans and 6 Europeans. Shortly thereafter British forces stormed the city in a punitive action. The retaliation was seen as justified since the original expedition was not a military one.

Benin ancestral shrine in situ
A photograph of an ancestral shrine in situ at the palace, 1891. Via: Cyril Punch/ Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

During the attack by the English forces untold numbers of locals were killed and the bronze plaques and the many ivory statues from the palace and royal residences were plundered. These works of art had been amassed over centuries. The palace was burned down after being looted and the oba (the king) was exiled.

The monarchy wasn’t restored until 1914, at which point it took second fiddle to colonial rules and regulations. Some of the artworks were recreated at that time for use in Benin City, but the loss of the original artifacts has been a wound that just won’t heal for the past century. Estimates vary on who took what when, but overall is it believed that 2,000-3,000 of these sacred objects -including busts of kings and queens and altar relics used in ancestor worship- were forcefully taken after the massacre.

bronze queen bust from the Benin Bronzes in Germany
Via: Bin im Garten / Wiki Commons

A rising interest in African art spurned by increased European colonization of the African continent meant that once these objects reached Britain they were sought after. Not only did many objects remain in England (where they are today still), US and German interest resulted in many of these relics being scattered across the world, including to Smithsonian museums and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Calls for the objects to be returned over the years have gone unheeded until now.

In a landmark move the German government has promised to return the Benin Bronzes in their possession to the government of Nigeria. The items are expected to be in Nigeria as early as 2022. The bronzes have been displayed in museums all over Germany including Munich, Leipzig, Hamburg, Cologne, and Stuttgart. The display of these pieces has brought huge financial gain to the museums where they were shown for the past 100 years, increasing tourism and clout in the art world.

leopard Benin Bronze on display in Berlin
Via: Daderot/ Wiki Commons

The Minister of Culture in Germany, Monika Grütters, issued this statement on the issue, “We face a historic and moral responsibility to shine a light on Germany’s colonial past…We would like to contribute to an understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of the people who were robbed of their cultural treasures during the colonial era.”

There are just over 1,000 objects from Benin in Germany’s hold at the moment. So far, Germany is the only country to make this historic move to restore the cultural artifacts taken from the royal palace back in the 1890s. However, singular institutions have already begun the process of returning some of their artifacts. The University of Aberdeen in Scotland has already promised to return a bust of a Benin queen to Nigeria and the Horniman Museum in south London has created guidelines for returning some of their Benin Bronzes as well.

You can see more about the move to return the Benin Bronzes and the 1897 massacre in the video below (graphic content warning).