When Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth and their Nigerian counterparts sign a declaration of intent on the return of Benin bronzes on Friday, this will be considered a decisive step. At least that is to be hoped for, after only a few centimeters of progress in the past few months. Every clarifying conversation, every mutual visit between the negotiating partners was already celebrated as progress, without there being any visible progress.
But this time the path has finally been paved, assure those involved. As a symbolic act, two bronzes – a commemorative head and a relief plate – from the Berlin Ethnological Museum are to be handed over immediately after the signing at the Federal Foreign Office. They are received by Minister of Culture Lai Mohammed and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zubairo Dada, who are representing Nigeria.
The formalities have now reached the highest political level. So far, it has primarily been the people who negotiated museums who, as members of a public institution, are not allowed to make returns independently. The various museums have cleared this obstacle in recent months through decisions by their sponsors – be it the state, as in the case of the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, or the city state, as in Hamburg.
The Hamburg Museum am Rothenbaum made a start in December 2021 with a bang, which also showed a complete exhibition of its 179 Benin bronzes. A farewell exhibition, as Director Barbara Plankensteiner said at the time, who, together with Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, held the talks in Nigeria on behalf of the five German museums with the most Benin bronzes.
Shortly before the official act on Friday at the Foreign Office, the Prussian Foundation followed suit. The board of trustees also gave the go-ahead for returns at its meeting on Monday. Nevertheless, no concrete selection has been made in Berlin either. So much is already certain that Nigeria is making “high-quality loans” available to the Ethnological Museum.
This means that the previous preparations for the opening of the Humboldt Forum’s eastern section in the autumn, when the Benin bronzes will be on display, do not have to be revised. Demands had already made the rounds that no bronzes should be shown at all. That’s obviously not what Nigeria is about.
“We don’t want to create a vacuum here, so we will also leave some objects behind to be exhibited and researched on,” said Nigerian National Museums and Monuments Authority Director-General Abba Tijani on Wednesday during his visit to the Lindenmuseum in Stuttgart.
He praised Germany’s handling of the issue: “Nigeria was not colonized by Germany. And yet Germany is the first country to opt for this restitution.” London star architect David Adijaye is planning the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City to house the bronzes.