A Send-Off Exhibition of 179 Looted Objects in Hamburg Marks ‘the Beginning of the Return’ of Germany’s Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

The objects are being shown together for the first time in a century.

Benin Head of a King. Courtesy MARKK Hamburg.

Hamburg is expected to become the first German city to officially return its Benin bronzes.

The Museum am Rothenbaum (MARKK), Hamburg’s ethnological museum, is giving the objects a send-off with the exhibition “Benin: Looted History,” which opened on December 16. The show presents the 179 looted works in the museum’s collection, including not only bronzes but also ivory and jewelry.

Confronting Germany’s colonial legacy, curators are presenting the collection in its entirety for the first time in a century. The works are shown alongside contemporary objects and testimonials from Nigerians celebrating the significance of their return.

“I want us to say goodbye to these works by once again honoring their quality and significance for a global history of art,” said MARKK director Barbara Plankensteiner, “while at the same time doing justice to their provenance as looted colonial property.”

Benin Head of a Leopard. Courtesy MARKK.

Benin Head of a Leopard. Courtesy MARKK.

German culture minister Monika Grütters announced in April that all Benin bronzes in public German collections would be returned to Nigeria beginning in 2022. The MARKK’s exhibition is expected to run until the precise date of the restitution is coordinated.

“With this exhibition, we are making a clear promise that all Benin objects in Hamburg will be restituted,” said Hamburg’s senator for culture Carsten Brosda (SPD) said at the exhibition’s opening, according to Monopol.

Benin Head of a Chief. Courtesy MARKK

Benin Head of a Chief. Courtesy MARKK

The Benin bronzes were looted by British soldiers in a punitive expedition in 1897 in which the Benin Royal Palace was ransacked and burned. But it was dealers and shippers in Hamburg who distributed the artifacts across the west, which helps explain why Germany is home to so many of them. (According to the Art Newspaper, around 1,100 Benin bronzes are likely to be returned to German museums in the second quarter of next year.)

The Edo Museum of West African Art is currently being built across the street from the former site of the palace in Benin City to house the restituted objects. The Quai Branly Museum in Paris recently held a ceremony to mark the return of 26 looted objects from its collection (like the MARKK, it held a goodbye exhibition of its own first).

“This is the beginning of the return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria,” Abba Isa Tijani, director of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, told Monopol. “The significance cannot be overstated.”

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