Germany puts African art on a final display before returning it
"The move to return some of the renowned pieces of African art is the latest in a series of attempts by Germany to try to take responsibility for its crimes in the colonial era".
This past weekend at the Humboldt Museum, some of the artefacts originally from Benin Kingdom of Nigeria will be exhibited for a final time, before being returned to their rightful owner. Germany have been trying to take steps towards righting the wrongs of their colonial past; in May 2021, it officially recognised the genocide they committed in Namibia between 1904-1908, with the Herero and Nama people. As a peace-offering, they have pledged more than 1bn euros ($1.2bn) in financial support for infrastructure projects there.
The exhibition took place this past weekend, among some of the pieces shown, a pair of thrones and a commemorative bust of the monarch that was used to decorate the walls of the royal palace in Benin City. Two rooms in the museum were dedicated to the exhibition and its history. According to the German side, the event was realised “in close cooperation with partners in Nigeria”.
The removal of the precious objects is explained in the Humboldt gallery, and there were educational workshops planned around the display, to teach spectators about it's history. The president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger claims that the return of the items to Nigeria will "continue to define their work in the future" - as they push to recognise the colonial injustices. It's a similar decision to that of Belgium and The Netherlands, whom have incorporated a museums policy that has a lucid view of the colonial past, French Historian Pascal Blanchard told the AFP News Agency; referencing The Africa museum in Tervuren, near Brussels in Belgium. The museum reopened at the end of 2018 and claims to take a “critical look” at the colonial past, and the history of the objects collected by Belgian King Leopold II, who kept Congo as his own prize possession in the 19th century. Likewise, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam takes a look at the Netherlands’ colonial past.
Unlike some countries, such as France and Britain - Germany lost its empire in after its defeat in World War I. There isn't such a large community of people repatriated from Africa. Blanchard went on to say"it does not play politically, which makes it easier to come to terms with the past”. Nonetheless, Germany has been criticised recently over the origin of many of the objects in its museums, following a greater public reckoning with racism.Tensions grew stronger when the first section of the New Humboldt Museum in 2020. It's in the same location as an old Prussian Palace, in fact, the former residence of the Hohenzollern dynasty, who oversaw Germany’s colonial adventures. This was where the exhibition was set to be held. It does not come without some questioning though; Berlin's museum director, Lars-Christian Koch stated that a portion of the objects will soon be returned, another third of the objects will be kept as a "loan", and the rest will be used for "studying by researchers".
Germany is not the only country to begin returning stolen artefacts. In November 2021, France returned 26 artefacts from the royal treasures of Abomey to the country of Benin, neighbouring Nigeria. Pressure is also mounting on the British Museum, which holds around 700 bronzes; 530 items that were taken from the Kingdom of Benin, including some 440 bronzes, considered to be the largest collection behind the British Museum in London. The requests for repatriation of the objects from them was a long time coming in the opinion of historian Benedicte Savoy, who told AFP News that the “requests for return go back to independence in the 1960s...they have been silenced, refused, forgotten for years". Nigeria plans to build a museum in Benin City, to bring together the works once they are returned.
It's positive to see the move towards returning cultural artefacts to their rightful owners, but still the need to put terms on this is something that is yet to be understood. What entitlement does any Western country have to keep any artefacts behind for research purposes? They've had decades to carry out research... clearly there is always a catch. Nonetheless it is progress.
More to follow on this story.
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