The throne stool, so the art historians see it, represents the world view of the kings of Benin. An intertwined python connects the world of divine order with nature, with a seat made of sun and moon, swords represent the power of the king. Blacksmith tools, anvil, bellows, tongs and hammer for civilization.
Of course, the British conquerors did not see the Kingdom of Benin in modern-day Nigeria as a real civilization, but they liked the art so much that in 1897 they took thousands of the so-called Benin bronzes to London, from where they were sold around the world, about 1100 to Germany, where they were exhibited in 20 museums: 20 bronzes came back to Nigeria on Monday after decades of negotiations. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock flew to the Nigerian capital, Abuja, with the Benin Bronzes in her luggage. Despite their name, they are not all made of copper, it is a generic term for statues, reliefs and objects that can also be made of wood and leather.
“It was wrong to steal these bronzes. It was wrong to keep these bronzes. And it is long overdue for these bronzes to be returned to their homes,” Baerbock said. The state of Nigeria has been trying to have it returned for almost 100 years. In 1935, the then King Oba Akenzua II asked in London for the throne stool, which is now coming back. In England you first had to go on a search and found what you were looking for in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. They flatly refused to return it, but made a suggestion: a copy of two throne stools could be made, but of course the Nigerians would have to bear the cost of 1,582 marks. And that’s how it happened, the copies have been in the museum in Benin City ever since, with no indication of where the originals are.
There are 1100 of the bronzes in Germany, many of which can remain on loan
They are now back to a small extent, where they will be permanently exhibited in the future has not yet been finally clarified. A traveling exhibition is probably being planned in Nigeria, followed by a new museum in Benin City, maybe two. For almost 20 years, German curators and museum directors have been talking to their Nigerian colleagues about how and where the treasures should be stored in future and who they belong to. Some on the German side wanted their immediate return, some were hesitant, claiming to be concerned about how the bronzes might be preserved in Nigeria in the future. The idea of the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), which was to be built with a German contribution but also money from Nigeria and become an attraction in Benin City, was also mediated by the then cultural officer of the Federal Foreign Office, Andreas Görgen.
In the meantime, however, today’s Oba is also planning his own museum. The discussion about the museums no longer played a major role in the return. Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said not to worry Nigeria took good care of the masks for centuries before they were stolen. There are said to be around 5000 Benin bronzes worldwide. Germany took a long time to return them, but played a pioneering role internationally, being the only country to have decided to return all bronzes. However, this does not mean that all 1100 bronzes from Germany will be returned immediately, many can remain in Germany on loan, for which Baerbock expressed his thanks. Germany can get a picture of Nigerian culture in this way.
The current return is a first step, further bronzes would follow. “There are many, many bronzes that have been stolen. That’s why many bronzes will come back.” With the return, Germany is “resolving one of our darkest chapters, namely our own colonial past.”