Benin Bronzes in Germany

 

The Minister of State for Culture and the Media, Monika Grütters, the directors of the German museums belonging to the Benin Dialogue Group, the responsible Cultural Affairs Ministers of the Länder, and the Foreign Office met digitally on April 29, 2021 and agreed on a declaration on the handling of the Benin-Bronzes in German museums and institutions. The participants were in agreement that addressing Germany’s colonial past is an important issue for the whole of society and a core task for cultural policy. Fundamental political agreements have been reached and major steps taken in Germany over the past few years. Furthermore, German museums and institutions have implemented numerous measures to address the history and origin of their holdings. These include returning human remains and cultural objects from colonial contexts to their countries and societies of origin.

In addition, the participants agreed to, 1. create extensive transparency with regard to the Benin Bronzes in their collections and exhibitions; 2. hold further coordinated talks on returns and future cooperation with the Nigerian side at an early date; in this context, one aim will be to reach an understanding with the Nigerian partners on how Benin Bronzes can continue to be shown in Germany; 3. determine concrete actions and a timetable for the upcoming talks. The Statement on the handling of the Benin Bronzes in German museums and institutions can be found here.

Database of the Benin-Bronzes in Germany

In order to ensure the greatest possible transparency regarding the handling of the Benin Bronzes, it was agreed that the Contact Point for Collections from Colonial Contexts in Germany, funded jointly by the Federation and the Länder, will publish a list of all Benin Bronzes held in the museums on its website (www.cp3c.org) by 15 June 2021 – in addition to the information on museums’ own websites. In addition, the museums will provide comprehensive documentation of the provenance of these objects and make it publicly accessible on the website of the Contact Point for Collections from Colonial Contexts by the end of 2021. Where Benin Bronzes are shown in exhibitions, comprehensive information will be provided on their acquisition context.

The database of the Benin-Bronzes in Germany developed by the German Contact Point for Collections from Colonial Contexts can be accessed here.

The database includes informational on the objects that are commonly categorized as "Benin-Bronzes" and which are held in German museums. This categorization refers to court art and historical objects of the Kingdom of Benin (today part of Nigeria) that were plundered by British troops in 1897.

The database will be updated regularly and information from other institutions with relevant collections of Benin-Bronzes in Germany will be included. In addition, data quality will be improved continuously (image quality, dealing with inconsistencies, translation of German terms into English). At present (15 June 2021), the database presents information of the following German museums that are part of the Benin Dialogue Group:

Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz

The Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) evolved from the collections of the royal cabinets of art and has grown since its founding in 1873 to become one of the largest and most significant of its kind. Its collections include around 500,000 ethnographic, archaeological and cultural-historical objects from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. These are supplemented by around 500,000 media holdings (ethnographic photographs, films, and sound recordings) and around 200,000 pages of written documents. 

The Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is critically facing up to the legacy and the consequences of colonialism as well as the role and perspective of Europe. Reflecting on its own viewpoint, building partnerships with the societies of origin in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas should serve to expose one-sided Eurocentric viewpoints without eliding European connections. 

From the late summer of 2021, the Humboldt Forum will display permanent exhibitions by various stakeholders, including a presentation of the Ethnological Museum’s collection.

503 historical objects made in the Kingdom of Benin are part of the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum today and two bronzes are in the collections of the Museum Berggruen. A list offers an overview of these objects, as well as how and when they came into the Berlin collections.

Linden-Museum Stuttgart

With around 160,000 everyday objects, works of art and sacred objects from Africa, the Islamic Orient and Siberia, North and Latin America, the Caribbean, Oceania as well as East, Southeast and South Asia, the Linden Museum Stuttgart, which opened in 1911, houses one of the most important ethnological collections in Europe. 

Through exhibitions and a multi-faceted events and communication programs, the Linden Museum enables encounters with other living environments and promotes understanding between different worldviews. The museum sees itself as the guardian and mediator of cultural heritage; it explains, differentiates and connects.

The museum is currently confronting former practices of ethnographic collecting, its own colonial history, the provenance of its collections as well as the colonial structures and their consequences in the present. It is furthermore reflecting on the contemporary role of ethnological museums. Projects are created in participatory processes together with representatives and stakeholders from the societies of origin, citizens of Stuttgart as well as international experts

As part of a realignment, the Linden Museum is currently developing and testing new forms of museum knowledge production, communication and presentation within the framework of the “LindenLAB Project”, funded as part of the initiative for ethnological collections of the German Federal Cultural Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes). In addition, the museum participates actively in international networks.

Museum am Rothenbaum. Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK) in Hamburg

In 1871, the "Culturgeschichtliche Museum" (Cultural History Museum) was founded, building on the ethnographic collection of the Johanneum, a Hamburg grammar school. In 1879, it was renamed the Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum for Ethnology). In 1904, its first full-time director was appointed, Georg Thilenius (1868–1937), and in 1912 it obtained a dedicated building. In 2017, the major step of renaming it the “Museum am Rothenbaum: Kulturen und Künste der Welt“, MARKK (Museum am Rothenbaum: World Cultures and Arts) signified a long-awaited turning point and act of decolonising the museum. 

The museum collection consists of a nominal quantity of around 260,000 numbered objects from all parts of the world, including Europe and Germany. The precise number is currently being determined in a full inventory process; approximately a third is anticipated to been lost due to the Second World War. The precise number of objects originating from colonial contexts is unknown, but these are estimated to account for at least a third of the collection.

Numerous people from societies of origin as well as researchers and political activists desire a complete view of ethnographic museums’ holdings. To that end, in 2020 the MARKK published core sections of its collection database as lists on the museum website. 

The lists are grouped by region. They contain raw data and notes from various periods of the museum’s history. Many terms in the lists are now considered inappropriate, outdated or offensively racist, yet remain included in the lists for historical reasons. From the same reason, the lists also contain objects that are no longer entirely located in the museum today due to the effects of war, object exchanges, restitution or the deterioration of organic materials.

The museum’s database is continually revised and updated on the basis of research. Preparations for an online collection are currently under way.

Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum - Cultures of the World, Cologne

The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum holds 94 royal artworks from the Kingdom of Benin, the fourth-largest such collection in Germany.  The museum received these works of art between 1899 and 1967 as donations and purchases. It is considered certain that all of them were looted from the palace of the Oba of Benin by the British Army in February 1897. The oldest and most valuable works of art date from the period between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while the majority where created from the mid-eighteenth to late-nineteenth centuries. Some 65 of the RJM’s 94 Benin Bronzes were acquired before 1902 at auction houses in London by the Rautenstrauch family – the museum’s namesake and major patron – and donated as gifts to the City of Cologne. 

Despite their international significance, these 94 pieces of royal art had yet to be classified historically and iconographically. The RJM – supported by the Museumsgesellschaft RJM e.V. with funds from the bequest of Ludwig Theodor – therefore commissioned an initial overview of the origins of the royal works of art in 2020. Beginning in 2021, it has also commissioned an overview study to analyse the techniques and materials of the collection. A preliminary report on the collection’s history and the complete inventory of the collection have been publicly available on the RJM website since January 2020. In addition, since November 2020, all 94 royal artworks have been comprehensively presented online, prompted by the special exhibition RESIST! The Art of Resistance. Their provenance has likewise been communicated to visitors.

State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony - Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD)

The Staatlichen Ethnographischen Sammlungen Sachsen, SES (State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony) are part of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD) consortium. They are located in the cities of Leipzig, Dresden and Herrnhut. With a total around 350,000 objects, 200,000 images and 350,000 library holdings, the three ethnographic museums in Leipzig, Dresden and Herrnhut jointly hold the second-largest collection of their kind in Germany. To reposition themselves in the international context in response to the fundamental changes in the landscape of ethnological museums, the SES are developing new exhibition, event and communication concepts along with interdisciplinary research programmes. Researching their holdings, especially in regard to their circumstances of acquisition, is an important part of their self-definition and their mission.

Brunswick Municipal Museum

The Municipal Museum was founded by Brunswick citizens in 1861 as part of a citizens' initiative on the occasion of the city's millennium celebration. The goal was to collect "objects worthy of preservation" from the Duchy of Brunswick. The receipt of artifacts from the non-European world is documented for the first time in 1865.

Initially still regarded as "oddities" or "varia," an independent ethnographic collection focus crystallized at the Municipal Museum from the 1870s onward, which was expanded between 1893 and 1917 in particular. Since then, it has shaped the profile of this important cultural institution of Lower Saxony, along with the latter's collections of art, decorative arts, design history, historical musical instruments, and numismatics.

Today, the ethnographic collection of the Municipal Museum comprises almost 9.000 object numbers. Regional foci of the worldwide collection are Africa, Indonesia, and Oceania. However, the collection also contains other highlights, among which rarities from North America are particularly noteworthy.

The Municipal Museum is firmly committed to a critical reappraisal of the colonial references of its ethnographic holdings. This attitude has not only been expressed by an increase in staff in the area of provenance research. It is also reflected in the new conception of the permanent ethnological exhibition, which is scheduled to open in 2022. The focus here will be on the aspect of acquisition contexts and the identification of holdings from colonial, and in particular German-colonial contexts of injustice. Ongoing collaborative provenance and restitution initiatives with partners in Cameroon and Namibia will also play an important role.

Museum Folkwang

The Museum Folkwang was opened in Hagen in 1902 by art patron Karl Ernst Osthaus. In 1922, after Osthaus's death, the collection was bought by the specially founded Essen Folkwang Museum Association and the city of Essen. Since then, the Museum Folkwang has existed in Essen. Today, the collection focuses on modern and contemporary art since the 19th century in the fields of painting, sculpture, media art, graphic art, photography and posters. 

In addition to works of art from classical antiquity and applied art from Europe, the foundation of the collection laid by Karl Ernst Osthaus between 1898 and 1921 also includes objects from West and East Africa, Central and South America, Oceania and, above all, East Asia. The total size of the collection, which was expanded until the 1970s, today amounts to 1704 inventory numbers.

The Museum Folkwang engages with the discourses surrounding racism, Germany's colonial past and the role it itself played in it as a cultural institution. It recognises that it played a part in the transfer of objects from different cultures to Europe and the spread of racist and stereotypical ideas through the additions to its collections and their presentation, and is striving to come to terms with its holdings and its history in an appropriate manner. It is open to an exchange with the societies of origin of the objects now kept in Essen. 

The Museum Folkwang owns an object from the former Kingdom of Benin. 

Ethnographic Collection of the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

The Ethnographic Collection of the University of Göttingen is one of the most important teaching and research collections in the German-speaking world. Its beginnings date back to the time of the Enlightenment. 

The history of the Ethnographic Collection began 1773 with the establishment of the Academic Museum at Göttingen University. Thanks to the initiative of the professor of medicine Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, cultural artefacts from the South Seas ("Cook/Forster Collection") and the Arctic polar region ("Baron von Asch Collection") were brought to Göttingen in the second half of the 18th century. After Blumenbach's death in 1840, the collection was initially cared for by scholars from other disciplines. In 1928, anthropological teaching began in Göttingen with the available objects.

At present, the collection comprises of about 18,000 objects from all continents. Furthermore, graphics and paintings, archival materials, photographs as well as hands-on objects of museum education are part of its inventory. As part of digitization measures, the collection has been increasingly viewable in the online collection portal of the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. Holdings from colonial contexts are also included in the database of the Lower Saxony provenance research project PAESE. The analog inventory catalogs are available for download as .pdf files.

The objects preserved here are explored in research projects under a variety of questions. They are used in seminars for the education of students. In addition, the collection is open to the public in the form of permanent and special exhibitions (currently: closed due to building refurbishment).
 

Ethnographic Collection of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

Dr Erika Sulzmann started the department’s ethnographic collections in 1950. From 1951 to 1954, she spent more than two years in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo), carrying out fieldwork among the Ekonda and Bolia in the equatorial rainforest together with Ernst Wilhelm Müller, who was a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the time. They collected more than 500 objects, which formed the original core of the department’s holdings. Erika Sulzmann constantly expanded the collections during subsequent research trips to the Congo between 1956 and 1980.

Today, the Ethnographic Collection preserves approximately 3,000 objects, primarily from Central and West Africa, as well as Australia, Papua New Guinea, and other parts of Oceania. This diverse collection is comprised of a wide range of objects, including weapons, basket, musical instruments, textiles and religious objects. It is the only collection of its kind in Rhineland-Palatinate and one of the largest university collections at Mainz University. Since 1992, Dr Anna-Maria Brandstetter has been the collection’s curator. The collections’ items are used in teaching. Students learn how to handle ethnographic objects according to ethical considerations, how to conserve them, and how to design small exhibitions around them.

About 1,680 objects were translocated to Europe in a colonial context from the end of the 19th century to the mid-20th century, in many cases by using pressure, extortion, and violence. They are therefore historical objects that refer to past life worlds and at the same time tell of their appropriation in Europe in the context of the colonial conquest of Africa or Oceania.

In the digital collection "Gutenberg Objects" of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz about 300 objects from colonial contexts (mainly from Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, Kenya and Tanzania) in the Ethnographic Collection will be available from October 2021.