Home Museum institution Beninese bronzes looted from museums are now listed in an online database – Robb Report

Beninese bronzes looted from museums are now listed in an online database – Robb Report


The first comprehensive online catalog listing looted works of art from the Kingdom of Benin is now live, with the potential to have a profound impact on the return of these objects to institutions around the world.

The database, called Digital Beninidentifies the location of over 5,000 African artifacts that have become flashpoints in the debate over whether Western cultural institutions should return cultural heritage taken during periods of colonization.

The Bronzes from Benin are a group of thousands of historical objects that were removed from the Royal Palace of Benin, in present-day Nigeria, during a violent 1897 expedition by British troops.

Digital Benin currently identifies 131 institutions in 20 countries with Beninese cultural heritage in their collections. Entries include provenance details provided by participating institutions, high-resolution images, and the title of the work in English and Edo languages. Visitors to the website can also access a collection of oral histories told by Beninese artists and elders who expand on the importance of artworks to local art and culture.

The website also includes a disclaimer stating that “it is important to emphasize that the quality of provenance data provided by museums varies considerably from institution to institution and from object to object. The number of objects associated with these names is therefore only an indication of what has been documented by museums and not of the actual number of objects linked or even looted by them.

The initiative is led by Barbara Plankensteiner, director of the Museum am Rothenbaum Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK) in Hamburg and funded by the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation in Munich. Digital Benin’s 14-person project team, which includes experts based in Nigeria, Kenya and the United States, conducted science outreach activities with museums around the world for about two years prior to launch. Among the participating museums are the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Cleveland Museum of Art in the United States, the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, the National Gallery of Australia, the Benin City National Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum.

The Bronzes from Benin have faced calls for their return, both inside and outside Nigeria, for decades, but it is only in recent years that substantial repatriations have been made. Over the past two years, museums in Glasgow, the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have either returned Beninese works to their collections or begun the process of disposing of the looted bronzes. This summer, the German government signed an agreement transferring ownership of more than 1,100 bronzes to Nigeria.

Germany will also contribute to the construction of the Edo West African Art Museum. The new museum is designed by architect David Adjaye and is expected to open in 2025 in Benin City. It should house the most comprehensive collection of bronzes from Benin to date.