This is a decisive step towards the restitution of cultural heritage: the works of art of the former Kingdom of Benin, which are currently in 131 museums in 20 countries, are listed on the “Digital Benin” online platform, which was presented in Berlin on Wednesday (11.09.2022).
The project, which officially started two years ago, offers for the first time an overview of all the elements identified by official institutions.
Even if the debate around the return of cultural objects to their country of origin has not always been fluid, cooperation with museums has been open and constructive, Felicity Bodenstein, lecturer at the Sorbonne University in Paris and “Digital Benin” project manager, says DW.
The idea for the project was born four years ago, when Bodenstein was working at the Technical University of Berlin in the team of French art historian Bénédicte Savoy. In 2018, Savoyard and Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr wrote a report on the restitution of African cultural property for French President Emmanuel Macron. For the project, Bodenstein researched the history of Beninese bronzes scattered across Europe and America.
The Digital Benin project was made possible thanks to funding from the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation of more than 1.5 million euros ($1.5 million). Under the aegis of the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg — Kulturen und Künste der Welt, an international team of scientific advisors was created. Investigators contacted museums around the world to collect data from their collections and listed relevant objects on the platform.
A total of 5,246 objects located in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and Israel, as well as 14 European countries, were cataloged at the launch of the platform.
However, it is impossible to determine the precise number of objects scattered around the world and to hope for a conclusive list, explains Felicity Bodenstein. The many pieces lost or now in private collections – especially as the black market for such works continues to grow – cannot be traced.
Looted by British colonialists
In 1897, British troops conquered Benin City, then the capital of the Kingdom of Benin. The colonial rulers then ceded the kingdom to what was then the British Protectorate of Nigeria. They also looted the royal palace and other important cultural sites, shipping the items around the world.
A few years ago, a public debate began on how to manage the colonial heritage and return these cultural assets to the African countries of origin, in particular the treasure of works of art in bronze, ivory and in wood which became known as the “Bronzes of Benin”.
For Bodenstein, the project goes beyond the objectives of restitution.
“There is more to it, including the preservation of knowledge surrounding cultural assets,” she explained. In some cases, for example, it has been possible to determine the path of objects to their current location through soldiers’ diaries or old auction house catalogues.
Beyond the colonial history of works of art, the head of the “Digital Benin” project says her Nigerian colleagues want to determine the original historical value of objects that embody the cultural identity of the societies that created them.
This article was originally written in German.