European museums address looted treasures
Germany is considering the repatriation of its colonial-era African loot, opening an uneasy precedent for far larger former imperial powers like France and Britain.
Germany’s colonial possessions were held from 1884 and 1918 and included Cameroon and Namibia.
In September last year, Culture Minister Monika Grütters said a similar attitude could be taken to the German Centre for Lost Cultural Property, which seeks out the owners of treasures taken by the Nazis.
Grütters said Germany’s African colonial heritage was a “blind spot”.
Next year an ethnological museum, the Humboldt Forum, is due to opens with artefacts from former German colonies.
Director Hartmut Dorgerloh said the origins of items was a “very important subject for the Humboldt Forum”.
“If we are going to present these objects, we must also tell the story of their provenance,” he said. “We are working with the communities of origin, with international experts and with a critical public to consciously address this subject.”
The Museum for Kunst und Gewerbe (arts and crafts) in Hamburg recently had an African art exhibition discussing the colonial past.
In London, the British Museum’s bronzes (pictured) from the African kingdom of Benin were seized by troops in 1897.
The bronzes, which are actually made of brass, were taken in response to an attack on a British diplomatic expedition.
Numerous royal objects were taken during the attack and are scattered across the world.
David Olusoga, the British-Nigerian historian, said the taking of the artefacts was a “very clear case of appropriation and theft”. About 4,000 objects were taken after the kingdom, now part of Nigeria, defied the British empire by imposing customs duties.
Nigeria has called for their returned and the museum has offered to send them back, but only on loan.
Last month, major European museums agreed to loan key artefacts back to Nigeria for the new Royal Museum, which it plans to open in 2021.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised to return stolen art if he becomes prime minister.
In 2016 Benin demanded the repatriation from France of treasures from the Kingdom of Dahomey.
They include totems, sceptres and sacred doors from the palaces of Aboma, which the French seized between 1892 and 1894 and are held at the Quai Branly museum in Paris.
French President Emmanuel Macron promised to “return African heritage to Africa” in a speech in Burkina Faso before winning the presidency. A report published this week by art historian Benedicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr proposes modifying French heritage law to allow the items to be returned if bilateral deals are signed with African states.
The British Museum’s Benin bronzes. Picture credit: Wikimedia