At the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin on Friday, a joint declaration on the return of the Benin Bronzes was signed by Germany’s Foreign Minister and Commissioner for Culture and Media, and by Nigeria’s Minister of Culture and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. By all accounts, it was an emotional occasion. ‘Today we have reason to celebrate,’ said Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in her speech commemorating the event, ‘because we have reached a historic agreement: the Benin Bronzes are returning home.’
Announcing that the more than 1000 pieces from the Kingdom of Benin ‘belong to the people of Nigeria’, she emphasised the end result of this joint declaration: that the relevant stakeholders in Germany (Federal Government, Federal States and holding museums) agree to return the pieces to Nigeria. ‘It was wrong to take the Bronzes, and it was wrong to keep them – for 120 years.’ Acknowledging that the Bronzes were removed at a time of ‘European colonialism’, the Germans were now ‘facing up to our history of colonialism’.
The Joint Declaration is just that – a declaration. It does not directly bind the German bodies, but instead indicates an important willingness on the part of both levels of government, as well as the relevant museums holding pieces in Germany (along with their trustees), that further transfer agreements will be entered into with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) of Nigeria. According to the Federal Foreign Office, there are twenty such museums in Germany.
Of course there might be economic realities behind this move. The Foreign Minister noted that the occasion was meant to ‘usher in a new era of cooperation’ between the two countries and later referred to Nigeria as a ‘strategic partner’ in Africa. We can perhaps ask whether such cooperation will necessarily be restricted to restitution and culture. No doubt the economic links between the countries will be solidified. This is perhaps to be expected when it involves the world’s third largest exporter of goods (Germany) and one of the world’s leading oil producers (Nigeria). As mentioned elsewhere, alignment on restitution can very often coincide with economic and political alignment (see my piece for the Art Newspaper in September here and an excerpt published on ArtNET from my recent book Restitution – The Return of Cultural Artefacts).
The elephant in the room was of course Britain. It was, after all, British troops that looted the Royal Palace of Benin after the attack on Benin City in 1897. And it is the British Museum that is the single largest holder of Bronzes, with over 900 of them. But this last fact was left unspoken on Friday, at least in the official transcripts. Eyes will inevitably turn to the British Museum to see what it plans to do with its own holdings. The museum is of course part of the Benin Dialogue Group and has committed itself to help fund the forthcoming museum in Benin City and to lend to that museum once it is complete. But none of these undertakings comes close to the compelling statement of purpose that rang out from Berlin on Friday.
One cannot help but wonder whether Britain has lost an opportunity here, while Germany has very adeptly gleaned an advantage. Of course for the British Museum to commit to transferring title to any Benin Bronze vested in its trustees, an amendment to the British Museum Act 1963 would need to be passed. This is because the current exceptions in the Act (including the famous, but never used, ‘unfit’ exception) are almost certainly inapplicable. The museum would have to rely on loans, but even these would have to be carefully considered by the museum and would likely only transpire after the completion of the museum in Benin City, something which will take a number of years.
Some institutions in the UK have indeed returned Bronzes, such as the University of Aberdeen and Jesus College, Cambridge, or have at least agreed in principle for such an outcome (see Bristol Museum). But this has been piecemeal and does not approach the comprehensiveness of the German Declaration, which required the involvement and consent of two Federal departments, 16 State governments and 20 individual museums. Cultural policy in the UK is decentralised, but not more so than in Germany, and arguably less so. The UK government has shown no willingness to do what the Germans did, by spearheading a kind of cheerleading campaign, corralling institutions around the country to agree on a common goal, while allowing each institution to enter into its own transfer agreement with the NCMM. That much is clear. But Germany has taken the initiative, and by doing so has raised the bar in these matters for all European governments.
This might inspire a question about whether the British Museum Act 1963 – and other statutes that govern national institutions – remain entirely fit for purpose. While the trustees of non-national institutions are far less hindered in making decisions on restitution, the nationals have no such liberty (or only a very limited kind). The Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum Tristram Hunt has raised the issue publicly, most recently in an interview Saturday for Radio 4 Today, asking whether the legislation governing his institution, the National Heritage Act 1983, needed to be updated to keep up with modern demands on museums.
This came out of the announcement (also made Friday) of the V&A’s return to Turkey of a head that once formed part of the Sidamaria Sarcophagus at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. The head had been excavated in Ottoman Turkey by a British military consul in 1883 and then given to the London museum by his daughter in 1933. The return has been framed as a ‘renewable cultural partnership’ by the museum, which allows both sides to avoid using the politically sensitive term ‘loan’. It seems Hunt and his Trustees may have opted for an outright transfer of title had they not been circumscribed by the National Heritage Act 1983.
It is fair to ask whether the relevant statutes governing the other nationals deserve a fresh look. Many of them are at least a generation old (the Imperial War Museum Act even goes back to 1920) and represent a particular view of national museums: static entities charged by the nation with maintaining large and often unwieldy collections for display and inspection. This conception of the museum has certainly changed in the twenty-first century, where digital engagement and international collaborations are of greater importance, a change that has accelerated with the onset of the pandemic.
Laws are meant to have a certain consistency and are not meant to be altered with every passing whim. Certain features of national museums do need to be maintained. But there is no harm in reassessing the legal framework for museums every so often. It is possible that, after such a review, things will remain as they always have been. But at least the old rules will have been judged against the mores and expectations of a quickly changing world. And at least new questions will have been asked – and hopefully answered.
If anything can be taken from Friday’s events, it is this: German focus and ingenuity are leading the way in the debate over restitution, while British pragmatism and know-how are still waiting in the wings. Whatever decisions are made going forward – whether at a governmental or museum level – the future in such matters seems to belong to the brave.
* We are happy to announce a major seminar that IAL is hosting in London, in partnership with Keystone Law, on restitution of cultural objects, taking place on 27 September 2022. Dr Andreas Görgen (German Ministry of Culture) will be speaking about the Joint Declaration, while Dr Jacques Schuhmacher (Victoria & Albert Museum) will be discussing the museum’s approach to these matters. *