A highly anticipated new online database of artworks looted from the Kingdom of Benin has been launched, shedding light on more than 5,000 looted objects housed in more than 100 museums worldwide. The timely new digital catalog Digital Benin, described as the first “comprehensive database of the Benin bronzes” in a Financial times report, could accelerate the return of ancient African artifacts from institutions and collections around the world.
The so-called Benin bronzes have become a touchstone to test the willingness of European museums to return heritage looted from Africa in the colonial era. After the violent looting of 1897 and the destruction of the Royal Palace of Benin by British troops, at least 3,000 artifacts were distributed internationally.
Digital Benin currently holds object data from 131 institutions in 20 countries that contains 5,246 historical Benin objects, which the website defines as “objects looted in February 1897 by British troops from the Kingdom of Benin (now Edo State, Nigeria) and in the immediate aftermath”. Detailed listings include a type name in the Edo language, the English title of the work, provenance information, and date provided directly by participating museums, such as caption text and size.
A disclaimer on the site says that “it is important to underline that the quality of provenance data provided by museums varies significantly from institution and object to object. So the number of objects associated with these names is only an indication of what has been documented by museums and not the actual number of objects associated with them or even looted by them.”
The new inventory is once again putting the spotlight on the British Museum, which holds the largest number of pieces from the Kingdom of Benin (944), to bring works back to Nigeria. The British Museum is prohibited from permanently removing items from its collection under a 1963 British law. However, it is in talks with the Nigerian authorities to lend Benin objects to the planned Edo Museum of West African Art. The Ethnological Museum of Berlin has the largest contingent of Benin bronzes in Europe – 518 according to Digital Benin – after the British Museum.
The team behind the new online platform is led by Barbara Plankensteiner, the director of Museum am Rothenbaum-World Cultures and Arts (MARKK) in Hamburg. It also includes Felicity Bodenstein of the Sorbonne, Jonathan Fine – director of the Weltmuseum Wien in Vienna – and Anne Luther, an expert in digital humanities. The Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation initially provided €1.5 million in funding for two years (2020-22) for the project with additional funding pledged for 2023.
For scientists in Nigeria, who have struggled to access both the objects and archival materials that are largely outside the country, the new database is a welcome prospect. Kokunre Agbontaen-Eghafona, professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Benin, said: The art newspaper: “The looting was like a book being torn to pieces and then the pages were put in different places. It’s great to have them all together in one place.”
An increasing number of institutions worldwide have pledged to return looted works to Benin. The National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum held a joint ceremony in Washington, DC, last month to mark the return of 31 Benin bronzes from their respective collections to Nigeria. to mark.
Earlier this year, the German government continued its ambitious restitution program and signed a major agreement transferring ownership of more than 1,100 works to Nigeria. Two of the bronze artifacts from Benin, a head of a king (or oba) and a 16th-century plaque, were presented to Nigerian representatives at a signing ceremony on July 1. Germany has agreed to contribute to the construction of a new museum to house the Benin bronzes near the royal palace in Benin City, the Edo Museum of West African Art.