Officials from Germany announced recently that they had reached an agreement with the African nation of Nigeria to return some of the famed Benin Bronzes that were looted from the country in the 19th century, in a move reminiscent of the Parthenon sculptures controversy.
The looting took place during the colonial rule of the region by European powers of the time.
About 500 of the plundered artifacts are on display in several German museums, in a situation very similar to that of the Parthenon sculptures, which are displayed in the British Museum in London.
The handoff is expected to take place next year under an agreement reached between Germany and Nigeria on Thursday.
”The fact that we have succeeded in agreeing on a timetable for the restitution of the artifacts with the museums and their sponsors is a turning point in dealing with our colonial history. We have worked hard to create the framework for this,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.
Dass es gelungen ist, mit den Museen und ihren Trägern einen Fahrplan für Restitutionen von Objekten zu vereinbaren, ist ein Wendepunkt im Umgang mit unserer Kolonialgeschichte. Wir haben intensiv daran gearbeitet, dafür die Rahmenbedingungen zu schaffen.https://t.co/4htERdraSU
— Heiko Maas 🇪🇺 (@HeikoMaas) April 30, 2021
In 1897, British soldiers snatched thousands of exquisitely decorated bronze and brass plaques and sculptures created by guilds in the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria. The objects, which have become known as the Benin Bronzes, are on display in museums around the world.
The British Museum has more than 900 of the objects that were looted during the nineteenth century from this culturally rich region of the African continent.
Germany’s agreement with Nigeria pertains only to the artifacts that are in Germany.
Commenting on Germany’s brave decision, Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie, who is a historian and researcher at the Institute for Benin Studies of Nigeria, noted emphatically that Germany is leading in the global restitution movement.
Germany’s move reminds Greece’s case of the Parthenon Sculptures
The Greek government has repeatedly called on Britain to return the Parthenon Sculptures.
Greece’s Culture Minister Lina Mendoni told newspaper Ta Nea in 2020 that Greek authorities will never give up the claim for the return of the cultural goods to their place of origin.
Greece’s efforts for the return of the precious marbles started in the mid-1980s by then Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri.
However, the British Museum continues to refuse to return them.
The marble sculptures, which were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon, were removed by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and are now on display in the British Museum in London.
The remaining sculptures have been removed for protection and are exhibited in the new Acropolis Museum.
This is where the sculptures will be displayed when they are retrieved.
The Greek government strengthened its campaign to retrieve the artwork in time for the country’s bicentennial celebrations of 2021, however, without any positive outcome.
British PM Rules Out Parthenon Sculptures Return to Athens
Earlier this year, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson ruled out the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece in a statement to a Greek newspaper.
Speaking to Ta Nea in March he said: “The British government has a firm and long-standing position on the sculptures: they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin, in accordance with the laws in force at the time.”
He added that he understands the strong feelings of the Greek people and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on this issue.
However, he stated that “The rightful owners are the commissioners of the British Museum since they came into their possession.”
Johnson’s statement put an end to speculation that Britain could consider the return or lending of the Marbles at a time when Greece was about to celebrate its 200 years of the War of Independence.
However, Johnson seems to be getting more and more isolated on the matter, as both the British public opinion and a series of internationally acclaimed celebrities, such as George Clooney, ask London to make a U-turn and return the sculptures where they belong: To Greece.
Earlier this year, George Clooney called again for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece in communication with Janet Suzman, chairwoman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures.
The Hollywood actor told Suzman:
“There are indeed many objects of historical value that must be returned to their original owners. However, none of them is as important as the Marbles of the Parthenon.”
Clooney called on Britain to allow their permanent reunion in their birthplace. “The Parthenon Sculptures must be returned to their original owner,” he was reported as saying.