Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the Signing of the Joint Declaration between Germany and Nigeria

01.07.2022 - Speech

Return of the Benin Bronzes

Return of the Benin Bronzes
Return of the Benin Bronzes© Thomas Trutschel/photothek.de

Today we have reason to celebrate, because we have reached a historic agreement: the Benin Bronzes are returning home.

These pieces are not only magnificent artefacts. They are some of Africa’s greatest treasures.

But they also tell a story of colonial violence.

This sculpture here, on my side, is called the Commemorative Head of a King. It once stood on an altar honouring an Edo king.

When British soldiers invaded the Kingdom of Benin in 1897, they looted the royal palace, taking away more than 5000 objects in brass and ivory, among them the Head of a King.

It was a German Consul and businessman who bought this piece a couple of weeks later in Lagos. With him, the bronze made its way to Europe.

This is a story of European colonialism. We should not forget that Germany played an active role in this chapter of history.

Today, more than 120 years later, we state clearly: The Head of a King belongs to the people of Nigeria.

But this is just the beginning. More than 1000 pieces from the Kingdom of Benin are still in German museums – and they all belong to the people of Nigeria.

It was wrong to take the Bronzes, and it was wrong to keep them – for 120 years.

In this spirit, all relevant stakeholders in Germany – the Federal Government, the Federal States and museums that hold Benin Bronzes – agreed to return them.

I am delighted that Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz have already put this intention into action.

They signed a treaty to transfer the ownership of these two beautiful artefacts. They will then travel back to Nigeria.

This is a beginning to right the wrong.

This is – as I said – just the first step: more of these agreements will follow.

And this moment is also historic to us – we are facing up to our history of colonialism.

We want this occasion to be more than just a fleeting moment. We want it to usher in a new era of cooperation between our two countries.

Looking back is one thing. But we are here as politicians and representatives of our societies to jointly build the future.

We will therefore foster museum cooperation and join forces on archaeological projects so that people from both our countries can appreciate pieces like the ones we see here today.

Crucially, we are assisting Nigeria in establishing a new museum in Benin City, which will also display Benin Bronzes in the future.

We want to share our knowledge so that we can learn from each other.

Ladies and gentlemen,
This agreement is the result of all of your hard work. I want to thank everyone involved for your commitment!

We are standing here today as Ministers – but important work, which was not always easy, was done by many other people: in museums, in ministries, by civil society organisations. I would like to thank all of you – especially those who cannot celebrate with us here today.

It is no coincidence that we reached this historic agreement with Nigeria, a key strategic partner for us in Africa. This highlights the special quality of our bilateral relations today.

The Benin Bronzes remind us that we must confront our past together with our African partners.

And they show us that when we do so, when we take responsibility, we can build a better future:

A future built on a foundation of trust and constructive partnership.

In this spirit, let us celebrate this day.

And in this spirit – and we had a short discussion before we came here to this room – we also agreed that our cooperation will not only make it possible for people in Nigeria to see the Bronzes in their museums, but that they might also be shown in German museums, so that Germans can see them again here in this country.

This is what makes museum cooperation so special: It’s not only about going to a museum and seeing beautiful pieces of art! It’s also how the conversation starts, how a bridge is created, how we learn more about history and far away cultures.

I look forward to visiting with you – maybe in a couple of years – a German museum where Benin Bronzes are on display.

In this sprit, let us together celebrate this day.

It is a good day for future generations, who will be able to appreciate these beautiful artefacts and to learn about our past.

And it is a good day for our partnership.

Minister Mohammed, may I invite you to take the floor – and I am really looking forward to bringing the Bronzes back to where they belong, together with you.


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