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Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on the occasion of the return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria

20.12.2022 - Speech

“Art lives in history and history lives in art.” 

That’s how Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it. She described how artefacts like the ones we see behind us are not mere objects. They tell stories. We agree with her.

Art informs who we are. Art shapes how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive the world. Through art, we see our past and we learn about the road we have travelled, as men, as women - but also as a nation, as a people.

That’s why we are not returning mere objects to you, to the Nigerian people, today.

We have learned from you: what we are returning is a part of your history, a part of who you are.

I think as Germans and Europeans, we should really pause for a moment and reflect on what this actually means. What it means to not have a crucial part of your history with you – but to have it taken from you.

What would it mean to us to be deprived of our cultural heritage? To not be able to marvel at the Gutenberg Bible in Mainz? To be unable to admire Martin Luther’s writings? Or to stand in front of a sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz in Berlin or at Goethe’s desk in Weimar?

It evokes a sense of loss that I can hardly imagine. To you here in Nigeria, however, this loss has been your reality.

Today, we are here to return the Benin bronzes to where they belong, to the people of Nigeria. We are here to right a wrong.

Officials from my country once bought the bronzes, knowing that they had been robbed and stolen. After that, we ignored Nigeria’s plea to return them for a very long time. It was wrong to take them. But it was also wrong to keep them.

This is a story of European colonialism. It is a story in which our country played a dark role, causing tremendous suffering in different parts of Africa. The return of the bronzes today is therefore a crucial step towards addressing this chapter in the way that it should be addressed: openly, frankly, with the willingness to critically assess one’s own actions. And crucially, by listening closely to the concerns of those who were the victims of colonial cruelties.

It is this readiness to talk and to listen that made today’s returns possible. And I’m very grateful to everyone involved. This is especially true for the museum directors and experts from both sides.

Minister, you just said it very clearly: This is not a moment for ministers and politicians. Many people here have worked to enable this moment for many years. Now, for those of you sitting here in the second or third row, this is your applause.

I want to thank the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

And I am glad that the directors of key German museums have accompanied me to Abuja. Prof. Barbara Plankensteiner, Prof. Hermann Parzinger, Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, Nanette Snoep, Prof. Ines de Castro, your museums are based in Stuttgart, Leipzig, Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne. From the outset, you have all supported this process.

This is an emotional moment. Friendships were built as efforts went forward, looking at the past and building the future. It was a previous German government that started this important process. With our new government, we have made it a priority to continue down this path.

That’s the strength of democracies – sometimes, governments change. But you can carry on with the good work that was done by previous administrations. That’s why I am glad that, today, I am accompanied by parliamentarians from both the governing parties and the opposition.

Germany’s federal states and city councils also played a crucial role. They made the transfer of ownership of the bronzes possible and concluded ground-breaking treaties with Nigeria. Thank you, Minister Olschowski from the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, for coming with us to Abuja today and for the role the federal states have played in this process.

I have to say: today’s delegation is one of the largest I have ever travelled with as Foreign Minister. The fact that we are all here together, alongside Claudia Roth, our Minister of State for Culture, and Katja Keul, my Minister of State for Africa, shows what a great united effort this has been!

But above all, I’m grateful to our Nigerian partners. Your government and the people of Nigeria were trailblazers in reaching out to museums and governments across the world, defending your cause for years to then finally reach agreements on the transfer of property and the return of artefacts.

To us, what was special about this process was the trust displayed by our Nigerian partners, by partners who share our values and our belief in respect and frank dialogue. We can honestly say that this process has made our partnership even stronger.

That’s what we want to build on – also by helping you give the bronzes the visibility that you deem to be adequate. If art lives in history and history lives in art – as Chimamanda Adichie says – I believe it is important that men, women and especially children are able to truly experience art, so that they can understand their history and our common history.

In Germany, we can still become a bit better at this: at making art more inclusive – so that all of us can enjoy it, no matter who we are, where we are or how much money we might have.

Art should be accessible – to everyone in our societies.

That’s why we are glad to be funding the construction of an art pavilion in Edo State, inviting you to use it to display the bronzes there.

We also agreed that some bronzes will go on global travelling exhibitions, and some of them will remain as loans in German museums – so that they can tell your stories, your history.

What’s crucial is: You’ll know where they are. You know that they belong to Nigeria. And you know that they can come home.

The scientific project “Digital Benin” provides a fantastic and universal window to this end. It is a digital platform, offering a wealth of information on more than 5000 artefacts, including their whereabouts and their history. I invite you all to delve into this treasure trove.

There is one artefact on the website I find particularly intriguing. It’s a very small object: a key that we brought with us today. It’s a unique piece, beautifully decorated with leopards and human images. The maker must have been a great artist.

We are not quite sure what the key was used for. Maybe to unlock a shrine or a palace door or even a treasure chest. What we do know is that after being robbed from Benin, it was brought to Britain. It was sold and then made its way through Ireland and France to finally end up in the city of Cologne.

Today, this key is back. This key is back where it belongs. It moves me to see with how much love you have been receiving this key and the other bronzes here in Abuja today.

This key is a symbol. This key can help us unlock another chapter in the friendship between our people. That is why we are here today – to push the door of the future of our friendship wide open.

Thank you.

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