The debates around the restitution of museum objects which originated in a context of colonial injustice have intensified and transformed since 2017.
The debate was finally ignited in 2017 by the famous speech by French President Emmanuel Macron in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in which he announced the restitution of looted African artefacts from French museums. Also, the report “Giving Back. On the Restitution of African Cultural Assets” by Senegalese thinker Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, commissioned by Macron in 2018, was discussed worldwide.
However, these controversies go back decades and began as early as the 1960s, when the new independent African states were already fighting for the return of their looted heritage by European colonial rulers.
Against this background, the RJM is looking for new forms of cooperation with thinkers, artists, and institutions from Africa and with the local African diaspora. Together with them, the RJM is developing new ethics of international, national and local cooperation, in which restitution and transfer of property of Benin artworks is understood as the beginning of a healing process. In this process, colonial injustices and their dramatic effects in our post-migrant society today will be addressed so that the museum of the future can become a place for multi-voiced memories, narratives, and stories.
The City of Cologne is working closely with the German government to ensure the return of looted Benin royal artworks to Nigeria.
In 2019, the German federal government, the German states, and the municipal umbrella organizations adopted key points for dealing with objects from colonial contexts. In them, they agreed to return those whose appropriation took place in a manner that is no longer legally and/or ethically justifiable today. In 2020, the federal government started a dialogue with Nigeria on the transfer of ownership and restitution of looted Benin works. Since 2021, the RJM, together with the four German museums with the largest Benin holdings, (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz Berlin, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Museum am Rothenbaum Hamburg, Linden-Museum Stuttgart) has been involved in a process accompanied by the Ministry for Culture and Media and the Federal Foreign Office. On April 29, 2021, a joint declaration was made according to which the federal government, in coordination with the other parties involved, is to enter into negotiations about restitution as well as museum cooperations.
A resulting Memorandum of Understanding between the Federal Foreign Office and the National Commission for Nigerian Museums and Monuments, dated October 13, 2021, provides for the full transfer of ownership of the Benin Court Works of Art to Nigeria during 2022. In close coordination with the National Commission for Nigerian Museums and Monuments, physical returns of parts of the Benin royal artworks from German museums are to be made to the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, designed by world-renowned architect David Adjaye and currently under construction, during the period from late 2022 to 2025. Other works could continue to be shown in German museums on loan from Nigeria for a period of time.
The Council of the City of Cologne decided in its meeting on February 3, 2022, to instruct the city’s administration to prepare for the return of Benin court artworks to the Federal Republic of Nigeria in consultation with the Foreign Office and the State Ministry for Culture and Media.