The first comprehensive online catalogue listing looted artworks from the Kingdom of Benin is now live, with the potential to profoundly impact the restitution of such items from institutions worldwide.
The database, called Digital Benin, identifies the location of more than 5,000 African artifacts that have become flash points in the debate over whether Western cultural institutions should return cultural heritage taken during periods of colonization.
The Benin Bronzes are a group of thousands of historic objects that were taken from the Royal Palace of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, during a violent 1897 expedition by British troops.
Digital Benin currently identifies 131 institutions across 20 countries with Benin cultural heritage in their collections. Entries include provenance details provided by participating institutions, high-resolution images, and the title of the work in the English and Edo languages. Visitors to the website can also access a collection of oral histories narrated by Benin artists and elders that expand on the significance of the artworks to local art and culture.
The website also includes a disclaimer that says “it is important to underline that the quality of provenance data provided by museums varies considerably from one institution and from one object to another. The number of objects associated with these names is thus merely an indication of what has been documented by museums and not of the actual number of objects related to or indeed looted by them.”
The initiative is led by Barbara Plankensteiner, director of the Museum am Rothenbaum Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK) in Hamburg and funded by the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation in Munich. Digital Benin’s 14-person project team, which includes experts based in Nigeria, Kenya, and the U.S., conducted scientific outreach with museums across the globe for some two years before the launch. Among the participating museums are Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Cleveland Museum of Art in the U.S., the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, the National Gallery of Australia, the Benin City National Museum, and the Royal Ontario Museum.
The Benin Bronzes have faced calls for their return, both within Nigeria and outside it, for decades, however only in recent years have substantial repatriations been made. In the past two years, the Glasgow Museums, the Smithsonian, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have either returned Benin works in their collections or begun the process of deaccessioning looted bronze holdings. This summer, the German government signed an agreement transferring ownership of more than 1,100 bronzes to Nigeria.
Germany will also contribute to the construction of the Edo Museum of West African Art. The new museum is being designed by architect David Adjaye and is currently set to open in 2025 in Benin City. It is expected to host the most comprehensive collection of Benin Bronzes to date.