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BENIN TO BERLIN ETHNOLOGISCHES MUSEUM: ARE BENIN BRONZES MADE IN BERLIN? The restitution of those cultural objects which our museums and collections, directly or indirectly, possess thanks to the colonial system and are now being demanded, must also not be postponed with cheap arguments and tricks

The full 45 pp article by Kwame Opoku [k.opoku@sil.at], including photographs, is available at:http://www.museumbeveiliging.com/benin_to_berlin.pdf

“The restitution of those cultural objects which our museums and collections, directly or indirectly, possess thanks to the colonial system and are now being demanded, must also not be postponed with cheap arguments and tricks.”Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause. (1)

Head of Queen Mother-iyoba. Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin:

The full 45 pp article by Kwame Opoku [k.opoku@sil.at], including photographs, is available at:

http://www.museumbeveiliging.com/benin_to_berlin.pdf

The Benin Exhibition, Benin: Kings and Rituals. Court Arts from Nigeria goes to Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum from February 7 to May 25, 2008. The Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde, renamed Ethnologisches Museum as from 2000,was legally established on 12 December, 1873 largely due to the tireless efforts of Adolf Bastian (1826-1905), its first director who is considered by many as the founder of German Ethnology and who insisted on collecting cultural material from the peoples of Africa and Oceania who he thought would soon disappear due to contact with European civilization. (2) According to the catalogue of the exhibition, several German museums lent their Benin art works to the exhibition. (3) Alone, the list of German museums holding African cultural objects is impressive and shows the extent to which the former colonial power plundered the colonies for art works.It is not often remembered that the German museums have several art works from Africa and that Germany had been a colonial power on the Continent, having had under its control, Togo, Cameroon, German-East Africa (Tanganyika, Burundi and Ruanda) and German-South-West Africa (Namibia) until the end of the First World War. We leave aside the Brandenburger-Prussian colonies Gross Friederichsburg in Ghana, (1683-1718), Arguin, in Mauritania, (1685-1721). It should also be remembered that colonialist ideology in Germany did not start with Germany’s possession of colonies nor did it end with Germany’s loss of colonies after the First World War.

Many people do not even seem to recall that the infamous imperialist meeting that divided Africa among the colonizing powers, the Berlin Conference of 1884, took place in the then and now capital of Germany, Berlin under the chairmanship of Bismarck, the chancellor (“Reichskanzler”). Moreover, German ethnologists and archaeologists had been very active in Africa, the most famous being Leo Frobenius (1873-1938)who collected several thousands of artefacts from the Continent and made a contribution to the Africa collection of the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum. He considered forced labour and corporal punishment in the German colonies as necessary and fair. Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire seemed to have derived some inspiration for their negritude from an incomplete reading of his works but a thorough study of his works reveals his deep-seated colonialist and racist views. (4) He was also alleged to have stolen some items and was actually brought to justice. Glenn Penny recounts this story in his book, Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany:

“During his travels in Nigeria in 1911, Frobenius came into direct conflict with the British authorities concerning his collecting policies in what has come to be known as the Olokun Affair. This incident developed following complaints by the inhabitants of Ife, the sacred capital of the Yoruba country in southern Nigeria that Frobenius had mistreated and deceived them, and had taken away religious objects without their consent. The principal item in dispute was the bronze head of the god Olokun, which Frobenius claimed to have “discovered” in a groove outside the walls of Ife, but which the town’s inhabitants accused him of stealing. As a result of the complaints, which followed Frobenius’s departure from the city British authorities summoned him before an improvised British court and eventually forced him to return many of the items he had acquired from the area”. (5)

When we recall the German colonial rule, a very brutal regime, remembered for its genocide of the Hereros and Namas in South West Africa (now Namibia), as revenge for the killing of some German settlers who had seized their land and were dominating, we may assume that the life of the Africans was not an easy one and that many of the art objects in German museums were obtained through coercion or intimidation even if presented as purchases or gifts. It should also be recalled that the colonial State was no “Rechtsstaat”. (6) Outright force was of course not excluded beatings and caning were widespread, many times exercised by the employer for absenteeism from work and the death sentence was more often enforced in the colonies than in Germany itself. It is quite clear that the structural violence of the colonial situation and the frequent actual use of force by German colonial administrators and the German settlers made Africans amenable to parting with the objects the Europeans wanted. If the present German museum directors are not conscious of this, others in the colonies did not fail to notice this, Cornelia Essner has remarked:

“That the acquisition of ethnografica in the colonial time was on the basis of more or less “structural violence” will not be pursued in detail in this context. Some individual contemporaries were perfectly aware of this fact. Thus one Africa-traveller and resident of the German Empire in Ruanda, Richard Kandt, wrote in 1897 to Felix von Luschan, Deputy Director of the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, as follows: “It is especially difficult to procure an object without at least employing some force. I believe that half of your museum consists of stolen objects.” (7)

For further reading the full 45 pp article by Kwame Opoku [k.opoku@sil.at], including photographs, is available at:

http://www.museumbeveiliging.com/benin_to_berlin.pdf

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