In the recent discussions about repatriation, the Benin bronzes have often been cited as a prime example of African heritage that is housed chiefly in European and North American museums. This is partially due to the circumstances under which the artworks were seized, during a retaliatory invasion and ransacking of Benin City by British troops in February 1897. Not coincidentally, the British Museum ended up with one of the world’s richest collection of Benin bronzes; it has agreed to lend some of them as part of the BDG agreement. In exile, these artworks have come to exemplify African nations’ alienation from their respective cultural heritages, an effect that is amplified by their incredible number, formal refinement, and historic significance.
“They speak about a very sophisticated and complex court system,” said Barbara Plankensteiner, the director of the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg, which participated in the BDG talks and will lend some of its 180 Benin objects as part of the agreement. “Through the study of these objects and their oral tradition, we are able to access knowledge about how the works relate to the history of the kingdom and how they developed stylistically.” The long-term stability of the kingdom—and the durability of its thousands of surviving metal artifacts—makes this abundance of information “quite rare for African art,” Plankensteiner said.