Benin bronzes get final Berlin show before return

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Stolen during the colonial era, dozens of Benin bronzes that once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin will go on show for one last time in Berlin from Saturday before being repatriated to Nigeria.

The renowned pieces of African art and their tumultuous journey up to the exhibition at the Humboldt Museum speak to Germany’s gradual reckoning with the colonial era and the injustices of the past.

The move to return some of the bronzes is the latest in a series of steps taken by Germany to try to take responsibility for the crimes of the colonial era, including the official recognition in May 2021 of a genocide perpetrated by Germany in Namibia.

Among the items being exhibited are a pair of thrones and a commemorative bust of the monarch, which used to decorate the walls of the royal palace in Benin City, in modern-day Nigeria.

Two rooms in the sprawling museum are being dedicated to the art and the history of the Kingdom of Benin, an exhibition realised “in close cooperation with partners in Nigeria”, according to the German side.

The removal of the precious objects is explained in the gallery, while educational workshops are also planned around the display.

Thousands of Benin bronzes, metal plaques and sculptures are now scattered around European museums after being looted by the British at the end of the 19th century.

The recognition of the colonial injustices and the subsequent return of the items “will continue to define our work in the future,” Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the national museums in the German capital, said in a statement.