Tue. May 30th, 2023

A digital catalog has been compiled detailing the artifacts looted during the colonial era from the former African kingdom of Benin. This list includes 5000 items from 20 countries.

'Digital Benin' lists looted antiquities from the colonial era
‘Digital Benin’ lists looted antiquities from the colonial era


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“Digital Benin” is an online platform containing artworks from the former kingdom of Benin. The platform covers Benin antiquities in 131 museums in 20 countries around the world. This initiative is being considered as a decisive step towards the restoration of cultural heritage. Officially launched two years ago, the project has for the first time reviewed all items identified by government agencies.

Felicity Bodenstein, a lecturer at the Sorbonne University in Paris and manager of the “Digital Benin” project, told DW that although the debate over the return of these cultural assets to their countries of origin has never been easy, according to their museums, Cooperation was open and constructive.

The idea for the project came four years ago when Bodenstein was working in the team of French art historian Bénédict Savoy at the Technical University of Berlin. In 2018, Phil Waine Saar, a writer and economist from Savoy and Senegal, wrote a report for French President Emmanuel Macron on the recovery of African cultural assets. Bodenstein researched the history of “Bennon Bronze” scattered across Europe and America for this project.

The Digital Banner Project was made a reality with over half a million dollars in funding from the Ernst von Simmons Art Foundation. At the same time, an international team of scientific advisors was formed under the umbrella of Hamburg’s Museum M. Rothenbaum – Kulturen und Kunst der Welt. Investigators contacted museums around the world to gather data from their collections and list related objects on a platform.

In total, 5,246 items from Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada and Israel, as well as 14 European countries, were listed at the launch of the platform, according to Felicity Bodenstein. However, it is impossible to determine the exact number of objects scattered around the world and hope for a definitive list, he said. He explained that many artefacts have been lost or are now in private ownership of people and especially when black market or illegal business in such work is increasing, tracing these artefacts is difficult. Cannot be applied.

Robbed by the British colonialists

In 1897, British troops conquered Benin City, which was then the capital of the Kingdom of Benin. The colonial rulers then left the empire at the mercy of the then British protectorates. They also looted other culturally important sites, including the royal palace, and then transported these items around the world.

A few years ago there was a public debate on how to deal with the colonial legacy and how to return such cultural assets to the rightful owners of African countries. These historical objects include a collection of artefacts made of bronze, ivory and wood known as “Benin Bronze”.

For project manager Felicity Bodenstein, the project is about more than restoration goals, “there’s a lot more to it, including preserving knowledge about cultural assets,” she explained. In some cases, for example, it was possible to trace the journey of objects to their current location through soldiers’ diaries or old catalogs from auction houses.

Beyond the colonial history of the artefacts, the Benin Digital project manager says his colleagues in Nigeria want to determine the true historical value of the objects that would strengthen the cultural identity of the societies that created the artefacts. Is.

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