Eight Swiss museums have come together under the leadership of Zurich’s Rietberg Museum to investigate the provenance of their holdings from the historical Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria.
Eight Swiss museums have come together under the leadership of Zurich’s Rietberg Museum to investigate the provenance of their holdings from the historical Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria. The aim of the Swiss Benin Initiative is to investigate the origins and biographies of the Benin objects with full transparency. Exchange and dialogue with Nigeria are at the forefront of this venture.
The Kingdom of Benin in what is current-day Nigeria had a long history of exchange and trade with the global North from the 15th century onwards. During the colonial era, British troops in 1897 launched an assault on its capital, Benin City during which the Royal Palace was plundered and burned to the ground. Between 3,000 and 5,000 objects were looted from the palace. These so-called “Benin Bronzes” subsequently passed through the hands of art dealers into private and public collections around the world. In Europe, these objects were admired early on as works of art because of their naturalistic aesthetics and ornate manner of production. Today there are some 100 items in Swiss museums that are assumed to have originated in the Kingdom of Benin. The Benin Collection at the Museum Rietberg comprises sixteen (possibly nineteen) works acquired from art dealers and private collectors. The provenance of these works is to be investigated further.
The project, funded by the Federal Office of Culture (FOC), focuses on postcolonial and cooperative provenance research. In both brings together a network of Swiss museums and accords great importance to cooperation and exchange with Nigeria. For instance, the museums are also working with a Nigerian historian at the University of Benin. Methods include research in European and African archives, interviews about Western collecting and commercial practices, and collecting oral histories transmitted by the craftsmen’s guilds and palace societies of Benin City. The aim is to reconstruct the biographies of objects and their sales routes from both Swiss and Nigerian perspectives.
As of yet, no restitution claims have been presented to Swiss museums, it is nonetheless a matter of concern to them that they act responsibly by instigating research and discussing the sensitive issues surrounding Benin’s cultural heritage.
An overview of the objects included in the BIS research initiative, arranged by institution, is available. This list is the starting point of our project. It naturally has gaps and unrevised data. However, for the transparency of the project, it is important to present it as a work in progress. As the project progresses, it will be regularly updated and made available on the website.
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