Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
“A story is true only when it is complete” – this is how the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it recently in her speech at the opening of the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.
The opening of the exhibition “Benin. Looted History” is not just about writing the final chapter of the story but rather about the recognition that a story can never be complete if it is told from the perspective of a supposedly omniscient narrator.
We in Europe have created this misunderstanding and we have maintained it for far too long. And so I am delighted that we can meet together here with representatives from Nigeria, the German Foreign Ministry, friends and supporters, the people of this city to engage with the origins and the artistic significance of the Benin artworks.
These works and their journey point us to contexts in world history that we should have clearly addressed before today. But because we have not yet done so adequately, we are all the more obliged to live up to our responsibilities now.
At the end of the 19th century the German Reich was the third-largest colonial power in Europe. Hamburg, as an industrial and port city with its international trade connections, had cultivated the concept of being the “Gateway to the World”. The city benefited in a special way from the colonial trade and the structures of subjugation and exploitation in the colonies that often underpinned it. The Benin artworks are an example of this:
In the course of a British so-called “punitive expedition” in 1897, the artworks were stolen from the Royal Palace in Benin City and then traded, primarily in Europe.
The exhibition we are opening today also recounts the influential role that Hamburg’s museum directors played in distributing the Benin artworks throughout the world.
Today, in the 21st century, we are concerned with sharing knowledge about the artworks worldwide. In an age of globalisation, discussions about our societies take place on a global stage. Ethnological museums are no longer exclusive showcases of the “other”. Instead they are open places of encounter – that at least is their ambition.
As a result, the way we look at the artworks on display in the museums has also changed. The works have always been carriers of meaning. Thus the Benin Bronzes not only tell a story of colonial subjugations, robbery and destruction, they also embody the pride of a culture. They are unique artworks that reflect the power and importance of the Kingdom of Benin. They are of universal value.
And so it is important that, in exhibitions like this one, we always address their universal artisanal and artistic significance. It is only then that the cultural exchange through art that we want to promote today will succeed. That is the story we want to tell today. Provided, however, that we bring a chapter to a close. That is why we will return ownership of the objects to where they originated: to Benin City in Nigeria. We must not skip this chapter.
We at the City of Hamburg will use all the means at our disposal to create the necessary conditions for restoring all the Benin objects located in Hamburg to Benin City – in Hamburg and on the federal level. We will become the pacemaker of a post-colonial culture of remembrance. Hamburg committed itself to this task back in 2014. Since then, we have set a lot in motion:
- An apology to the Nama and Herero for the role this city played in the genocide of that time.
- The focused work with the advisory board and round table on a postcolonial remembrance concept.
- And in the museums, focused work in the collections and exhibition projects, such as the display of three Benin Bronzes a few years ago in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, “Grenzenlos. Kolonialismus, Industrie und Widerstand” in the Museum der Arbeit or “Hey, Hamburg, kennst Du Duala Manga Bell?” and now “Benin. Geraubte Geschichte” here at MARKK, all of which provide or have provided an opportunity for the necessary discussions. And they lay the foundations for more to come.
Hamburg is working actively to return items from colonially burdened collections. We take on responsibility. At the moment the necessary contractual steps are being prepared in close cooperation between the German Foreign Ministry, the federal states and their ethnological museums and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
Firstly, we have to ensure that the legal ownership of the objects is transferred to the Nigerian state, completely and unconditionally. Our goal is to complete this task in 2022. Precisely when the first objects will be physically returned will be the subject of discussion with our Nigerian counterparts.
Secondly, it is our responsibility, following the transfer of ownership of the objects, to keep them here on loan and care for them should their owners so desire, which entails bringing them under the umbrella of City of Hamburg liability.
Thirdly, decisions on which objects will be returned to Nigeria will be made in consultation with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the individual museums. The aim is to ensure that the presence of and knowledge about the artefacts is primarily available in their place of origin and that the western museums relinquish their fabricated prerogative of interpretation.
One thing is certain: the physical voids that are thus created here in the museum also have a lot to say. We must and we will tell the story of this void!
And finally, and fourthly, we will work closely with the federal government to promote initiatives on cultural exchange and knowledge transfer so that German academics can do research in Nigeria and their Nigerian colleagues can do so in Germany, and also here in Hamburg. Happily, it has been possible to speed up and intensify this process in recent years.
The fact that we have reached this point today is thanks to many people:
It is thanks to you, Your Excellency, Mr Tuggar, in quite rightly invoking the obligation of (German) museums and politicians to return the artefacts from Benin.
It is thanks to Andreas Görgen and his relentless work in the Foreign Office, pushing for a progressive agenda of restitution and cooperation.
It is also thanks to Barbara Plankensteiner and the Benin Dialogue Group, which for ten years has tenaciously pursued the goal of injecting the topic into the international research and museum context and has always supported the negotiations constructively.
It is thanks to the contributions of many scholars and artists from Africa and Europe that we have been able to considerably broaden our horizon of knowledge on the subject of restitution within a short period of time.
I would like here to recall here the pioneering work by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, whose studies formed the basis for the French state’s restitutions – and played an influential role in accelerating the debate in Germany.
It is thanks to the team of the research centre here, into Hamburg’s (Post-)Colonial Heritage, headed by Professor Zimmerer that we have reached a level of research that conveys very soundly which aspects of the culture of remembrance we need to tackle in the coming years.
Without the decades-long commitment of the African diaspora communities and the activists who have repeatedly raised the issue of decolonisation and demanded it at various levels, it would not have been possible to shine a light into the blind spots of our difficult history. I would like to thank you expressly for your forbearance, your expertise and your enduring willingness to engage in discourse. We need you in this process of restitution – and we need you, too, in the process of reappraising our colonial heritage, which goes beyond restitution.
In this regard, we have already developed a key issues paper for decolonisation by Hamburg together with the Advisory Board on Decolonisation that represents the most important building block in respect of reappraising our colonial heritage. It identifies tasks and measures in many areas of society, including the areas of culture, academia and education in particular, such as the recontextualising of colonial monuments, the renaming of colonially burdened street names and the alteration of teaching materials.
With support from the federal government, we will continue to expand international cooperation on researching colonial object inventories through the project TheMuseumsLab.
And today, through international collaborative projects such as Digital Benin, initiated at MARKK, we can already see how milestones of international research cooperation can also be created here in Hamburg.
My desire is for projects of this kind to become more self-evident and for us to come closer together in the context of colonial reappraisal and cultural exchange. It would be ideal if we succeeded in achieving a worldwide circulation of knowledge and objects coupled with the opportunity for research across national boundaries. In this regard, we must also have a debate on a simplified loan system as well as conservation and insurance provisions.
My vision is that at some point paintings such as “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich would find their way on loan from the Hamburger Kunsthalle to a museum on the African continent and be available there to be explored, experienced and marvelled at. Only then will we have achieved what we set out to do: that artworks from everywhere, in their diversity, are appreciated, valued and judged as equal. Only then will we fully appreciate Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s sentence: “A story is true only when it is complete”.