International project to digitally reunite looted Benin treasures

As many as 5,000 treasures that were looted from the former kingdom of Benin will be digitally reunited over the next two years. The ambitious international project is spearheaded by the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg with the support of the Benin Dialogue Group.

Digital Benin” will bring together bronze, ivory and wooden artworks produced by the kingdom of Benin, or the Edo Empire, between the 15th and 19th centuries. In 1897, British troops invaded Benin City and plundered the royal palace and other ceremonial sites. No systematic record was made of the objects taken, which were then distributed and sold across the world.

Prospective restitutions can contribute to mitigate the tragic loss of local knowledge and cultural values, but there is also a need to make existing knowledge resources accessible,” commented a spokesperson for the project.

This new website aims to digitally collate the works of art, as well as photographs, oral histories, and documentation, from collections worldwide to provide an overview of the royal artworks looted in the 19th century. More than €1.2 million (£1 million) in funding has been given to the project by the Ernst von Siemens art foundation.

For decades we have asked to receive an overview of the scattered Benin holdings worldwide. Finally, this is going to happen,” praised Prince Gregory Akenzua (Enogie of Evbobanosa). “The Digital Benin online platform will be a huge asset for all Edo people interested in their history and heritage.”

A group of 18 experts from Germany, Nigeria, and across Europe and America are assisting with the creation of “an unparalleled forum of knowledge.” The Benin Dialogue Group will first provide data on their holdings of an estimated 2000 objects, establishing a solid foundation for expanding the platform.

Speaking about the technical obstacles posed by the project, IT Consultant Anne Luther said “bringing together information on Benin works that have been scattered internationally is a challenge on the digital level, as each museum has developed its own strategies and methods for collecting…Digital Benin is at the forefront of digital museum collaboration and linking, both on the content level and on the technical level.”

Barbara Plankensteiner, the director of the Museum am Rothenbaum, will lead the project alongside other renowned experts. “Digital Benin is a commendable, timely, impressive and most welcome project which offers the Benin/Edo and Nigerian people the access to their looted heritage,” explained Kokunre Agbontaen-Eghafona, Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Benin in Nigeria. “For researchers working on Benin studies and material culture, the project opens new and multiple vistas for research ideas, connections and collaborations.”

Many institutions are also beginning to repatriate Benin artworks in their collections, most recently including the return of a bronze cockerel from the University of Cambridge. The Digital Benin website is scheduled to launch in 2022.

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