Empires Institutions

The Benin Bronzes – “We sugarcoat the victim-perpetrator image”

Benin Bronzes

Authoritative voices in Europe are calling for the return of the Benin Bronzes. The Swiss federal government is also accelerating the pace for the return of cultural property unlawfully acquired and held in Swiss museums. The leading Swiss ethnologist Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, whose work has appeared previously in History Reclaimed, is vehemently opposed to this. For her, it is a strategic diversionary tactic.

This a translation of an interview with Professor Hauser-Schäublin first published in the Aargauer Zeitung, Schweiz am Wochenende, a Swiss German-language newspaper, on 9 December 2023 and conducted by the critic and journalist Daniele Muscionico. It is republished with thanks.


Daniele Muscionico: The Federal Council is doing what everyone expects in 2024: it is driving the restitution debate through an independent commission of experts. Is this the step you’ve been waiting for?

Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin: The Federal Council has thus fulfilled a parliamentary mandate. The commission’s range of tasks is broad and will require the members to be able to differentiate.

You don’t really sound enthusiastic…

Nazi-looted art and cultural assets from a colonial context are different situations. It is only the external bracket, the hidden, exclusive capitalist concept of property concerning the monetary value of the objects, which is oriented towards the art market, which brings the two together. This needs to be reflected in the debate. Just like the perpetrator-victim template, which, emulating the German model, Swiss museums also use when conducting provenance research on objects from colonial contexts. The results are inevitable: there can and should only be “white” perpetrators and “black” defenceless victims.

You are the leading expert on the history of the former Kingdom of Benin and you know what you are talking about. Nevertheless, your accusation against your Swiss scientific colleagues is severe! Give us an example, please.

In 2020, the Rietberg Museum Zurich acquired a unique drawing by the Italian traveller Giovanni Belzoni of a royal ancestral altar with the famous Benin bronze heads on it. It dates from 1822/23, 75 years before the British conquered Benin, and is the earliest pictorial document. It can be seen in the museum’s current exhibition on provenance research. And it also has an informative back: Belzoni’s explanations. But the museum has kept their contents secret until now.

Because it’s not that insightful?

O but it is, very much so! In it, Belzoni soberly recorded how many people were murdered in honour of these ancestors who were commemorated by the Benin heads: between June and October, between five and twenty slaves and animals were killed every three to four days in the name of the deceased kings. He added that there are between 20 and 30 such altar memorials. 

The museum hides the practice of human sacrifice in Benin, a kingdom founded in the 6th century and conquered by the British at the end of the 19th century and then added to the colonial empire of Nigeria. You see the museum’s omission as an ideological response. Isn’t that tendentious on your part?

The fact is that even the Benin Initiative Switzerland omits this information in the exhibition catalogue and only shows the front [of Belzoni’s drawing]. The authors also interpret reports of Benin human sacrifices as a more or less malicious colonial fabrication – even though there are also local eyewitness reports of bloodbaths. As the 2023 report of the Benin Initiative shows, it ignores – in keeping with the pattern common in Germany – what does not fit into its scheme: the practice of human sacrifice as well as slave hunting and trade.

You accuse the restitution debate of proceeding on the basis of a naive perpetrator-victim format. On one side, the exploiting colonial rulers, i.e. us, on the other side, the exploited peoples. The roles tended to be that way, surely?

If you think in such cliches, there is no need for research. Provenance research purports to scientifically investigate object histories. In fact, it usually approaches complex historical situations using a search grid in the sense of the usual post-colonial perpetrator-victim template. This is politics, not science. Such a search grid cannot produce anything other than a black-and-white picture of brutal white perpetrators and peaceful, defenceless and morally untainted black victims. 

Knowing that the European colonial powers were guilty, people are now deliberately cautious… 

I would call this sugarcoating. Every colonial interaction deserves to be examined individually and in a differentiated manner. The fact that there were non-European states with a reign of terror and waging wars of aggression for centuries – of course, not against “whites”, but in the case of Africa, against fellow Africans – does not fit into this perpetrator-victim scheme.

What do you mean specifically?

The ancestors of millions of citizens of African descent in the USA, the Caribbean or Brazil were not captured and enslaved by Europeans but by Africans – and then sold to Europeans. Sold primarily for brass bracelets from Germany and England, from which Benin artists made the so-called “Benin Bronzes” for the ancestor cult of the kings. The organisation of [descendants of] former slaves, the Restitution Study Group based in New York, calls the Benin Bronzes “blood metal”.

But we have to speak for ourselves: it was Europe that demanded slaves on a large scale…

Benin was already a society of slave hunters, owners and traders in intra-African trade in pre-colonial times. Demand did undoubtedly boost “supply”. But the basic idea of selling people as goods or killing them in the cult of kings was already there. 

Is your criticism that Switzerland and the whole of Europe are rushing to return looted property in order to distract from the fact that our neoliberal economy is still based on the exploitation of people and resources?

In my view, the complacent so-called restitution discussion distracts from seeing what is currently going on. It is not so much states that continue this exploitation today, but rather multinational corporations and banks. They remain almost invisible and are almost untouchable.

You also say restitution is irresponsible because secure museums do not exist in most former colonies. This is the continuation of the master-man view!

No, I never said that! What I wrote is the result of research: At independence, the National Museum in Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria, had, as Nigerian and Euro-American scholars noted, the third best and largest Benin collection in the world – put together by British colonial officials and carefully registered. That would have been around 400 objects. There is now a digital Benin database in Hamburg with all Benin objects worldwide. I checked the current holdings of the National Museum in this database and found that there are only 80 objects left there – and they are extremely poorly recorded and presented.

What conclusions do you draw from this?

Nigeria has been insisting on the repatriation of all Benin bronzes for decades, using such arguments as “stolen history” and “stolen identity”. If these objects are so important, shouldn’t Nigeria – Africa’s strongest economy – have first taken care of the preservation and care of its own museums’ collections? Where have these objects gone? In addition: in an autocratic act, the former president transferred all objects, including those still to be restituted, to the “King” of Benin as private property.

What do you suggest?

The Benin Bronzes are a world cultural heritage because they embody global economic, political and cultural connections since the 15th century. There can therefore be neither a single institution, a single state and certainly not a private individual as owner, but rather “shared heritage”, shared ownership and responsibility. To achieve this, new directions must be taken. In addition, today’s Benin elite denies the slave trade and human sacrifice, saying it’s all a colonial lie. And the Benin Initiative Switzerland remains silent about it. What’s more: it has decided to return all objects confiscated by the British in Swiss museums to the “king”, i.e. bypassing the state.

So your conclusion is this: Swiss cultural policy is well-meaning, but is it also blind to history? 

The Benin Initiative Switzerland pays court to the descendants of the slave traders and wishes to give them treasures that only became possible through their human trafficking. Should Switzerland be promoting feudalism in Nigeria? 

Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin was born in Basel in 1944. She is a leading ethnologist working in the field of theories about cultural property. A professor emeritus at the University of Göttingen, she argues that ethnological objects in European museums are much more than looted items or spoils of war: they are historical archives that belong to humanity. Professor Hauser-Schäublin publishes widely in leading German media.



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Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin