The RJM's Collection of royal artworks form the Kingdom of Benin (Edo State, Nigeria)

The Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum houses a collection of 94 courtly works of art from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Edo State in Nigeria. The museum received these works of art between 1899 and 1967 as part of 15 donations and purchases. It is considered certain that these 94 Benin royal artworks were looted from the royal palace of Benin City by the British army in February 1897. In total, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 royal artworks were looted at that time and subsequently dispersed to museums worldwide, including the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum.

You can find an index of the Benin collection in the RJM here.

In the focus of the restitution debates

These works of art made of bronze, ivory and wood, collectively known as "Benin bronzes", are now the focus of worldwide restitution debates. The RJM is facing up to its responsibility for this rightly highly controversial collection and has initiated several development and exhibition projects as well as cooperations in order to deal transparently with this context of injustice and to convey to visitors what the restitution debate is all about.

Special exhibition projects

As part of the current special exhibition "Resist! The Art of Resistance" (26.01.-11.07.21), the Nigerian artist and art historian, Dr. Peju Layiwola, curates an autonomous space on the looted artworks of the Kingdom of Benin. She comments on the RJM's Benin Collection and brings her Nigerian perspective within the restitution debate. For this space, she has also invited several Nigerian artists*, some of whom have been dealing with the looting of the Benin bronzes in 1897 for decades in Nigeria and in the diaspora.

The special exhibition "The Shadows of Things#1" (11.09.20 - 11.4.21) focuses, among other things, on a piece of jewellery that belonged to a high-ranking war leader from the Kingdom of Benin and was looted from the royal palace by the British in 1897. Both its restitution and the void created by its theft are addressed. This is accompanied by interviews about the loss, conducted with different actors from Benin City.

Collection development projects

Report: "Traces of History Connecting the Kingdom of Benin with the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne".

In 2020, the ethnologist Franziska Bedorf compiled an initial overview of the provenances of the Benin Court Works of Art Collection for the museum: when and how did the individual objects come into the collection, from whom were they acquired or donated?

The project was supported by the Museumsgesellschaft RJM e.V. with funds from the legacy of Ludwig Theodor von Rautenstrauch.


Basic study to analyse the techniques and materials of the Benin Court Works of Art Collection

In 2021, Birgit Depenbrock, conservator for inorganic materials at the RJM, will further develop the Benin Collection.

The project was supported by the Museumsgesellschaft RJM e.V. with funds from the legacy of Ludwig Theodor von Rautenstrauch.
 

Cooperation Benin Dialogue Group

Since the end of 2019, the RJM has been a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, an initiative that has existed since 2010 in which museums from Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden, all of which preserve collections of Benin court artworks, work together with Nigerian partners, including representatives of the Royal Court of Benin. A central aim of the Benin Dialogue Group is to facilitate a permanent exhibition of Benin court artworks from European museums in Nigeria. A new museum in Benin City, the Edo Museum of West African Art by architect David Adjaye, is planned for 2025.