Legacy of the ancient kingdom of Benin available online

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131 museums in twenty countries worked together for four years to present an unprecedented digital database. The website digitalbenin.org launched on Wednesday 9 November brings together more than 5,000 art objects from the Kingdom of Benin and scattered around the world since the British army loot in 1897.

From our correspondent in Berlin,

Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie pauses for a long time after the floor has just been given to him. The Nigerian, who has dedicated his career to the heritage of his country and more specifically the heritage of the Kingdom of Benin, is struggling to hold back tears. He participates with other researchers in the press conference in Berlin which introduces the new platform DigitalBenin.

The Nigerian welcomes the creation of a living museum, which should allow younger generations in his country to recognize the richness of their civilization: This platform allows us to think differently about our past and culture. These works of art are perceived as objects in the West. With us, it’s our story “.

This unprecedented initiative has several origins. First, the looting carried out by British forces in 1897 in the Kingdom of Benin had a massive dimension. Subsequently, these works of art are part of the world cultural heritage and are today distributed in many countries. Finally, their emblematic character has focused in recent years, especially in Germany, debates about refunds to countries of origin.

One thousand works returned to Nigeria in 2022

The director of Hamburg’s ethnological museum, MARKK, Barbara Plankensteiner, recalls: The creation in 2010 of the Benin Dialogue Group, bringing together European museums and Benin City officials, made it possible to establish links without which the new platform would have been more difficult to set up. “. The Hamburg museum played a central role in the debates on returns that led this summer to the retrocession of a thousand works from the Kingdom of Benin present in various German museums in Nigeria.

The idea at first was much more modest: it was about making an inventory of objects found in the Hamburg museum. The support of the Siemens Foundation with 1.5 million euros has made it possible to finance the joint work, the research and the creation of an unprecedented database presented this week after four years of preparation.

A page with 12,000 photos

of new website lists more than 5,000 works distributed in 131 museums in Europe, but also in the United States, Australia and Israel. 12,000 photos are presented, some in 3D. The visitor has many filters for his search, in English or Edo, according to the size, dimension, weight, inscriptions that appear on the objects, the country, the city or the museum where they are located.

We can learn where exactly the work originally came from, what its religious significance was, if any, what brought the Briton to Europe, what steps led it to its current place of preservation. A historical map of the Kingdom of Benin and the places where the objects were found, as well as a world map listing the museums that house them today, complete the site. section “ oral history (oral history, in French), realized thanks to Nigerian partners, allows us to hear testimony about this heritage, its importance and meaning.

A distributed knowledge

The platform makes it possible to share knowledge that is now distributed, to the people whose historical heritage it constitutes, but beyond that to the general public as well as to researchers. ” To see his 900 reliefs from the royal palace of Benin, all photographed on this platform, and now in many places, is very moving. says Barbara Plankensteiner. Experts estimate that 99% of objects originating from the Kingdom of Benin are listed on this platform. Corrections and additions will be made on a dynamic page. Objects from private collections are regularly put up for sale. Others turn out to be duplicates.

The digitalbenin.org platform should in future be managed directly by Nigeria. A transfer of knowledge that should accompany the many returns of artworks.

► Also listen to: International Report – Germany: bronzes from the former Kingdom of Benin on display in Berlin before being returned

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