Together with seven other Swiss museums, the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich is investigating the provenance of its collections from the Benin Kingdom in Nigeria. The aim of the Swiss Benin Initiative, which is funded by the Federal Office of Culture, is to research the provenance and object biographies of objects from Benin and make them transparent. Exchange and dialogue with Nigeria are at the forefront of this.
The Kingdom of Benin in what is current-day Nigeria had a long history of exchange and trade with the global North from the 15th century onwards. During the colonial era, British troops in 1897 launched an assault on its capital, Benin City during which the Royal Palace was plundered and burned to the ground. Between 3,000 and 5,000 objects were looted from the palace. These so-called “Benin Bronzes” subsequently passed through the hands of art dealers into private and public collections around the world. In Europe, these objects were admired early on as works of art because of their naturalistic aesthetics and ornate manner of production. Today there are some 100 items in Swiss museums that are assumed to have originated in the Kingdom of Benin. The Benin collection of the Ethnographic Museum comprises 18 objects, whose provenance is being researched.
The project, funded by the Federal Office of Culture (FOC), focuses on postcolonial and cooperative provenance research. In both brings together a network of Swiss museums and accords great importance to cooperation and exchange with Nigeria. For instance, the museums are also working with the Nigerian historian Enibokun Uzébu-Imarhiagbe at the University of Benin. On the Swiss side, Alice Hertzog is involved as a project researcher who has been employed as a provenance researcher at the Ethnographic Museum UZH since spring 2023. Methods include research in European and African archives, interviews about Western collecting and commercial practices, and collecting oral histories transmitted by the craftsmen’s guilds and palace societies of Benin City. The aim is to reconstruct the biographies of objects and their sales routes from both Swiss and Nigerian perspectives.
As of yet, no restitution claims have been presented to Swiss museums, it is nonetheless a matter of concern to them that they act responsibly by instigating research and discussing the sensitive issues surrounding Benin’s cultural heritage.
14.06.2023 Press Release: BIS Phase II (PDF, 213 KB)
02.02.2023 BIS Report (Englisch) (PDF, 8 MB)