Plaster cast »Benin Head«

Plaster cast of a bronze Head of a Queen Mother (Iyoba Idia), Kingdom of Benin (original: 16th century), plaster, 2018.
Collection Johann Jacobs Museum

The ethnological collection was a concept born in the heyday of imperialism and colonialism. Commercial travelers, soldiers, researchers and private collectors happily journeyed to “faraway lands” and took with them anything that was not nailed down—including everyday objects, religious objects and even human remains. The circumstances under which these things came into the possession of such collections have rarely been documented. It is clear that many objects were taken illegally and absorbed into ethnological collections—including the bronzes that a British “punitive expedition” robbed from the royal palace in Benin City (Nigeria) in 1897 and brought to the European market. Justus Brinckmann, the founding director of the MKG Hamburg, purchased the first bronze head for his museum collection that same year. Unlike many of his colleagues, who sought to prove the genuine “primitiveness” of African artifacts, Brinckmann was deeply impressed by the high artistic quality of the Benin bronzes.

Bronze sculptures of this type, cast using the “lost wax” technique, served as memorials to deceased potentates. Successors to the throne commissioned these effigies in the course of their coronation ceremonies, and the sculptures were placed on ancestral altars in the Benin royal palace. During a deliberately punitive expedition, British troops destroyed and plundered Benin City (in today’s Nigeria) in 1897. Several hundred bronze objects were stolen, ending up in various European museums, including the British Museum, London. Today, the Benin bronzes are at the centre of the debate about the return of stolen cultural assets.