Rasheed Hassan interviewing Chief Nosa Omorodion of Benin during his fieldwork
Koloniale Kontexte

Benin is not Benin

Why provenance research can often lead to unexpected results.
Rasheed Hassan

By way of introduction, the author is a doctoral candidate at the Department of History at Florida International University. He specializes in cultural, social/urban and crime history of Nigeria and he has been involved in a number of projects on material objects which include provenance, ethnographic and archival researches. He has collected and interpreted oral data collection on a wide array of subjects.


The provenance research I carried out for the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich took place between January and March 2022 and had the following aims: to find out more about the previous owners of the Benin collection at Munich, to find information about the collectors, and to help shed light on the existing narratives in Europe that all Benin objects at European museums are products of the 1897 Benin Punitive expedition. While a quantum of Benin objects across European museums and beyond are products of the expedition, my findings show that not all of them are actually products of this infamous event.

My work covered the two major areas of archival research and oral interview/artistic interpretation. I visited three branches of the Nigerian National Archives, namely the Ibadan, Enugu and Calabar archives. These archives house official documents of the colonial government of Nigeria, private papers, diaries, photo albums, information about immigration and so on from the late 1880s up to 1960 when Nigeria gained her independence from the British government.

It is important to note that during the course of my research, I encountered a few challenges. The first was the effect of the COVID19 pandemic which was seriously felt in the operation of Ibadan archives. It affected their operational activities, including the production of requested archival materials. The second was the incessant crises and protest at Enugu, a capital city at eastern Nigeria, over an activist who was detained for a long term by the Nigeria’s government. This necessitated regular curfew which affected the operation of the Enugu archives.

Finding Fact

Be that as it may, of the eighteen collectors, whose information I was searching for at the archives, only one collector, Theodore von Christ of German origin, was mentioned in the simple list at the Ibadan archive. Sadly, the actual file on Theodore von Christ could not be produced by the archive’s staff. Theodore von Christ bequeathed three objects to the Museum Fünf Kontinente (“Königlich Ethnographisches Museum” at the time) in 1913. The little information I gathered about him at the Ibadan archives described him as a grade one conservator of forest employed in the colonial service. Since he was a forester, Theodore von Christ must have worked in Southern and Northern Nigeria before and after the amalgamation of the two protectorates in 1914. The ethnographic data I collected on his objects revealed that he must have acquired them from the Calabar Province (Calabar Province was a coastal area which shared borders with Cameroon. It was a European base during Nigeria’s pre-colonial and colonial period). Calabar, like Benin, was a site for artistic production and trading, playing a significant role in the spread of Nigerian cultures across the world through material objects. At the Enugu and Calabar branches of the Nigerian archives, substantial research was carried out in search for information on the whereabouts of the previous owners and collectors.

The interviews/ethnographic research followed the archival search. At Benin and Calabar, I visited the kings’ palaces, houses of the chiefs as well as local historians with the pictures of all the objects for artistic classification, identification and interpretation. It took almost three days to get hold of Elder Honorable Antgha, a renowned Calabar historian and artist who has witnessed the colonial period and has in-depth knowledge of the narratives behind most of the objects created in the Calabar region and beyond. For the most part, circumstances and short stories behind the invention of each of the objects were narrated. In some cases, names of inventors, community and compound of origin were identified.

An Interesting Outcome

On the whole, I was able to establish through my findings, that not all objects tagged ‘Benin Objects’ are actually of Benin origin. I also discovered that not all collectors who claimed to have gone to Benin for acquisition of objects were in the real sense in Benin or even in Nigeria for this purpose. Instead, I found that most of the collectors of objects listed at the Museum Fünf Kontinente got their objects through trading firms or arts dealers from Nigeria or Africa. Available evidence at the Enugu and Calabar archives suggests that Europeans from Nigeria and other West African countries such as Ghana, Cameroon, Togo and so on attended the Calabar arts exhibitions of 1905 and 1927 and purchased artworks from several craftsmen from the Southern, Eastern and Northern parts who displayed their works at the exhibition. 

A critical example of this finding was the objects bequeathed to the Museum in 1903 by Max von Stefeneli. Stefeneli was said to have paid a visit to the exiled Oba of Benin at Calabar in 1904/05 where he collected some objects believed to be of Benin origin. However, the identification and classification done on Stefeneli’s objects clearly reveals that they are of Calabar origin. The collector may have visited the exiled Oba at Calabar and may have in fact collected objects from him, but his collection at the Museum Fünf Kontinente is obviously not of Benin origin. It is probable that Stefeneli collected objects both from the exiled Benin Oba as well as from other artists in Calabar. Since Stefeneli is said to have visited Calabar and collected objects within this period, it is probable that the objects of Calabar origin at the Museum Fünf Kontinente were actually purchased at the exhibition venue.

To sum up: While it is wrong, as I found out, to assume that all artistic objects from Nigeria are from the Benin Kingdom, it is still a larger percentage of them that are of Benin origin. From the artistic interpretations and identifications of the objects carried out during the ethnographic research, I deduced that of 41 objects interpreted, about eighty percent is of Benin origin. That notwithstanding, my findings shows that in addition to the objects taken at the 1897 Benin Punitive Expedition, a quantum of objects were also collected by art dealers through gift giving by the Oba of Benin to European visitors to his palace and through art collectors who purchased from places such as the Benin Institute of Art and Craft as well as the Calabar art exhibitions of 1905 and 1927.

Rasheed Hassan was a member of the research team at the project “The Benin Kingdom and Benin City Collections at Museum Five Continents”. This team also included Dr Stefan Eisenhofer and Audrey Peraldi.