Researching the provenance of objects from the Kingdom of Benin

Funding area:
Colonial contexts
Funding recipient:
Museum der Weltkulturen
Federal state:
Contact person:
Julia Friedel

Tel.+49 69 212 31313

Type of project:
short-term project

The research project, funded by the German Lost Art Foundation, focused on 57 objects from the Kingdom of Benin (Nigeria) that are part of the collection of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt. The 6-month project aimed to investigate the provenance of these objects in more detail and to reconstruct the various circumstances of their acquisition. In particular, an attempt was made to clarify whether and which objects came to Europe in the context of the so-called British "punitive expedition" of 1897 and ultimately to the former „Völkermuseum.

Of around 14,000 objects from Africa, 57 with the geographical reference "Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria" have been catalogued in the Frankfurt museum. Although parts of this collection of Benin objects have been presented in various exhibitions and publications, their acquisition contexts have hardly been thematised to date. Research into the biographies of the objects was complicated by the history of the museum: on the one hand, the collections of the Weltkulturen Museum go back to the holdings of other institutions in Frankfurt. On the other hand, the documentation of the objects is very limited due to the great loss of the museum's own archive during the bombing of Frankfurt in the Second World War. Furthermore, the museum's surviving archive documents contain only few details about how the Benin objects came to be in the collection.

In order to achieve the most comprehensive results possible, it was also necessary to conduct research in other museums and archives, including those in Berlin, Hamburg and London, and to compare the objects from the Weltkulturen Museum with objects from other institutions. This made it possible to compile biographies of most of the previous owners. However, it remained difficult to reconstruct in detail the circumstances under which the objects were acquired and the hands through which they passed. Two objects that came into the collection through the dealer W. O. Oldman could be clearly identified as part of the loot from 1897. This context cannot be ruled out for other objects in the collection. In order to illustrate the relationships between the parties involved in the trade in looted objects, the dealer networks in London and on the Nigerian coast from 1897 onwards were also analysed.

The research was carried out by cultural studies scholar Audrey Peraldi on behalf of the Weltkulturen Museum. In the exhibition "Benin. Retrospective/Perspectives", the results and remaining questions were presented and are intended to serve as a basis for in-depth dialogue with Nigerian partners.

(c) Museum der Weltkulturen