After 125 years, museums across Europe and the United States that have housed and displayed artifacts stolen from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southwest Nigeria, during a violent raid by British colonial forces, are taking steps to return the pieces. The sculptures, plaques, ceremonial objects, altars and other artifacts that British soldiers stole in 1897 in this act of colonial violence are collectively known as the “Benin Bronzes.”
In a joint ceremony today, the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) collectively transferred ownership of 30 Benin bronzes, 29 of which come from the Smithsonian, to the people of Nigeria. Of the 29 items, 20 will be returned to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and nine will remain, loaned to the NMAfA for later display.
In an interview last week, Ngaire Blankenberg, the director of the NMAfA, explained that the transfer is part of the Smithsonian’s commitment to fully investigate how objects have been obtained and the histories behind these items.
“It's important that we acknowledge the role of museums in continuing to perpetuate a kind of violence that strips African peoples and artists of the power of self-determination and representation and knowledge building,” she said. “It's important that we recognize that we haven't been doing that, and then to take steps to address that.”
"Ethical considerations should be at the heart of everything the Smithsonian does," said Lonnie G. Bunch, III, the secretary of the Smithsonian at today's ceremony. "It should be at the heart of who we honor, it should be at the heart of how we interpret the collections and in how we preserve those collections."
"Today, we do something very different, but very important," Bunch said. "Today we right a wrong."
"By returning the artefacts, these institutions are together writing new pages in history," said Lai Mohammed, Nigeria's minister of information and culture in a statement. "Their brave decision to return the timeless artworks is worth emulating."
Some of the works of art going back to Nigeria include a ceremonial sword made of copper, iron, alloy and wood as well as a sculpture made of copper, alloy and iron that depicts the head of an oba (king), with an emphasis on the ruler’s finely detailed beaded collar.
The official transfer of ownership comes after the establishment in April of the Smithsonian’s ethical returns policy, which allows for artifacts that were stolen, taken by coercive means or unethically obtained, to be returned to their appropriate community or individual. Today's announcement is the first to be carried out under the new policy and follows on the museum’s decade-long partnership with the Nigerian community that worked to establish mutual trust and a shared vision.
“There is a growing understanding at the Smithsonian and in the world of museums generally that our possession of these collections carries with it certain ethical obligations to the places and people where the collections originated,” said Bunch in a May statement. “Among these obligations is to consider, using our contemporary moral norms, what should be in our collections and what should not. This new policy on ethical returns is an expression of our commitment to meet these obligations.”
A number of the stolen bronzes found their way to the Smithsonian as gifts from the wealthy financier and art collector Joseph H. Hirshhorn, who lends his name to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Hirshhorn donated at least 14 Benin bronzes, including many of NMAfA’s plaques, to the Smithsonian.
Real estate developers Paul and Ruth Tishman also collected works with ties to the Benin raid. In 1984, the Tishmans sold their collection of African art to the Walt Disney Company, which in turn donated the works to the Smithsonian in 2007. One of these items—a wax-cast statue of a rooster—was described in a 1981 exhibition catalog as numbering among 15 or 20 such brass roosters looted from Benin City in 1897.
Dan Hicks, an archaeology professor at the University of Oxford and the author of The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, told Smithsonian magazine in March the Institution’s action offers hope to African communities who have called for stolen artifacts to be returned for decades.
“The Smithsonian is pioneering new ways of how to create a new more equitable relationship between African institutions, African communities and those collections in the Northern hemisphere,” he said.
Other museums and historical institutions across the U.S. and Europe, particularly in London and Germany, have taken strides to acknowledge the history of the Benin bronzes and have either returned or pledged to return the objects to Nigeria.
The Smithsonian also reported that the National Museum of Natural History has 20 Benin bronzes in its collections. "Provenance research for that collection has been undertaken and will be submitted to the Board of Regents as a request to deaccession bronzes obtained during the 1897 expedition and return them to Nigeria," according to the statement.
In working toward the goal of directing a 21st-century global African Art Museum that runs under a paradigm that rejects colonialism and Eurocentrism, Blankenberg says this process requires a lot of questioning, experimentation, humility and collaboration. She also says the museum is addressing not only the ownership of items, but the power dynamics surrounding the knowledge of the bronzes and who gets to tell their stories.
“At our museum, we're embarking on projects of African museology,” Blankenberg says. “What does it mean to amplify African voices, African artists, African creatives, but also African knowledge systems, African languages? What does it mean to shift the power of definition within our museum? I think that the restitution, the reparations is one part of the equation, but it's really a kind of major existential shift in how we operate as a museum and how we're willing to operate moving forward.”