More than 120 years ago, British soldiers invaded the centuries-old Kingdom of Benin and ransacked and burned Edo, the seat of the empire, that today is known as Benin City, Nigeria. As part of this horrific raid, they stole as many as 10,000 sculptures, plaques, ceremonial objects, altars and other pieces dating largely from the mid-16th to early 17th century. Collectively, these items are known as the “Benin Bronzes,” and over the ensuing 125 years, they have made their way to museums and galleries around the world, most of which were aware that the works had been taken by force.
For decades, Nigerians have called for the return of those stolen artifacts, and at last, museums in Europe and the United States have finally begun listening. The Smithsonian Institution is now taking steps to return some of these artworks in its collections, a decision rooted in both a forthcoming policy on ethical collecting, and in a decade-long partnership with the Nigerian community that helped foster mutual trust and a shared vision.
The Smithsonian has 39 of the Benin pieces in its collections, and most, but not all, are marked for return to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCCM), according to Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas. Officials will make a determination on the remaining artifacts once they have verifyied if they were stolen. Then the Institution’s board of regents will have to approve the de-accessioning of the items.
The NCMM and the Smithsonian will also sign a memorandum of understanding in which the two entities will create educational programs, and photography and digital workshops for artists, children and educators.
As part of the memorandum, the Smithsonian will be giving up legal title to the stolen works. The NCCM has agreed to occasional long-term loans of artifacts for exhibitions at the Smithsonian with curatorial guidance from the Nigerians.
“What is more important than being in control of how your heritage, your artifacts, are displayed?” said Abba Isa Tijani, director general of the NCCM in an interview with the Washington Post, which first reported the return of the Benin Bronzes. “I commend the Smithsonian,” Tijani said, adding: “We have not encountered another museum that has done as much.”
The Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) has been working with the NCCM and the Benin City National Museum since 2012, says Amy Staples, a senior archivist at the museum.
It is a partnership that began with the NMAfA acquiring a collection of images by Chief S.O. Alonge, the photographer to the Royal Court of Benin from the 1930s to the 1970s. The photographer also maintained a commercial studio in Benin City. Staples, along with curator Bryna Freyer, mounted an exhibition of the photographs that ran from 2014 to 2016. During that period, four Benin Museum staff members came to Washington, D.C. for training, in part to prepare for the Alonge photos to be exhibited at their own institution. In 2016, NMAfA gave to the Benin Museum high-resolution digital copies and all of the exhibition fabrications, including framed photographs, labels and banners.
But that museum needed some upgrades. Ultimately with Nigerian funders, the Smithsonian helped to broker the total renovation of the facility, says Staples. And the exhibition, which included Alonge’s commercial portraits of Benin City residents, was warmly embraced by the community, she says.
The collaboration has led to a new project. NMAfA is re-photographing community members who Alonge initially documented 60 to 70 years ago. So far, they’ve photographed a dozen elders who are now in their 80s and 90s, says Staples.
The Smithsonian’s long-term partnerships with the NCCM and the Benin Museum and the gift of the Alonge photograph exhibition paved the way for the return of the Benin Bronzes, she says.
The relationship is based on years of “building trust and years of demonstrating respect to the Oba, the King,” says Staples. “There are many ways we built these long-term relationships with people in the community, at the museum, and also at the Royal Court of Benin,” she says.
That sets the Smithsonian apart, as many institutions have hesitated to return their Benin Bronzes, citing in part, a lack of relationship with Nigeria or qualms about the nation’s museum infrastructure, says 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.
“I can’t underline how significant it is that arguably the leading United States museum for anthropology and for world culture has made this bold but also thoughtful and ethically driven move,” says Hicks, referring to the Smithsonian’s decision. The action offers “a beacon of hope and light” for communities all over Africa “who for decades have been demanding these returns,” says Hicks.
“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 says. The Smithsonian’s return of the bronzes and its new collections policy also “throws into relief how incredibly out of step” other institutions and museums are, says Hicks. “None of this new agenda has yet been embraced,” by these institutions, he says.
In his book, Hicks documented—as he recently tweeted—that more than 10,000 items looted in 1897 are held by at least 160 museums, including 45 in the U.S., 43 in the U.K., and 24 in Germany.
Kevin Gover, the Smithsonian’s under secretary for museums and culture, says the Institution hopes its return of the Benin Bronzes and new collections policy “will lead other institutions not just in the United States but throughout the world to reconsider their policies on ethical returns.”
The Smithsonian spent a year grappling with how it could be a better citizen when it came to acquiring new pieces and letting go of those that have come into its possession by theft or appropriation. “It’s part of a larger movement in the museum world as museums all over the world and here in the U.S. are considering what their obligations are to the communities where these artifacts originated,” says Gover.
The Smithsonian—primarily through the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of Natural History—has a long history of returning artifacts to Indigenous communities. The 1989 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act required the return of sacred objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and human remains to Indigenous peoples. The Smithsonian has also occasionally gone beyond the legal requirements. The Natural History museum, for instance, has returned human remains to Australia and New Zealand, improving the Smithsonian’s relationship with both the Aboriginal people of Australia and the Maoris in New Zealand, Gover says. The new ethical returns policy “is going a step further, and saying we’re going to examine the circumstances upon which [the objects] came into our ownership and determine whether they were ethically collected in essence and make decisions on whether we should return them,” says Gover.
This won’t just apply to material from other countries, he says. “It may well be there are circumstances where here within the United States we’ve acquired things, or things ended up in our ownership, that were, in fact, acquired unethically.”
The Smithsonian will not go through its entire collection—some 155 million objects—to assess every item’s provenance. The new ethical returns policy—which is awaiting likely approval by Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III—will come into play when an individual or organization makes a request for a return of an object. It may also come up as curators put together exhibitions and come across items in which it “appears there were problems with how they were acquired,” says Gover.
Hicks points out, however, that a precedent set by the Washington Principles, established in 1998 regarding Nazi-looted art, puts the “onus of responsibility for knowing what’s been looted from the claimant to the institution.”
The taking of African material culture by colonialists may be different historical circumstances, but it does not change the fact that they were ill-gotten gains, he says. “A looted object does not suddenly stop being looted simply because it’s changed hands between institutions or collectors,” says Hicks.
The return of the Benin Bronzes and other materials to Africa, he says, “has to be the beginning of a whole new process of understanding what’s hidden away in the collections.”