Smithsonian Returns 29 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria: ‘We Are Not Owners’

Many Benin bronzes that have been in Washington museums for decades are finally returning to their homeland in Nigeria 125 years after British forces plundered them from present-day Nigeria, 62 years after Nigeria’s independence brought calls for their return, and after two years of nationwide accountability for institutional racism, these calls have brought renewed interest.

At a ceremony Tuesday at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, officials at The museum transferred the ownership of 29 bronzes and handed over the National Museum of Art one to representatives Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Antiquities. Nine of them will remain in Washington on long-term loan.

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie J. Bunch III said at a ceremony. “We understand as an organization that we are co-stewards of these groups. We are not owners.”

Bunch highlighted the Smithsonian’s new collection policy, which allows items to be returned on ethical grounds — the first significant update to the management of the 176-year-old institution’s collections since 2001. “We hope today’s ceremony will be an example for all cultural institutions,” he said.

Smithsonian Updates Collection Policy to Promote Ethical Returns

Ngair Blankenberg, director of the National Museum of African Art, which removed bronzes in Benin last fall, said the moment reflects a shift in the museum’s practices. “This return sparked the beginning of a new era in our relationship with the royal court, with Nigeria and with Africa and Africans to a large extent,” she said, calling it “one of many steps” toward creating “more equal power dynamics in terms of who owns and who interprets.”

The Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Muhammad, praised the move. He said, “By returning the artifacts, these institutions are working together to write new pages in history. Their courageous decision to return the timeless works of art is worthy of emulation.”

The Benin Bronze has become an international symbol of the charged colonial history of Western cultural institutions – from Boston to Berlin. They are at the center of a global movement calling for the return of looted and questionably acquired artifacts – elgin marbleThe Gilgamesh tabletThe Easter Island Muai Statue and others – to their original places. Tuesday’s concert echoed a similar ceremony in Europe In 2021, when the University of Cambridge and the Quai Branley Museum abandoned the bronze. With this latest step, the high-profile Smithsonian – the largest museum system of its kind in the world – hopes to inspire other museums to follow suit.

Tuesday’s ceremony was just one step in a long and complex journey – the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History still has 20 Benin bronzes, which have been placed under review, and the institution has many other objects with controversial origins, including Thousands of human remains. Bunch says there are no plans to conduct a comprehensive review of the full set of 155 million items. Blankenberg said her museum is working through a list of things but declined to give details.

Bunch said in an interview after the ceremony that he imagined the return would encourage international accountability.

“It allows us to be more global, and it allows us to make sure that people in Nigeria understand that the Smithsonian is doing work that helps them,” he said. “And since we are now more connected through technology, I think this is going to be a really important part. People all over the world will say, ‘These are the institutions that have treated us fairly, and these are the institutions that have not treated us.'”

US museums are trying to return hundreds of Benin’s looted treasures

National Gallery director Caowen Feldman also emphasized how returning home would create trust.

“The public is really interested in how things get to museums. That’s a question we get asked all the time,” she said. After the party. “Being more transparent about the source and history of something, I think, really engages our audience and makes the organization more accessible.

“Benin Bronze” is an umbrella term for a large group of artifacts dating back to at least the 16th century. It includes thousands of items made of different materials depicting different themes – for example, memorial busts of kings and animals of folklore. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 10,000 of these items were stolen by the British, many of which were looted from the Kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria) in 1897 during a deadly retaliatory British invasion now known as the Punitive Campaign. The largest collection of stolen works – around 900 – is still in the British Museum.

newly Washington Post review Of the 70 museums found to be among 56 museums containing Benin pieces, 16 are engaged in the repatriation process. Critics of the repatriation movement have questioned how far museums will go and have raised concerns about taking care of objects once they are returned. Speaking at Tuesday’s ceremony on behalf of Oba (ruler) of the Kingdom of Benin, Prince Agatis Eridiyawa described the criticism as “old”.

“The truth is that there is no argument that can change looted works into non-looted works or stolen works into non-stolen works. There is simply no moral or legal basis for insisting on retaining cultural property looted during military campaigns or in unequal negotiations, in this regard. This request by a few art historians and curators serves no purpose other than their own self-interest.” We are grateful to you and to others who stand by the truth and We acknowledge where these works really belong. “

Blankenberg echoed this sentiment After the party.

“We are not the guardians of the world. Western museums are not custodians of everything in the world. There are a lot of false premises about the debate. People say, ‘Oh, no, if you put everything back, there would be nothing in this museum.’” Honestly, we have 12,000 [objects in our] groups. And if our entire museum is based on stolen things, then frankly we shouldn’t be around.”

Blankenberg declined to comment on other museums’ progress in moral collecting but said the process of returning the artifacts had been smooth. “You can’t disqualify anything in a museum easily, nor should you. The process is painful. But there has been no resistance or discussion,” she said.

The bronzes will return to Africa in the coming weeks. Their final destination is expected to be the new Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, Nigeria, which is due to open in 2025. Here in Washington, Blankenberge dreams of an exhibition introducing visitors to the history of bronzes.

“I don’t want to think too much that the whole story of these incredible works of art is one moment of colonial violence,” she said. “We must be able to understand that these works of art were created in the wonderful, artistic context that exists today.”

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