Smithsonian to Return All Benin BronzesHistorians in the News
tags: museums, art history, African history, Benin Bronzes
As museums everywhere wrestle with what to do about artworks of questionable provenance in their possession, the Smithsonian is leading by example by agreeing to return its collection of Benin Kingdom Court Style artworks to their homeland in Nigeria. The groundbreaking move by the world’s largest cultural organization could set a new bar for how museums respond to changing attitudes about cultural heritage and the legacy of colonial violence.
The repatriation of the 39 priceless artworks is the cornerstone of an agreement that could be signed as early as next month, the head of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments told The Washington Post. It includes provisions for long-term loans, shared exhibitions and education programs in Nigeria. The deal reflects a fundamental change in the Smithsonian’s collecting practices.
The Smithsonian will return works that it has legal title to own but that are linked to an infamous British raid on Benin City in 1897. Almost half of the collection had been on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Once they are shipped to Nigeria — at the Smithsonian’s expense — they will be displayed at the National Museum of Benin in Benin City.
The agreement represents a significant milestone in the global effort to repatriate looted objects to Nigeria, Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments said. Tijani hopes other countries and institutions will follow its model.
“I commend the Smithsonian,” Tijani said. “We have not encountered another museum that has done as much.”
The Smithsonian will give up ownership of the works, which were mostly donated and came into the collection over many years. The agreement calls for at least some pieces to return to Washington on long-term loan in an exhibition the Nigerians will curate, Tijani said.