Bronze Benin in Nigeria: American museums return collection of looted treasures

written by Hannah McGovern

This article was originally published by art newspapereditorial partner of CNN Style.
The National Gallery of Art (NGA), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), and the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) held a joint event Tuesday in Washington, D.C., marking the return of 31 people. Bronze Boys From their own collections to Nigeriamarking the newest teacher in a growing movement To return the looted treasures.

The homecoming party was held behind closed doors at the NMAfA, where 13 Boys’ Items have been shown at a farewell party over the past two weeks. The Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Archeology (NCMM) will now take ownership of 29 artifacts abandoned earlier this year from Smithsonian collections, including copper plaques, heads and memorial figures.

The NGA repatriated a statue of Cockerell after a vote by the Board of Trustees in 2020 to rescind the work. The statue – the only Boyn bronze in the museum’s collection – was first acquired by a British dealer who worked in Nigeria and sent the piece to Sotheby’s London in 1954. It was entered into the museum’s collection in 1955 via donors who acquired the piece through a New York-based dealer John J. Kligman.

This drawing of the king's head was one of 29 pieces returned by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

This drawing of the king’s head was one of 29 pieces returned by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. attributed to him: Franco Khoury / National Museum of African Art

The Rooster was one of as many as 10,000 artifacts stolen by British forces from the royal palace in the Kingdom of Benin (in present-day Nigeria) in 1897. The pieces were scattered all over the world, and in the decades since, many of them have been acquired. Or it has been donated to American museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chicago Field Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and others.

Joining the repatriated pieces from the NMAfA and NGA are a bronze head of an “Oba” (king) from the RISD Museum, also separated in 2020. (The term “Benin bronzes” is a blanket description that includes objects of brass, ivory and wood as well as bronze.)

“This event opens new horizons regarding the relationship of American cultural institutions with Nigeria,” said Aba Issa Tijani, General Manager of NCMM, according to an NGA press release. He also praised the move, describing it as “a harbinger of greater things to come as museums and other institutions here in the United States that house collections of bronzes in Benin are expected to follow suit.”

Njere Blankenberg, director of the National Museum of African Art, speaks at a repatriation ceremony in Washington, DC.

Njere Blankenberg, director of the National Museum of African Art, speaks at a repatriation ceremony in Washington, DC. attributed to him: Rodney Choice/AFP

“By returning the artifacts, these institutions together are writing new pages in history,” Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Muhammad said in a statement. He foresaw future cooperation between Nigerian and American museums, including joint exhibitions and educational exchanges. A Smithsonian spokesperson said that under a new agreement, Nigeria will make nine Benin bronzes available to the NMAfA as loans.

Smithsonian announce The decision to return most of the bronze pieces in Benin in March, several months after the pieces were removed from display at the NMAfA. “We cannot build for the future without doing our best to heal the wounds of the past,” museum director Neger Blankenberg told The Art Newspaper last November.

In June, the Smithsonian’s Board of Governors voted to abolish the succession of 29 items permanently returned to the British Raid on Benin in 1897, in keeping with the new ethical returns policy adopted across the world’s largest museum complex. The policy allows each of the Smithsonian’s 21 museums to revoke ownership and return objects that were legally obtained but in conditions considered immoral today, including items that were stolen, taken under duress, or removed without the owners’ consent. Twenty boys’ objects remain in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, pending further investigation of the source.

A selection of Benin bronzes returned to the Nigeria National Museum and Antiquities Commission.

A selection of Benin bronzes returned to the Nigeria National Museum and Antiquities Commission. attributed to him: Rodney Choice/AFP

He said Tuesday’s joint ceremony marked “another important turning point in the global movement to redress African claimants.” Dan HicksProfessor of Contemporary Archeology at Oxford University and author of the 2020 book Prussian Museums: Bronze of Benin, Colonial Violence and the Return of Culture.

“The leadership provided by colleagues at the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art and RISD is very welcome, and lends itself to the continued silence and inaction in other important collections, including the Metropolitan Museum and the British Museum.”

The Met home Two items from Benin were looted to Nigeria last November, but retain about 160 in their collection – one of the largest in the United States. With more than 900 objects, the British Museum in London contains the world’s largest collection of Benin bronze.
The National Gallery of Art has returned an 18th-century cocktail figurine.

The National Gallery of Art has returned an 18th-century cocktail figurine. attributed to him: National Gallery of Art

“With their decision, the Smithsonian allowed us to ask other museums that had obtained artifacts looted from Benin in the same circumstances, whether they would continue to protect themselves in the mantle of filthy law, or in the morally sound institutional ideals,” Chika Oki-Agulu said. , Nigerian artist, art historian and professor at Princeton University.

He said the return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria “could contribute in important ways to the necessary task of reform, healing the chronic psychological wounds inflicted on Africans during that moment of violent and greedy confrontation with European colonial machinery and ideology”.

Nigerian-American artist Victor Ihikaminor, custodian of the non-profit organization building the future Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City to house bronze objects in Benin, described the artifacts as “story books for us (Nigerians)” of immense cultural value for future generations. They are important both as spiritual symbols of rituals that can now be re-established in the Oba Palace in Benin, and as “visual cues we can use to tell our children about the kind of life we ​​are led by ancestors,” he said.

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