The Smithsonian institution marks a historic moment, returning the Benin Bronzes. This return honors years of cultural rapport. Advocates praise the return as a step towards reconciliation. Ethical debates sparked the decision, and the Smithsonian’s commitment to cultural integrity catalyzed the Bronzes’ return, transforming international museum relationships.
Over a century ago, British soldiers descended upon the Kingdom of Benin, devastating its seat, Edo, which is now known as Benin City, Nigeria. This ruthless invasion witnessed the plunder of a treasure trove of artistic wonders, collectively known as the “Benin Bronzes.” These artifacts, which include sculptures, plaques, ceremonial objects, and more, date back to the mid-16th to early 17th century. For years, Nigerians have fervently demanded the return of these stolen treasures, and finally, the world is listening. The Smithsonian Institution, as a symbol of this change, is taking significant steps to return some of these artworks from its collection to Nigeria, rooted in a decade-long partnership with the Nigerian community and a commitment to ethical collecting.
Within its collections, the Smithsonian holds 39 of the Benin Bronzes. Most of them are earmarked for return to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCCM), with the determination of the remaining artifacts pending verification of their provenance. The de-accessioning of these items will require approval from the Smithsonian’s board of regents.
Furthermore, the Smithsonian and the NCCM will formalize their collaboration through a memorandum of understanding. This agreement goes beyond the return of the bronzes; it encompasses the creation of educational programs, photography and digital workshops for artists, children, and educators.
One of the crucial aspects of this memorandum is the Smithsonian’s relinquishment of legal title to the stolen works. In exchange, the NCCM has agreed to occasionally lend artifacts for exhibitions at the Smithsonian, with curatorial guidance from Nigerians. This mutual understanding underscores the importance of having control over the display of one’s heritage.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) played a pivotal role in building this relationship with the Nigerian community. It all began in 2012 when NMAfA acquired a collection of images by Chief S.O. Alonge, the photographer to the Royal Court of Benin from the 1930s to the 1970s. The museum’s commitment extended further as it helped renovate the Benin Museum in partnership with Nigerian funders.
The collaboration has now evolved into a remarkable project, with NMAfA re-photographing community members who were originally documented by Chief S.O. Alonge 60 to 70 years ago. These efforts have fostered trust and respect within the community and at the Royal Court of Benin.
The Smithsonian’s decision to return the Benin Bronzes is a landmark moment, setting an example for institutions worldwide. It highlights the need for more equitable relationships between African institutions, African communities, and collections in the Northern hemisphere. This bold and ethical move resonates with the demands of communities in Africa who have long sought the return of their cultural treasures.
In line with its new ethical returns policy, the Smithsonian acknowledges its responsibility to examine the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of objects in its possession. This policy will be implemented when requests for return are made or when curators encounter items with questionable provenance during exhibition preparations. The Smithsonian aims to uphold ethical standards, irrespective of whether objects were acquired abroad or within the United States.
Returning the Benin Bronzes is the first step in a broader journey toward a better understanding of what lies within museum collections. The onus is on institutions to acknowledge and address the origins of their possessions, ensuring that stolen or unethically acquired objects are rightfully returned to their communities of origin.