Late last month, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) took ten works of art from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southwest Nigeria, off of public display.
These items have a painful history. They number among more than 3,000 works looted from Benin City by British colonial forces in 1897. During this so-called punitive expedition, soldiers burned the city and killed an unknown number of people, bringing the Kingdom of Benin to a violent end.
Today, the stolen artworks—including carved elephant tusks, ceramics, portraits of obas (kings) and more than 1,000 intricate plaques—are known collectively as the Benin Bronzes. Scattered across at least 161 museum collections around the world, the Benin Bronzes and their fate represent one of the most infamous examples of British colonialism’s destructive impact on cultural heritage.
NMAfA houses at least 16 artworks with documented links to the 1897 raid, including the 10 recently removed from view, the museum’s director, Ngaire Blankenberg, tells Smithsonian magazine.
Numerous items in the museum’s collections also have “unclear” or suspected ties to the attack. Blankenberg has tasked curators with investigating the provenance of more than 40 objects from the royal court of Benin. (Additional works with possible or confirmed connections to the raid, such as a figure of a king listed as “collected on Punitive Expedition,” are held in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.)
In addition to uninstalling the looted objects, Blankenberg has affirmed her commitment to repatriating the Benin Bronzes in NMAfA’s collections to Nigeria, as first reported by Catherine Hickley of the Art Newspaper. The museum is currently in talks with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments about the future of the collection, per an emailed statement.
The director stresses that she does not have the authority to repatriate the items herself. A timeline for the process has yet to be determined. Earlier this year, however, the Smithsonian established a working group tasked with refining the Institution’s policy regarding repatriation and looted art in its collections. Recommendations are expected by the end of 2021, Blankenberg says.
Currently, writes Matt Stevens for the New York Times, the process for deaccessioning or repatriating objects in the Smithsonian’s collections involves approval from Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch and the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents; discussion with recipients (in this case, Nigerian cultural officials and the Benin royal family); an outside expert appraisal; and thorough provenance research.
“We know that [the works of art] are looted,” Blankenberg tells Smithsonian. “I am extremely committed to giving them back. But it is not my decision as to when and how that happens.”
The museum’s decision to remove the looted works from display arrives in the wake of several high-profile pledges to repatriate Benin Bronzes. Most notably, Germany agreed in April to return the bronzes held in its museums to Nigeria as soon as 2022. (German officials also released an online database that lists the 1,163 looted artworks up for repatriation—a number that continues to grow.)
In June, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced plans to repatriate two bronze plaques in its collections. And last month, the Universities of Cambridge and Aberdeen became the first institutions in the United Kingdom to carry through on plans to restitute Benin Bronzes.
The British Museum, which houses more than 900 items looted from Benin City in 1897, is in talks with Nigerian officials about the future of its collections. The London institution has historically resisted public requests for repatriation. Restituted works of art will eventually be displayed at the Edo Museum of West African Art, which is scheduled to open in Benin City in 2025.
Blankenberg, who took the helm as NMAfA’s director in July after a career as an international museum consultant, arrived in the United States in early October following travel delays related to Covid-19. Within 11 days of being in Washington, she decided to uninstall the Benin Bronzes on display.
“I took them down because I think it does a huge amount of harm to have them on show,” she tells Smithsonian. “For African people to see that, it’s like a slap in the face. So, while we’re busy trying to [repatriate these items], I intend to minimize the harm.”
The director’s decision was informed by her identity as a South African and a member of the African diaspora. “When I go into a museum and I see things that have been acquired because of violence or dehumanization, it makes me feel like I don’t belong there,” Blankenberg says. “And I don’t want anybody feeling like that in my museum.”
At NMAFA, new explanatory wall text written by Blankenberg stands in the place of the ten items removed from view. Digital photos of several of the bronze plaques have been installed to “honor the artistry” of the objects, the director says. The plaques would have once decorated the walls of long galleries in the royal palace of Benin City, relating the history of former kings and their military exploits.
The uninstalled works of art include an ivory elephant tusk carved with reliefs of an oba, animals and other intricate motifs. The object may have once formed part of a king’s altar to his predecessors. Another sculpture wrought from copper alloy and iron depicts the head of an oba, with an emphasis on the ruler’s finely detailed collar of imported coral beads.
A number of looted items arrived at the Smithsonian as gifts from the wealthy Hirshhorn family. Financier and collector Joseph H. Hirshhorn, who lends his name to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, donated at least 14 Benin Bronzes, including many of NMAfA’s plaques, to the Institution, as the Washington Post reported in 1981. Other looted items, such as a gong, are listed as part of the bequest of Joseph’s widow, Olga Hirshhorn.
Real estate developers Paul and Ruth Tishman also collected works with ties to the Benin raid. In 1984, the Tishmans sold their collection of African art to the Walt Disney Company, which in turn donated the works to the Smithsonian in 2007. One of these items—a wax-cast statute of a rooster—was described in a 1981 exhibition catalog as numbering among 15 or 20 such brass roosters looted from Benin City in 1897.
Blankenberg anticipates further conversations about the history of inequitable collecting practices taking place down the road.
The director is currently in Lagos for the launch of “24 Hours of the Smithsonian in Lagos,” a celebration of contemporary Nigerian chefs, musicians, photographers and filmmakers. The event, Blankenberg says, was organized in support of NMAfA’s goal of “building a trusting and fun, mutually rewarding relationship” with cultural institutions across Nigeria.
Before these relationships can flourish, the director adds, NMAfA needs to address the painful histories in its collections.
“This experiment was testing my vision of new ways to be a museum: distributed, regenerative, collaborative, proactive, artist- and audience-centered—a place to belong,” Blankenberg says. “Stolen loot and other forms of colonial or racist violence has no place in that vision.”