These objects have a painful history. They are among more than 3,000 works looted from Benin City by British colonial forces in 1897. During this so-called punitive expedition, soldiers set fire to the city and killed an unknown number of people, ending the kingdom of Benin in violence.
Today, stolen works of art including carved elephant tusks, ceramics, portraits of obas (kings) and more than 1000 complexes plates-are known collectively as Bronzes du BÃ©nin. Scattered through at least 161 collections from museums around the world, Benin’s bronzes and their fate represent one of the most infamous examples of the destructive impact of British colonialism on cultural heritage.
The NMAfA is home to at least 16 works of art with documented links to the 1897 raid, including the 10 recently removed from view, the museum director, Ngaire Blankenberg, recount Smithsonian magazine.
Many objects in the museum’s collections also have âunclearâ or suspected links to the attack. Blankenberg instructed the Conservatives to investigate the provenance of over 40 objects from the royal court of Benin. (Additional work with possible or confirmed connections to the raid, such as a figure of a king listed as “collected during a punitive expedition”, are held in the Smithsonian’s collections National Museum of Natural History.)
In addition to uninstalling the looted items, Blankenberg affirmed her commitment to repatriate the Benin bronzes to the NMAfA collections in Nigeria, as first reported by Catherine Hickley of the Art journal. The museum is currently in talks with Nigeria National Commission for Museums and Monuments on the future of the collection, according to an emailed statement.
The director stresses that she does not have the power to repatriate the objects herself. A timeline for the process has not yet been determined. Earlier this year, however, the Smithsonian established a work group responsible for refining the Institution’s policy on repatriation and looting of works of art in its collections. Recommendations are expected by the end of 2021, says Blankenberg.
Currently, Matt Stevens writes for the New York Times, the transfer process or repatriate objects in the Smithsonian collections require the approval of Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch and the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents; discussion with the recipients (in this case, Nigerian cultural officials and royal family of benin); external expertise; and extensive provenance research.
“We know that [the works of art] are looted, âsays Blankenberg Smithsonian. âI am extremely determined to return them. But it’s not for me to decide when and how this happens.
The museum’s decision to remove the looted works from the exhibition follows several high-level pledges to repatriate the bronzes from Benin. In particular, Germany agreed in April to to recover bronzes held in its museums in Nigeria as early as 2022. (German officials also published a online database which lists the 1,163 looted works of art 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 UK to complete their plans for restore Bronzes from Benin.
The English museum, which houses more than 900 objects looted in Benin City in 1897, is in talks with Nigerian officials about the future of its collections. The London institution has historically resisted public repatriation requests. The restored works of art will eventually be exhibited at the West African Art Museum in Edo, which is planned opening in BÃ©nin Ville in 2025.
Blankenberg, who took the helm as NMAfA director in July after a career as an international museum consultant, arrived in the United States in early October following travel delays linked to Covid-19. Less than 11 days after arriving in Washington, she decided to uninstall the Benin bronzes on display.
âI took them out because I think it hurts a lot to show them,â she said. Smithsonian. âFor Africans, seeing this is like a slap in the face. So while we’re busy trying to [repatriate these items], I intend to minimize the damage.
The director’s decision was informed by her identity as a South African and a member of the African diaspora. âWhen I go to a museum and see things that have been acquired because of violence or dehumanization, I feel like I don’t belong there,â says Blankenberg. âAnd I don’t want anyone to feel like that in my museum.â
At NMAFA, a new explanatory wall text written by Blankenberg stands in place of the ten elements removed from view. Digital photos of several of the bronze plaques were installed to “honor the artistry” of the objects, the director said. The plaques are said to have once adorned the walls of the long galleries of the Royal Palace in Benin City, recounting the history of ancient kings and their military exploits.
Uninstalled artwork includes a ivory elephant tusk carved with reliefs of an oba, animals and other intricate designs. The object may have once been part of a king altar to its predecessors. Another sculpture forged from an alloy of copper and iron depicts the head of an oba, with an emphasis on the ruler’s intricately detailed necklace made of imported coral beads.
A number of looted items arrived at the Smithsonian as a gift from the wealthy Hirshhorn family. Financier and collector Joseph H. Hirshhorn, which lends its name to Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, donated at least 14 Benin bronzes, including many NMAfA plates, to the Institution, as Washington post reported in 1981. Other looted objects, such as a gong, are listed as part of the bequest of Joseph’s widow, Olga Hirshhorn.
Real estate agents Paul and Ruth Tishman also collected works related to the Beninese 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 statue of a rooster– was described in a 1981 exhibition catalog as counting among 15 or 20 these brass roosters looted in Benin City in 1897.
Blankenberg anticipates further conversations about the history of unfair collection practices that will unfold later.
The director is currently in Lagos for the launch of “24 Hours of the Smithsonian in LagosÂ», A celebration of contemporary Nigerian chefs, musicians, photographers and filmmakers. The event, says Blankenberg, was organized to support NMAfA’s goal of âbuilding a trusting, fun and mutually rewarding relationshipâ with cultural institutions across Nigeria.
Before these relationships can flourish, adds the director, NMAfA must tackle the painful stories in its collections.
âThis experience tested my vision of new ways of being a museum: distributed, regenerative, collaborative, proactive, artist-centered and audience-centered, a place of belonging,â explains Blankenberg. âStolen booty and other forms of colonial or racist violence have no place in this view. “