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.
“This exhibition will be from the perspective of Nigeria and how we want them to be displayed,” he said, adding that the Smithsonian has pledged to fund education programs for young Nigerians. “What is more important than being in control of how your heritage, your artifacts, are displayed?”
The agreement with the Nigerian commission will be the first repatriation under the Smithsonian’s new policy of ethical returns that calls for its museum leaders to consider the moral circumstances surrounding the ownership of the 155 million artworks, artifacts and natural science specimens in its collection. The institution expects to revise its collections directive in April. The Smithsonian Board of Regents must approve the deaccessioning of the objects before they can be returned to Nigeria.
Why the Smithsonian is changing its approach to collecting, starting with the removal of looted Benin treasures
The decision follows years of protests that called on museums to acknowledge their difficult histories, including their roles in the looting of former colonized lands, and to adapt their policies to address racism and other harms. The field has responded, but slowly. In November, the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned three works to the Nigerian commission and committed to future collaboration. Institutions in Britain, Germany and France have also started to return works, Tijani said.
National Museum of African Art Director Ngaire Blankenberg described the repatriation as the first step in the art museum’s effort to shed its Eurocentric past and forge a new model for a global audience. Last fall, Blankenberg removed the artwork from the galleries, a move Tijani described as “respectful.”
“This is about a new possibility. The repatriation is about past violence and harm,” Blankenberg said last week. “I don’t believe it ends there. We have to stop the harm and imagine a new way of working, of how we can do this differently together.”
Blankenberg said the new partnership is built on the Smithsonian’s relationship with Nigerian cultural agencies that began in 2015. It will help to transform the African art museum into a vibrant space that connects these treasures of the past to the present and future.
“Using the bronzes as almost archival material, alongside photographs and oral histories and other forms of art, that contemporary arts can draw from them,” she said, explaining how the works might be exhibited in the future. “This is part of a thorough process of reimagining the African art experience … and what a regenerative, decolonized African art museum can be.
“The Smithsonian is a huge bureaucracy, and doing things like this really challenges the system, not because they don’t want to do it but because it is not set up for this kind of thing,” she said.
The push for the repatriation of the Benin Kingdom Court Style art from museums around the world has gained momentum in the past year, Tijani said. The Smithsonian’s commitment takes it to a new level.
“Basically, we share the objects,” Smithsonian Under Secretary for Museums and Culture Kevin Gover said.
Gover said the details of the agreement, including the exact number of artworks to be returned, are still being finalized. The provenance research on some of the works has not uncovered a clear connection to the 1897 raid, a spokeswoman added.
“What we really want and what (the NCMM) offered is more of an ongoing relationship where, even though we may transfer title, they may choose to lend them to us so they can be on display here.
“What we are really talking about is a change of practice. We won’t simply determine for ourselves that we are the experts, but rather that it will be a collaborative process with the communities of origin.”
Dan Hicks, curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford in England and author of “The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution,” welcomed the Smithsonian’s decision to return the works.
“It’s incredibly good news. How wonderful to see the Smithsonian offering leadership,” he said.
“This is about professional evolution that has been a long time coming. We’re making museums fit our times,” he said. “We need these public spaces, in which we can celebrate many different ways of thinking, making, believing. But that doesn’t mean we have to hold on to stolen goods put on display as propaganda for White supremacy.”
Tijani, Hicks and others who support the restitution say fears that these moves will be the death knell of museums are overblown and ignore the history of museum practice.
“There is a lot of where will it end-ism, what about-ism, slippery slope-ism,” Hicks said. “Restitution is not a new idea, it has been slow to adapt to changing social ideas.”
Gover points out that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of Natural History have repatriated thousands of Native American objects and human remains since 1989, when federal laws required they do so. When the laws were first passed, Gover said many worried that “tribes would back up their trucks and empty the museums.”
“It didn’t happen,” said Gover, who led the American Indian Museum from 2007 to 2020. “It shaped a new relationship between the museums and the tribes, one that both parties found extraordinarily productive. It wasn’t a transfer of wealth; it was a reciprocal transfer of knowledge.”
“I expect the same will be true with the Benins,” he said.