Smithsonian Takes Benin Bronzes Off Display, Considers Repatriation

Edo artist/Benin kingdom court style, plaque, mid-16th to 17th century, copper alloy; collection of Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (images courtesy the Smithsonian NMAfA)

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in Washington, DC, has identified 16 objects from its collection with direct links to the British army’s 1897 punitive raid on the Kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria. Ten of those objects were on view at NMAfA and have been removed from display; all 16 are now being considered for repatriation, a lengthy multi-step process at the institution.

When the British army attacked Benin City in the late 19th century, soldiers looted thousands of sacred and royal objects, including the brass relief plaques that surrounded the palace, ornate carved ivory tusks and masks, and brass and bronze sculptures. Those heterogeneous items, which are today colloquially known as the Benin Bronzes, now reside in over 160 museum collections internationally as well as numerous private collections.

Nigeria has been advocating for the return of the Bronzes for decades, and lately the quest to restitute the precious artifacts has gained some serious steam. Just last month, German and Nigerian officials signed a pre-accord anticipating the return of over 1,000 Benin Bronzes from Germany to Nigeria; the landmark agreement will be formalized in December. Recent returns on a markedly less sweeping scale include the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s announcement of the repatriation of two plaques and brokerage of the repatriation of a sculpture in June, and single-item returns made over the past two weeks by the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and Jesus College in the University of Cambridge.

Several of the objects that NMAfA identified as being looted in the 1897 punitive expedition are copper alloy plaques from the mid-16th to 17th centuries. Relief plaques like these ones, which typically depicted court life or narrative scenes against highly worked backgrounds, at one point adorned the royal courtyard en masse. Of the plaques being considered for restitution by NMAfA, a number were donated to the museum by mining executive, entrepreneur, and art collector Joseph H. Hirshhorn, who was the founding donor of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. An 18th-century copper alloy and iron sculpture depicting an Oba’s (king’s) head, also donated to NMAfA by Hirshhorn, is among the artifacts definitively linked to the 1897 punitive expedition and is currently under consideration for return.

Edo artist/Benin kingdom court style, commemorative head of a king (Oba), 18th century, copper alloy and iron (Collection of Smithsonian National Museum of African Art)

But declaring plans to repatriate does not make it so. Beyond the provenance research that has already been executed, steps along the way to full repatriation include appraisal and valuation by external experts, conversations with the party on the receiving end (here, Nigeria, which is aware that the museum has Benin Bronzes but has not officially requested their return), and green-lights from the Smithsonian Secretary and the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents. Then, the museum “will consider returning artifacts to their original home if requested.” (The museum has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)

According to Artnet, NMAfA has 43 Benin Bronzes in total in its collection. In addition to the 16 artifacts that have been earmarked for potential restitution, 23 objects have unclear provenance and are currently undergoing further research.

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