Smithsonian Museum of African Art Removes Benin Bronzes from Display and Plans to Repatriate Them

Written by Catherine Hickley

This article was originally published by The art newspaper, Editorial Partner of CNN Style.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC has removed its Benin Bronzes exhibition and plans to repatriate artifacts that were looted by the British in an 1897 raid on the royal palace, according to the museum’s director, Ngaire Blankenberg.

“I can confirm that we have removed the Benin bronzes that we had on display and we are fully committed to repatriation,” Blankenberg said. “We cannot build for the future without doing our best to heal the wounds of the past.”

The museum exhibited 21 objects from the Kingdom of Benin earlier this year. Its online database lists 38 Beninese objects in the collection. About half date back to the British punitive expedition to Benin in 1897, including various commemorative plaques, heads and figures. Provenance research for other articles is still ongoing.

Benin objects are in the collections of more than 160 museums around the world. Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

After the sack of 1897, artifacts from the royal palace of Benin were sold and spread throughout the world; Benin objects are now housed in more than 160 international museums, including several in the US University of California Fowler Museum has also said plans talks with Nigerian authorities about the future of 18 objects from its collection from the Kingdom of Benin.
Last week, two British universities returned looted artifacts to Nigeria: the University of Aberdeen delivered the bronze head of an “oba” or king, and Jesus College, Cambridge returned a bronze sculpture of a rooster.
In mid-October, Germany and Nigeria signed a memorandum of understanding establishing a timetable for the return of around 1,100 Beninese sculptures from German museums, with the first repatriations scheduled for the second quarter of 2022.
In June, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York Announced which will send three objects back to Nigeria. Two of the works, a pair of 16th century Benin court bronze plaques of a “Chief Warrior” and a “Lesser Court Officer”, were donated to the museum in 1991 by modern art dealer Klaus Perls and his wife, Dolly, while the Third, another collector recently offered the museum a 14th-century “Head of Ife” for purchase.
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