The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. museums are trying to return hundreds of looted Benin treasures

A Post review finds that protests and policy changes have prompted at least 16 museums to begin repatriating their Benin artifacts. But the process isn’t easy.

From left, “Fowl,” an 18th-century brass sculpture with cast-iron supports from the Royal Court of Benin; a leopard head hip ornament from the royal court; and the bronze head of a king (oba), thought to date to the 1700s. (From left: National Gallery of Art, Washington; Middlebury College Museum of Art; Erik Gould/former gift of Lucy T. Aldrich/RISD Museum)

PHILADELPHIA — One of the first displays in the Penn Museum’s Africa galleries features a red panel with the heading “The Oba’s Palace: Royal Objects Taken by Force.” Inside the glass case, an 18th-century carved ivory armlet sits next to a 100-year-old letter written by the brother of a member of the British forces that attacked the palace in 1897, in what is now Nigeria. The letter offers to sell to the museum some of the objects looted in the violent siege.

Added when the decades-old exhibit was updated in 2019, the archival letter is essential to the new interpretation of the galleries, according to lead curator Tukufu Zuberi.

“We wanted to show that the archive was as important as the objects,” Zuberi said. “It is in the archive that we can document the history of the object from its maker in Africa to the Penn Museum. This letter clearly shows the story of several objects that were stolen from the Benin palace during the British pillage.”

The exhibition showcases 73 Benin objects alongside contemporary art and pieces from 20 other African countries to explore not only beauty and creativity, but also colonialism and enslavement.

“Colonialism was necessarily a violent action, and these objects were used to justify enslavement, colonialism and other forms of racism,” Zuberi said.

But a little more than two years after they opened the Africa galleries, museum officials have decided that the display is not enough. They are now in the process of giving their priceless Benin treasures back.

“This is a watershed moment,” said Christopher Woods, director of Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, known as the Penn Museum. Despite receiving approval from Nigerian officials when developing the new galleries, Woods is ready to transfer legal ownership of any of the 196 works in the museum’s collection that are directly tied to the infamous 1897 attack.

“If we can emerge from this having done the right thing, with collaborations that are mutually beneficial, it is a win for everybody,” he said.

The Penn Museum’s shift reveals the speed of change around the repatriation of colonial-era African art. Fueled by the racial reckoning that swept the country in 2020, and helped by pandemic closures that provided time for introspection, several American museums are working to repatriate their holdings of Benin art to Nigeria. The Washington Post surveyed 70 large and small institutions to determine how many Benin Kingdom Court Style artworks they hold and whether they are taking steps to return them. Of the 56 museums with Benin pieces in their collections, 16 said they are engaged in the repatriating process and five more would be willing to do so if requested.

Many of the efforts precede those of the Smithsonian, which garnered international praise in March for its plan to repatriate several dozen Benin works in its collection. The Post survey found that at least six museums are at the same point in the multistep process as the Smithsonian and that several are ahead. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reached an agreement with Nigerian officials in November that included the return of three pieces and formalized a shared commitment to future exchanges of expertise and art.

The board of the National Gallery of Art voted to deaccession its bronze fowl in May 2020 and is still working to complete the process. The Rhode Island School of Design Museum deaccessioned a bronze head, its only Benin piece, in September 2020. It is still on view as the museum works out the details with Nigerian officials. The Smithsonian Board of Regents is expected to approve the deaccessioning of its works at its June 13 meeting.

The Smithsonian will give back its collection of Benin bronzes

“We’re making history as a field. Museums are changing. This is great,” said Dan Hicks, a professor and curator at the University of Oxford in England and the author of “The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution,” a 2020 book that prompted many museums to investigate their holdings.

As the repatriations accelerate, they are creating a backlog. Nigerian agencies authorized to accept the priceless works can’t keep up with the flood of requests. The National Gallery and RISD are among the institutions waiting to complete the process. Nigerian officials are prioritizing the most prominent collections.

It’s a lesson in hubris for a field that is used to calling the shots.

“These objects are with us because of lack of care and lack of listening. It’s time for us to wait, to listen,” said Sarah Ganz Blythe, interim director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. “You realize there’s a wrong, you want to right the wrong. And maybe it’s just not that easy.”

Hicks is more direct.

“We’re the supply side and this is a demand-led process. Agency, crucially, has to be with our Nigerian colleagues,” he said. “If we’re not giving up control of the process, then we are not understanding what restitution is about.”

‘Trying to heal the wounds’

Colonial-era acquisitions have been in the spotlight for many years. In Europe, calls for repatriation gained traction in 2018, after a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron recommended the permanent return of works taken from African countries without consent. Benin bronzes, a descriptor that includes ornately carved ivory, wood and bronze objects from the Kingdom of Benin, became the symbol of the movement.

Experts estimate that at least 3,000 and as many as 10,000 pieces that were stolen by British forces have found their way into museums and private collections around the world. Not all the pieces are connected to the 1897 raid by the British on the Benin palace. Some were made for commercial trade, and some were crafted later than the period of violence. But many lack documentation, known as provenance, tracing their histories from creation to current owner. As a result, the exact number of looted items might never be known.

The Post survey found as many as 1,200 Benin Kingdom Court Style pieces are held by 56 museums in the United States, including 18 associated with colleges and universities. The Penn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Field Museum in Chicago account for almost two-thirds of the total, with the majority of museums holding fewer than 10.

After the Met, the National Gallery and RISD Museum — the museums that have made the most progress — is the Middlebury College Museum of Art, which has its president’s permission to return its single Benin piece. The Smithsonian, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Denver Art Museum, the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College and the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont are in the process of deaccessioning.

Seven more museums report that they are in discussions with Nigerian colleagues about repatriation and collaboration: the Penn Museum, the Field Museum, the Stanley Museum at the University of Iowa, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, Newfields in Indianapolis and the Toledo Art Museum. Five more — in Virginia, California and Wisconsin — say they are willing to repatriate their pieces if Nigerian officials request.

Most museums are collaborating with the Digital Benin Project, an international effort that began two years ago to create an online catalogue of the treasures. Led by the Museum am Rothenbaum (MARKK) in Hamburg, a small team is building a database of some 5,000 pieces owned by more than 125 museums around the word. Expected to debut later this year, it will be searchable by type of object, provenance, iconography and more, explained Barbara Plankensteiner, the MARRK’s director. For research purposes, the database will include works from as recently as the 1930s.

The project emerged from the Benin Dialogue Group, a collaboration that began in 2007 and includes representatives of the Royal Court of Benin; the Edo state and Nigerian governments; Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments; and museums in Europe with significant Benin holdings.

“It is a help for researchers because you can very easily see comparable objects. It is for Nigeria and the Edo people, to know what is out there in the world,” Plankensteiner said. “It does not relate to restitution. It is research and knowledge-sharing.”

The Smithsonian is changing its approach to collecting, starting with its Benin artifacts

The international effort is crucial to many — especially small — American museums that lack the expertise to properly study the pieces. Museums in Wisconsin, New York, Florida and Michigan report that their collaborations with the project are helping to uncover the histories and significance of their holdings.

The digital research project spotlights an embarrassing fact of museum operations: Many museums don’t know what they own or how some objects came into their collections. Researching these questions takes expertise and time, resources that often are in short supply. Three-quarters of the 1,200 Benins in American museum collections are in storage, making them even less of a priority.

While the Digital Benin Project has helped museums answer the first question in the process — “What do we own?” — it is not involved in the second question — “Whom should we return it to?” Nigeria and its government didn’t exist at the time of the looting, and museum officials say members of the Benin royal family have not always been responsive or aligned with other officials.

Only recently have all parties agreed that Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) is the entity that will negotiate for the art’s return, said Phillip Ihenacho of the Legacy Restoration Trust, which is building Nigeria’s museum infrastructure, including the planned David Adjaye-designed Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City. Construction is still many years in the future.

The NCMM is expecting thousands of objects to be repatriated by museums from around the world, Abba Isa Tijani, the commission’s director general, said in an interview in March. Some will be displayed in Nigeria, others will be part of a traveling exhibition and more will remain where they are, on long-term loan.

“They will be our ambassadors outside Nigeria,” Tijani said. “We are trying to heal the wounds. We are willing to loan them, and we are finding ways to collaborate and ways to continue to display them.”

Nigeria is focused on major collections because it doesn’t have the capacity to consider a piece here and another there, Ihenacho said. In addition, there are practical issues to be considered, such as the cost of shipping, storing and caring for these works, he said.

“We are aware of the deficiency [in Nigeria’s system] and how expensive it is to store and protect [them],” he said of the works being offered for return. “The first step is a change in legal title, so that Nigeria is recognized as the owner. I don’t think the end goal should be every single object that exists outside of Africa should be in Nigeria. Some may remain abroad as cultural ambassadors.”

But Nigeria should decide, Ihenacho emphasized.

“We are establishing public spaces not just as a receptacle for the return of the Benin bronzes, but for contemporary and modern art as well,” he said. “Getting the objects back is not the end goal. The end goal is using history to help people shape their future, and to give hope to young people. That’s much harder to do.”

American art museums are in crisis

Embracing transparency

Richard Saunders, director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art, purchased the liberal arts college’s lone Benin piece — a five-inch bronze leopard hip ornament — in 1997 for $25,000 and it has been on display in the rural Vermont museum ever since. Saunders described it as a beautiful object that “is very small but it has an enormous presence.”

“We know its history, and narratives are great for students, an easy way to connect the dots,” Saunders said, noting that its display has always included that it was stolen during the violent raid in 1897.

The racial reckoning and the focus on colonialism continues, Saunders said, and that has led to new answers to old questions. Acknowledging that it was looted is no longer enough.

“We should return it,” Saunders said. Museum officials first contacted the Legacy Restoration Trust in 2020; the institution plans to continue to display the work until its return.

The Benin movement has led to increased openness in the museum world, another change that many hope will be lasting. The Rhode Island School of Design has grappled with repatriation of its Benin bronze head since 2017, but it wasn’t until student protests the next year that museum leaders took the conversation public.

“Once it became external knowledge, then there was this call to action,” said Blythe, the RISD Museum director. “This made us realize that we should make our work more public, our internal discussions and the research that has been going on. We’re taking the idea of transparency really to heart.”

The University of Michigan Museum of Art has created a public website for its investigation into the histories of the 11 works of African art, including three Benins, in its collection. The research has shown that the works are not connected to the 1897 raid but are most likely more recent copies.

University museums seem more willing to embrace such openness, probably because they are used to students holding them to account, said Woods, the Penn Museum director.

“The work that has been done was started before students asked. I’m glad they ask. I want to tell them what we’re doing,” he said.

Not everyone is embracing such transparency. The Association of Art Museum Directors, the premier art museum membership organization, created an African Art Working Group in 2019 but declined a request by The Post to discuss its work.

Changing attitudes

It will probably be years before many of the planned repatriations are completed and the global partnerships become reality. But the push to return works has dramatically changed the field by developing technology, fostering collaboration and educating a new generation of museum leaders who are less authoritarian and more open to community involvement, experts say. A prime example is the Smithsonian’s recent revision to its collection policy, which calls for shared ownership and the ethical return of works that may have been stolen or removed from their origin communities without consent.

The Digital Benin Project, for example, has developed technology that merges many types of museum collection data into one platform, creating a model for virtual catalogues. Similarly, the possible return of the Benin works has helped to form new internal processes that are fashioned after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the U.S. law that outlines the proper return of Native American remains and sacred and funereal objects.

Most significantly, the lessons of the Benins have changed museums’ attitudes toward repatriation, making it less contentious and more commonplace. And that will be its lasting contribution to the field, experts say.

“These are low-hanging fruit. This is a clear-cut case of these objects must be returned,” RISD Museum chief curator Gina Borromeo said of the Benin bronzes. “There are more complicated issues that need to be addressed in African art, and really in art created in the Global South. It is important that we continue to think about these issues and keep shining a light on them.

“It is probably never going to be resolved 100 percent to everyone’s satisfaction, but if we make incremental steps to correcting mistakes of the past, then perhaps we won’t make them in the future.”

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