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Why the Smithsonian is changing its approach to collecting, starting with the removal of looted Benin treasures

A plaque of copper alloy in the Benin Kingdom Court Style from the mid-16th to 17th centuries. (Franko Khoury/National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution)
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Collecting is a core function of museums — a way to preserve the present for future generations and to educate and inspire visitors with objects from the past. And yet removing artwork — with the hope of returning it to its rightful owner — was one of the first moves made by the new director of the National Museum of African Art.

A few months after taking the reins of one of the smaller Smithsonian museums in July, Ngaire Blankenberg removed 18 Benin Kingdom Court Style works from their cases, saying their presence was harmful.

“I am tired of going to museums and feeling stressed about that question,” she said about the mental effort of worrying whether an object was stolen or acquired unethically. “I have a visceral reaction to seeing things that shouldn’t be on display. I wanted to make sure that negative reaction wasn’t being felt by anyone else.”

Among the 39 Benin Kingdom Court Style pieces owned by the museum, the works that were taken from view are linked to the 1897 British raid of Benin City, in what is now Nigeria, when soldiers looted some 3,000 pieces of priceless art, works that eventually made their way into museum and private collections around the world. Blankenberg says she is committed to returning them to Nigeria, but that decision rests with the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents. Removing them from the gallery is the first step toward making all visitors feel welcome.

“We need to develop trust and transparency among our core constituents in order to build a 21st-century African art museum,” she said. “A huge impediment to that conversation is to have stuff you shouldn’t have.”

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Blankenberg’s action comes as the Smithsonian completes a six-month, institutionwide examination of its collection practices that looks at this core activity from an ethical perspective. More than a dozen representatives of eight museums and centers, including the African Art, Asian Art, American History, Natural History and American Indian museums, are part of the Ethical Returns Working Group and have spent most of the year creating uniform guidelines that will be applied to the more than 155 million objects — artwork, artifacts and natural science specimens — held by the institution’s 19 museums and research centers. The group’s report is expected this month.

The panel is examining past collecting standards through a moral rather than legal lens. The new guidelines will require Smithsonian museums to dig into the circumstances behind their acquisitions and make an effort to address any wrongs.

“We want to make sure things are being preserved in the right place, not just our place,” Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III said about the review, a task he asked for in the spring as the Smithsonian dealt with the dual crises of the pandemic and the racial reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

The review will bring the entire institution in line with the practices he put in place at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 with Bunch as its founding director.

“You are seeing museums catching up with people like me who wanted museums to be more community driven,” Bunch said. “What have we done in the past that we have to come to grips with? How do we make sure, despite our histories, that going forward we have an ethical statement we believe in?”

“This is a moment to say, ‘We can be better,’ ” Bunch said. “By accepting our troubled past, we can point to a better future.”

Questions of ownership and repatriation have been in the spotlight this year, as activists call out museums around the world for their roles in the looting of former colonized lands. But the focus on colonial-era objects is just the latest wave of scrutiny over what museums own and display. In the 1990s, advocates pressed for research into and the eventual return of works stolen by Nazis from Jewish families; in the early 2000s, Italian officials used the courts to force the return of antiquities.

This fall, thousands of works from Iraqi war zones were returned, including the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet that had been on view in Washington’s Museum of the Bible. After a global investigation by media outlets including The Washington Post revealed documents linking a British dealer to looted Cambodian treasures in American museums, the Denver Art Museum announced it would return four pieces.

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Colonial-era acquisitions have received extra attention because of the racial reckoning that has pressed museums to be more diverse, equitable and inclusive. But experts peg the movement to 2018, when a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron called for the permanent return of art taken from African countries without consent. That same year, the blockbuster movie “Black Panther” featured a heist scene that had audiences cheering and giving the movement some pop culture limelight.

Then came the death of Floyd, and protests around the country that led to the removal of Confederate statues and calls for museums to return objects that may have been acquired legally but were originally looted by colonizers. In November, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a formal repatriation ceremony to mark the return of three works. The Met also announced an agreement with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments for future loans and collaborations.

As recently as April, the Smithsonian said it had no plans to repatriate its Benin Kingdom Court Style objects, including pieces of bronze and ivory, some of which have been in its collection for more than 50 years. Their connection to the British raid was not a secret, and many of the works’ provenances — the written accounts of ownership from creation to present day — begin with “Benin Punitive Expedition, 1897.”

Wall text in the African Art Museum’s gallery recounts the details of the raid, describing it as “a stark turning point in the history of the Benin kingdom,” and notes that scholars have advocated for the return of the ornate bronze works. It also emphasizes the museum’s long collaboration with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

The display was meant to celebrate the royal court’s rich artistic tradition of metalworks, including bronze plaques and sculptures, and ivory carvings that date to the 1300s.

That historical context was not enough for Blankenberg.

“Museums are Eurocentric institutions, created in Europe on the basis of Enlightenment ideas that manifest in quite a racist way to the rest of the world,” she said. “Their DNA is problematic, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist.

“My strategy is to create a space of recognition for global Africans — a place where we feel belonging, kinship and inspired by art as defined by us,” she said.

The looted pieces have been replaced by photographs and a sign that reads in part: “We recognize the trauma, violence and loss such displays of stolen artistic and cultural heritage can inflict on the victims of those crimes, their descendants, and broader communities.”

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Attitudes about provenance have dramatically shifted in recent years, experts say. Until recently, a curator might welcome the provenance’s connection to the 1897 raid because it indicated that the work had not been recently trafficked. Other pieces in the Smithsonian’s collection can be tracked to mid-20th-century transactions with British dealers, who might have kept the names of the previous owners off the provenances because they didn’t want other dealers to know which families they came from in case they had more objects to sell.

Buyers also worked regularly with dealers and often relied on their reputations.

“Buyers didn’t ask that many questions before agreeing to a sale,” said Victoria Reed, curator for provenance at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “Today, we see there is a tremendous risk to that.”

Another change is the emphasis on ethics, Reed said. “The chain of ownership may be clear, but you want to look at the historical circumstances, the financial circumstances, the relationships involved to try to analyze questions of duress,” she said.

These shifts are central to the institutional review being conducted by the Smithsonian’s Ethical Returns Working Group. Even its name reflects the shift from a focus on legal questions to ones of ethical engagement with communities around the world.

“We look at past collecting practices in light of current ethical concerns,” said Christine Mullen Kreamer, deputy director of the African Art Museum and a member of the working group. “We are thinking about moments in history and what the conditions might have been, whether it was a raid, political instability like a civil war, and other challenges, like economic turmoil.”

The new guidelines will highlight options for future stewardship, Kreamer said. They are talking about power-sharing, about joint ownership and long-term loans that will allow visitors to enjoy the beauty of the objects. The effort is turning stewardship on its head, committee members say.

“It is giving voice to individuals, communities and institutions that have not always had a voice,” Kreamer said. “Engagement with communities will be part of curatorial practice going forward.”

The result won’t mean the emptying of the galleries at the American Indian, African Art or Asian Art museums, the officials said. Instead, decisions will be made case by case, with legal ownership balanced against ensuring the greatest exposure.

“For me, it’s about the greater good,” Bunch said about the Benin works specifically. “Perhaps they will be returned, or maybe they will be used to interpret the moment they represent, or even, in a larger sense, to tell the story of museums evolving.

“I understand that some could argue that this is a slippery slope,” Bunch continued, noting that not drawing a hard line makes some people uncomfortable. “But that’s a slope I’m comfortable being on. I’m comfortable with ambiguity.”

For Blankenberg, the question of legal ownership is not the central concern.

“The important thing is not so much this option or that option but who gets to decide,” she said. “Is there an equitable conversation between source communities and museums to decide what happens to the objects?”

Because of Smithsonian-wide staff shortages related to the region’s coronavirus surge, the National Museum of African Art is open only on Saturdays and Sundays until Jan. 19.

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