Now, after global protests over white supremacy and the vestiges of slavery and colonialism, a number of museums have announced that they will repatriate items looted from Africa back to the continent.
In April, Germany announced that Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum would be returning hundreds of artifacts looted in the 19th century from what was the Kingdom of Benin back to Nigeria. Other European nations and museums are beginning to do the same: In March, Scotland’s University of Aberdeen said that it would send a Benin Bronze back to Nigeria. And last year, France indicated the return of artifacts stolen from West Africa. However, the government of Britain, the country that was responsible for the 1897 raid on Benin City, has by law prevented national institutions from returning looted items.
That a number of European institutions are finally taking heed of what African scholars and activists have been demanding for decades is a welcome step. Alas, much less attention has been paid to the responsibility of U.S. institutions that choose to keep objects that were looted from African countries.
So far, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have not commented on whether their institutions will return the artifacts that were plundered from the Kingdom of Benin, though the Smithsonian has said it is convening a working group to discuss its policy on looted art. The National Museum of African Art in D.C. has 42 objects from Benin; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has at least 160 objects that can be traced back to Benin City.
Institutions such as the Smithsonian and the Met claim to want to start dialogue about culture and history. After the murder of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis, both released statements about combating systemic racism. The Met invested in antiracism training for its staff and said that it was committed to “new approaches” in “how we build, study, and oversee our collection and program.” So then why the silence and institutional foot-dragging on questions of returning looted art back to the countries that request and want them back?
In an act of vengeance, the British Army sent 1,200 troops to plunder and raid the city. The soldiers took anything of value they could get their hands on, including objects from the royal palace, and brought them back to Britain to be given to Queen Victoria and sold to museums and other private collections. Today, Benin City has very few of the original objects taken from the raid, while thousands of those objects still remain outside.
Nigerians and those from Benin City have spoken out about the bitterness and anger they feel at the historical insult of seeing what was theirs being kept in the institutions of the countries that subjugated them long ago.
For a long time, Western curators patronizingly argued that African countries could not take care of their own cultural objects — an absurd argument, as if those objects did not exist for generations in those climates before the arrival of the Europeans. Today, Benin City is constructing a new museum, which will serve as home to the repatriated objects. The museum is slated to open in 2023, and Nigerian curators, artists and activists will work with their Western counterparts to return the items.
With the advent of digital technology and the ability of artisans to create replicas, there is little reason to keep so many looted originals away from the places they were created. At this point in history, keeping these objects in Western museums amounts to holding on to mementos of subjugation and colonial nostalgia, all while gaslighting Africans by claiming these objects need to stay “safe” in the West. Considering that these museums have been accused of discrimination and failing to hire and promote Black and African curators and staffers, perhaps they aren’t qualified to lead discussions about keeping Black history and culture safe.
U.S. museums need to step up and begin honest efforts to return looted treasures back to their African homes. If Black Lives Matter to American museums, then restoring the dignity of the Black empires and their descendants need to matter, too.