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In full turnaround, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art withdraws bronzes from Benin and plans to return them to Nigeria

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In a sign of a shift in priorities, the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution (NMAFA) in Washington, DC, has removed 10 Beninese bronzes from public view as it plans to return the objects to Nigeria.

The decision came directly from the museum’s newly hired director, Ngaire Blankenberg, late last month, just 11 days after moving to Washington, DC for the job. The bronzes removed from the exhibition are among the 16 from the NMAFA collection confirmed to have been taken by British soldiers in an infamous raid on the Royal Palace of Benin in 1897.

However, in the window where the bronzes were previously displayed, there is a panel explaining why they were removed.

“We are currently in discussions with the National Commission of Museums and Monuments of Nigeria on the future of this collection., ”it reads.“ The museum is proactively examining the circumstances and power dynamics that led to the inclusion of these works in our collection, as well as our collection practices to determine and implement the actions we need to take. take to ensure that the museum is a trusted and welcoming place for all. “

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A Beninese plaque from the middle of the 16th to the 17th century. Courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.

However, this does not necessarily mean that restitution is imminent. A Smithsonian spokesperson clarified that while the museum “is committed to repatriation,” the process – which would require the museum to ascertain the provenance of the objects in question, have them appraised by outside experts and negotiate a comeback – just started.

“These Benin bronzes are valuable items and their disposal will require the approval of the Smithsonian secretary and the Smithsonian board of directors,” said the representative. “Once the process is complete, the Smithsonian will consider returning the artifacts to their original homes if necessary. “

“This does not mean that we are not determined to solve this problem”, Blankenberg added in an email to Artnet News, “but rather that we need to make sure that we have a thoughtful and effective process so that doing the right thing is an institutional practice, not an individual one. “

“It is very important for us at NMAFA that the Benin Bronze process is seen in a much broader context and strategy,” she continued. “Our process of building trust with African and African peoples in the diaspora begins with decolonization – proactively assessing the impact of unequal power relations in our sector, carefully examining and, in many cases, developing changing the way we hire, document, retain, interpret, schedule – and yes it can also include repatriation.

A Beninese plaque from the mid-16th to 17th centuries
centuries. Courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.

In May, following Germany landmark announcement that he would begin to restore the Benin bronzes from 2022, Artnet reported that the NMAFA did not plan to return its collection of works from Benin.

“The museum has maintained a close relationship with Oba and members of the royal court of Benin over the years,” NMAFA deputy director Christine Kreamer said at the time. “They are familiar with the items in our collection and appreciate that we continue to tell about how the kingdom’s treasures were looted from the palace in 1897.” A representative added that the museum had “not received a request for the repatriation of objects”.

In recent years, Benin’s bronzes have become a central symbol in the wider debate on the restitution of cultural heritage obtained during periods of colonization. It is estimated that 3,000 bronzes collected in Benin are currently scattered in more than 160 museums around the world.

But those numbers are slowly starting to decline, as various institutions and governing bodies have either returned items to Africa or have pledged to do so soon.

Last month, for example, the University of Aberdeen and Jesus College at the University of Cambridge became the first two British institutions to officially return bronzes, while in June, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced its own return a pair of Benin plates.

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