Ever since Nigeria won its struggle for independence from colonial European rule in 1960, demands have been made for the return of the “Benin Bronzes,” a group of more than 1,000 bronze sculptures and plaques of great cultural and artistic value that were produced from the 13th century onwards.
These objects were looted during colonial-era wars in the late 19th century, sending many of the works to the nations of Europe, especially France and England. For years, strict French rules banning the repatriation of collections in state hands have stood in the way of their return, until recently when French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron made repatriation a national priority by commissioning a special report released in November 2018 by Senegalese writer and academic Felwine Sarr and French historian Benedicte Savoy. The report recommended that the objects be returned through a three-step process of repatriation. While the report is far more expansive than just the Benin Bronzes — calling to repatriate thousands of looted cultural treasures — I wondered how this report was affecting US-based institutions and how they might be working toward similar ends.
I visited the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art in mid-April and had the opportunity to speak with Chief Curator, and Houghton P. Metcalf Jr. Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, Jan Howard and Curator of Ancient Art, Gina Borromeo, who have been tracing the provenance of the museum’s Benin Bronze Head, and working toward its repatriation.
While museums including the British Museum have come to agreements regarding long-term loans of these objects, it seems no cultural institution has yet permanently returned artworks that Nigerians have been demanding since 1960. Interestingly, in 2013 an British man named Mark Walker, the grandson of a British soldier during the devastating sacking of the Benin Kingdom’s Palace in 1897, succeeded in returning his grandfather’s looted bronzes via a charity called the Richard Lander Society, which advocates for the return of the stolen works.
The process by which that happens, however, can be incredibly delicate and complex. What follows is my exchange with Howard and Borromeo revealing some of the unfamiliar territory that institutions must navigate repatriate art and artifacts to their cultures of origin. It has been edited from its original version for clarity.
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Hyperallergic: Given the recent intensity of ongoing conversation about repatriation efforts, with respect to Indigenous Native American objects, African treasures, among other stolen art, I wondered how a modestly scaled museum like the RISD Museum would approach the subject? There seems to be intense hesitation on the part of major museums to engage in the necessary negotiations and I wanted to understand more about the roots of those concerns, and the ways in which it can be done with care and intentionality, because, in point of fact, we can and should do something about it. Where does your thinking begin?
Gina Borromeo: As an institute we really believe in the self-determination of the actual owners of these objects, because we are involved in other repatriation or reparation projects with NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and with other aspects of this collection. We have a group of curators and registrars who are actively involved in provenance research. For example, I work on ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian pieces. We’re all very involved in this and concerned about it. I think the problem at RISD is, that as a smaller institution, we do not have resident experts at the museum of African art or Native American art, and yet have collections in these areas, so we rely on the expertise of colleagues, and they’ve been incredibly helpful to us.
Jan Howard: There’s always somebody close to us, particularly teaching at RISD or Brown University or working at Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, and even then, there’s always somebody who knows more.
H: Maybe this is part of the challenge, admitting knowledges are missing internally and being willing to go outside of the bounds of our institutions to seek that kind of expertise. Especially in institutions where you have a limited-size staff and have objects from many diverse cultures, collected during many different points in the institution’s history.
JH: Right. For example, aside from textiles and jewelry, RISD’s African collections are quite modest, with around 100 sculptural and carved objects. However among them, we are fortunate to have an exceptionally amazing piece, the Benin bronze head.
H: How did RISD come to acquire the piece?
GB: I have been doing the provenance research on this piece for some time. It was gifted to RISD in 1939 by Lucy Truman Aldrich, who was one of the most active donors to the collection. She was an intrepid woman who also happened to be the sister of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. And she is the source of a large portion of our Asian textile collection.
She purchased this head, probably in 1935 from Knoedler Gallery. I’ve traced it to a specific sales catalogue. While there’s no image of it, it was misunderstood as a head of a princess, which, a lot of those heads were because they had long hair. But, we realized it had to be an Oba [the traditional leader of the Edo people of Benin, which is in contemporary Nigeria] because it has a cowrie shell. And only the Oba was allowed to be depicted with a cowrie shell. We then went about trying to do provenance research before 1935 and did not find any evidence of how it was acquired by Knoedler. But then, given what this piece is, I can pretty much say it does not matter who owned it between 1935 and 1897 because it was most certainly taken from the Royal Palace during the so-called British Punitive Expedition. If it was paid for, the circumstances would have been extreme.
JH: Exactly, the fact that it is the head of an Oba, and given the importance of it in the Benin court, I can’t imagine that it would have been given up freely.
GB: Right. This kind of bronze head is so symbolic, meaningful, and specific to the coronation of a new Oba. It embodies the collective wisdom of all the leaders, of all past leadership. No one would have given it up unless under duress.
H: What prompted you to start this kind of provenance research?
JH: Given our small holdings in African art, we have always tried to contextualize this piece within the works we do have, or have it on view within a cross-cultural conversation. When we learned several years ago that a global art history class at Brown was going to be dealing with issues of provenance and decolonialization efforts of museums we thought it would be a good moment to begin the process.
GB: During the various iterations of this Brown course, we have had the Benin head on view at the Museum in various configurations, including in the European galleries alongside other works from the 17th and 18th centuries that talked about imperialism. We also showed it in a classroom and the students could come and visit it for study. And then, during the previous iteration, it was shown in the Greek and Roman galleries along with the other masterworks that we have in bronze.
H: When the bronze is on view, what kind of story does RISD tell about its origins? What approach do you take to the content of the label writing?
GB: We consulted with Bolaji Campbell [Professor of African Art, RISD], Courtney Martin [former professor, Art History, Brown] and Sheila Bonde [professor of Art History, Brown] in writing previous labels for the object. As you can see from the most recent version, a lot of it based on Smooth Nzewi’s research on the head, we do not shy away at all from its problematic history. We put it all out there because that’s part of its story and how it ended up here, so, why not just show it?
JH: Plus, we know it’s the story that people are really asking about today.
GB: Now the work is shown in relationship to the colonial history of the period and we discuss its use in coronation of the most recent Oba. And then, by its side is a map showing where it is from, and then a photograph from 1897 where you see British troops with the spoils of conquest. Our last paragraph makes clear that we are acknowledging the problematic history of this piece.
H: What happens when you decide, after you’ve done this research, that you are going to try and repatriate this object? What do you do?
JH: I started reaching out to colleagues who are experts in this period of African art.
H: Once again, reaching out outside of the expertise of the institution, right?
JH: Yes, I spoke to colleagues in the broader art history community and to a lot of other museum colleagues who are in dialogue with representatives of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments or the Royal Palace in the Kingdom of Benin. And they were very generous in sharing information so that we could begin to develop a relationship. So we have sought to open a dialog with both the Royal Court in the Kingdom of Benin, and the Nigerian government.
H: Is there a specific agency in Benin or Nigeria that handles these cases?
JH: The difficulty is that there isn’t a clear way that has been established for how such a work can be repatriated. The national government is separate from the Palace of the Kingdom of Benin and I believe that’s been one reason that many other museums have been hesitant about moving forward. What happens once you state you want to repatriate an object? Who claims it?
H: Has anyone else been down the path before your attempts? What have you learned so far?
GB: There is an individual, a British man who repatriated work. He was the descendant of someone who participated in the expedition. And our response has been to be as open as we possibly can in this instance. So, making this information known on the label, and organizing programming specifically about the work and its origins, asking questions like, “how did this get here?” We also are working with students in the galleries to talk to visitors about the work.
H: How does this process relate to the Brown protests last year?
JH: Following the Brown protests demanding the return of the Benin bronze, we invited the protesters into the museum to understand the work that we were doing because we realized that they didn’t know.
H: Oftentimes, I think, when we are inside the museum and are contending with these kinds of difficult questions that we don’t have answers for, too often we don’t make these struggles or processes public. We try to figure it out and gather the information to deliver it to the public or to deliver it to colleagues. I think there are so many circumstances in which protests have arisen over the last several years where if conversation has been opened up and the internal discussions made public, it would have given way to deeper understanding for those inside and outside the museum.
GB: Right. Because, I think that we were quietly doing work in the background and people didn’t really understand. I feel, personally, that we not only have to be responsible to our general public and to our constituencies, but also to bring this information to our governing board.
JH: We had to present the issues. Plus, if you want to return an object, you have to be sure about who you’re returning it to and that it won’t be challenged.
GB: We want to get it right. I mean, we would hate to do this and have it result in conditions that would prevent other people from considering doing the same thing.
JH: That’s actually a big goal — to do this in such a way that others follow.
H: Right. I think that the process is really important. What’s helpful perhaps in your current circumstances, because you’re breaking new ground here, is that you seem to be trying to figure out how to do this in an ethical way. And perhaps since the issuance of the Sarr and Savoy report in November of 2018 gives you some backup to support this work. How many years have you been working towards this repatriation?
JH: We’ve recognized the head’s problematic history for many years now and began doing research then. It became clear that it was taken from the Royal Palace in Benin. In the last couple of years we have been discussing repatriation.
H: So it’s not that you just started thinking about this last November? Or since the protests?
GB: We’ve actually been working for a long while, it’s just that our work has not been public. And it has been slower perhaps because we don’t have an African art curator on staff.
H: So even though you don’t have those particular intellectual resources or expertise in house, you’re finding support for the work that you’re doing. And in a way, I really think that’s to be highlighted because some institutions are using “not knowing” as an excuse for not making progress.
GB: For instance, Jan and I have this list of museum collections of African art and we are contacting all these people one at a time because we think we should just find out what other people are doing.
JH: And also for them to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
H: Is there a consortium of like-minded institutions working on this?
JH: Well, that’s another reason to reach out and to see. At first, I was asking for this to see if such a thing already existed.
GB: Like, a Benin Dialog Group in the US.
H: What have you found so far?
JH: I haven’t found anything. And I’ve been connecting with organizations that I think can help guide us. But I’m hoping we can work collectively at some point.
H: I wonder, if — between field-wide research into Nazi-looted art and the Indigenous work, as well as Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities — there are overlaps in protocols? Or, is it something that has to be wholly reinvented because of the different players and histories?
GB: It is definitely first and foremost case by case. You know, object by object. Even with the guidelines that exist in other areas, it has to be specific to the object. For example, with Native American materials, when NAGPRA is involved, you have to work with different nations, depending on the provenance of the objects. And then, for antiquities, there are cultural ministries in Greece and Italy and in Turkey, as well as in Egypt.
JH: I also think artists can help us talk through these things. Remember, Gina, the conversation that you had in the galleries around RISD’s mummy, Nesmin, where we had an artist [Jay Simple] who came in and was pretty critical of how we were displaying that piece.
GB: Yes, absolutely. And so, recently, I made the decision in October, actually in conversation with a lot of my colleagues and after several public programs, to put the mummy back in the coffin. Some people asked, “Why would you do that? That’s why people come to the museum is to see a mummy.” And then, I thought “It’s a dead person and is that really a work of art? Is a human body a work of art?”
So, after a lot of discussion, we decided to put the mummy back in its coffin because the interior of the coffin has a drawing that was meant solely for him. The Goddess Nut is drawn with arms outstretched on the interior of the chest, and she’s the goddess of the sky. And the man who died has become Osiris, who was Nut’s son. The drawing makes it so Nesmin will be forever in her embrace. And I thought, “Who am I to keep him from that? To interrupt his burial?” So, I put him back in the coffin. But, we also created three videos to explain the process and why and how these decisions were made, to ensure an ongoing dialog with our audience to get into questions like, “How did this get here?” And then, “Is a body a work of art?” So, really questions that might not have been important outside this historical moment.
JH: I also loved it when Peju Layiwola came in. [Editor’s note: Peju Layiwola is a traditional bronze caster who works in the tradition of the bronze heads from Benin. She follows in her mother’s footsteps as one of the few female bronze casters working in this field.] To hear her talk of the Benin piece and its history and what it means to an artist working in Benin today to have that piece in a collection like ours.
GB: When she said, “Look, I am Nigerian. I studied these objects from Benin. But, I had to travel outside my own country to see them.” And I thought, well, there is really something wrong with that. We feel the responsibility of having this collection. And we want to think of the importance of these objects beyond this our specific geography. Because, clearly, it serves an educational purpose here. But, it also has a powerful importance its original context, and we can’t lose sight of that.
JH: Right. We need to bring all our stakeholders into the process and have them help us ask the questions. Because all of these things sound very abstract but they actually relate to people’s real lives, like Peju Layiwola’s, who lives in Nigeria and makes bronze heads today and has to leave her country to study them. That’s such a poignant and important fact.
H: Sometimes the desire to protect the institution gets in the way of really being able to have these very useful conversations that I think are really important not just for the objects themselves, but also to demonstrate how civic and cultural dialogue actually work. And how museums and cultural spaces can hold that.
JH: Yes, and I think that is their role today.
GB: I think we have to accept that museum’s roles are really changing, that we have to be more responsive to what’s going on around us. That we’re not stuck in the past. We have to ask, “How did this get here?” Really, and what are our responsibilities going forward knowing the sometimes-problematic histories of these objects?
I feel that it’s important work. It’s work that matters, it’s about our culture. You know, when I think about repatriation, the real thing, the concept in the back of my mind is reparation. It’s the time to make right.
H: To repair.
GB: To fix what we got wrong the first time around. And I don’t want it to be colonialism 2.0, you know? I think part of the ways we’ve responded to this is part of decolonizing the museum. For RISD this has meant structuring public programs like the one Peju participated in and the ones surrounding our exhibition Repair and Design Futures , so that we’re not speaking about it as outsiders pretending we know everything there is to know. I also think part of being a curator today, is not being afraid to show what you don’t know. And I’m really okay with that. I know there’s a lot I don’t know.
JH: And the Sarr and Savoy Report and so many of the people that we’ve been talking to in the process of thinking about the Benin head, do talk about how repatriation isn’t just giving the objects back. It’s also about the relationships you’re going to build and how you’re going to continue to work or have a cooperative or collaborative relationship for the future.
GB: I recently participated in a critique for an architecture course at RISD called, “The Architecture of Absence.” Students were tasked with trying to find architectural solutions to dealing with objects that had been returned. You know, hypothetically or actually returned to their cultures of origin. Students are actively being asked now to deal with absence in their design, so you try to imagine what would replace say, the Benin head if it were to return. Do you just have an empty case? Do you have some kind of marker? Do you tell the story and history?
JH: Those are the questions we’re already asking ourselves.
GB: I think that the goal is how to keep asking questions, how to expose them. But, I don’t know if we’ll ever really arrive at understanding and that’s probably why I’m so attracted to really old objects because I will probably never really know. And that has to be okay.
This is a fascinating exchange — thanks!
Museums, historical societies and universities can be frustratingly non-transparent as reflexive concerns about protecting the institution outweigh other considerations. Thanks to RISD Museum for pulling the curtain. They present good models for broader engagement.
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