Edo artist/Benin kingdom court style, bracelet, 17th-18th century, copper alloy, gilt traces. Gift of Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company. Collection of Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (all images courtesy the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art)

The Smithsonian Institution announced yesterday its decision to repatriate the majority of the 39 Benin bronzes in its collection, returning any object determined to be linked to the British army’s punitive raid on the Kingdom of Benin in 1897, 125 years ago this year. The groundbreaking return, which arrives four months after the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art removed its Benin bronzes from display, is the result of a six-month-long, institution-wide review of the Smithsonian’s collecting policy and ethics.

The landmark decision is part of a larger sea change around the repatriation of the Benin bronzes. A flashpoint of the restitution debate, the artifacts comprise the thousands of royal and sacred objects that were violently looted from present-day Nigeria by British troops. Today, these items can be found in over 160 museum collections, and untold private collections, worldwide; many of the Smithsonian’s examples, which range from brass bracelets to engraved ivory tusks and iron masks, came to the museum as gifts from the collections of Walt Disney World Company or Joseph H. Hirshhorn.

In the past year, restitution advocates have made headway on the bronzes’ return: last April, Germany announced a sweeping plan to begin restituting Benin bronzes in state-owned collections this year, and in November, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York repatriated two bronzes and brokered the return of a third. Both parties, like the Smithsonian, worked with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).

Edo artist/Benin kingdom court style, plaque, mid-16th to 17th century, copper alloy. Purchased with funds provided by the Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program. Collection of Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

A year ago, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III — who in 2019 became the first Black individual to head the institution — called upon the museum’s collections staff to form the Ethical Returns Working Group to make recommendations on collections policy that extended beyond legal title to ethical ownership. The new guidelines, which apply to all of the Smithsonian’s constituent institutions, take into account the objects’ communities of origin and the means of acquisition.

The Benin bronzes will be the first artworks to be repatriated under the new policy, a Smithsonian spokesperson told Hyperallergic.

The repatriation agreement, which is part of a larger agreement between the Smithsonian and the NCMM, could be signed as soon as next month, reported the Washington Post. In addition to the return of the objects — the exact number of which has yet to be determined — on the Smithsonian’s dime for eventual display at the Benin City National Museum, the agreement involves joint exhibitions, educational programs for young Nigerians, and long-term object loans — including potential loans of Benin bronzes being repatriated that would return them to Washington, DC, the New York Times said.

A Smithsonian representative told Hyperallergic that further information will be made public in April when the agreement is finalized, after which the museum will submit a request to the Smithsonian Board of Regents, which has the ultimate say on whether the return proceeds.

Edo artist/Benin kingdom court style, commemorative head of a king, 18th century, copper alloy, iron. Gift of Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company. Collection of Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (image courtesy the Smithsonian NMAfA)

“This announcement by the Smithsonian is another sign that we are witnessing a fundamental global shift in the ethics of museum curation,” Dan Hicks, author of The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution and world archaeology curator at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, told Hyperallergic.

Hicks continued:

“In the case of Benin 1897, the argument for returns has been won. The Smithsonian are to be congratulated for offering the leadership that the cultural sector needs on the question of African restitution. This isn’t a question of ‘sending back,’ but of being open to give back, when asked, on a case-by-case basis. And of course, it’s about the many new possibilities that emerge in the space that restitution opens up, for new equitable forms of collaboration between African and Euro-American institutions, scholars, communities, and museum-goers. We’ve never needed world culture museums more than we do today — as places to celebrate art and culture beyond the old Eurocentric lens. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t imagine world culture museums where nothing is stolen — and where demands for returns will treated with respect, fairness and an open mind towards restitution.”

While Hicks applauded the decision of the Smithsonian and other institutions to repatriate the Benin bronzes in their holdings, he noted that the British Museum — which currently has over 900 Benin bronzes in its collection — is “refusing to embrace change,” instead holding fast to the notion that long-term loans of looted objects are the ethical equivalent of permanent, unconditional returns. “They are simply making themselves obsolete and irrelevant,” Hicks said.

When asked for comment on the Smithsonian’s move to repatriate the Benin bronzes and whether the decision might affect the British Museum’s policies, a British Museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic: “We are fully invested — alongside our Nigerian partners —in a shared aim of facilitating a significant display of Benin works of art in Benin City and could include works on regular, temporary loan from the British Museum Benin collections.”

Cassie Packard is a Brooklyn-based art writer. (cassiepackard.com)