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Ceremonial Head of a King. Photo: Franko Khoury/Smithsonian.
Ceremonial Head of a King. Photo: Franko Khoury/Smithsonian.

Smithsonian Returns 29 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art on October 11 officially ceded ownership of twenty-nine Benin bronzes to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, in a ceremony taking place at the museum, during which the National Gallery of Art also returned its lone Benin bronze. The objects are part of a roughly 90,000-piece trove looted by British troops in 1897 from the Republic of Benin, as Nigeria was then known.

“Not only was returning ownership of these magnificent artifacts to their rightful home the right thing to do, it also demonstrates how we all benefit from cultural institutions making ethical choices,” said Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian. “Sharing knowledge and stewardship with origin communities will help us better understand and preserve important cultural heritage like the Benin bronzes and illuminate it for future generations in the United States and around the world.”

The return is in line with the Smithsonian’s April 29 adoption of a new ethical returns policy, under which the nineteen individual museums operating under its aegis may restore to their rightful owners items that were stolen or unethically acquired without first seeking the umbrella organization’s approval. Board approval is necessary to do so only when the artifacts in question are of remarkable monetary or research value, or are historically consequtial, or when their return might create substantial public interest. The Benin bronzes meet all these criteria.

“Nigeria is immensely gratified at the commendable decision of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design to return these artifacts that left Africa over a century ago,” noted Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture. “Nigeria looks forward to working with these institutions on joint exhibitions and other educational exchanges. By returning the artifacts, these institutions are together writing new pages in history. Their brave decision to return the timeless artworks is worth emulating.”

At present, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History owns twenty Benin bronzes. Research on those objects has begun, with the findings expected to be submitted to the board of regents along with a request to deaccession and return them.