Smithsonian to Return Benin Bronze Artifacts to Original Locations

Image: Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of African Art

In 1897, the Kingdom of Benin was raided by British troops who sought to capture the area. The traditional ruler, called an “oba,” was sent into exile and the palace was burned to the ground. In order to end Benin’s monarchy and introduce stability by way of British control, it was ordered that all royal treasures and entities were confiscated which later paid for the entire raid and accompanying expedition. The stolen items were then distributed throughout the world and disseminated into cultural institutions and private collections. This pillaging of significant artifacts deprived Benin of a great part of its culture. As of 2021, this will begin to change.

Initially reported in The Art Newspaper, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art have been in the process of removing its Benin Bronzes from their display. Ngaire Blankenberg, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, spoke out about plans to repatriate the stolen artifacts to their original location.

“I can confirm that we have taken down the Benin bronzes we had on display and we are fully committed to repatriation,” Blankenberg says. “We cannot build for the future without making our best effort at healing the wounds of the past.”

The institution had 38 objects in its possession with 21 of the objects on display on their grounds earlier last year. These objects are documented to date back to 1867.

There is an extensive process that the institution must undergo to have an artifact removed from its collection as an act of repatriation, which includes a large deal of research and outreach with other institutions located at the primary origin site of the object. Other museums globally are joined in the effort to return the items to their original homes as well as a way to rectify and recognize the historic impacts of trauma and violence these countries have been subjected to.

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