On October 11, 2022, the Smithsonian museum returned 29 Benin Bronzes to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. This was done in a ceremony at the National Museum of African Art, and held in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art. The bronzes, which were part of the Smithsonian museum’s collection, were stolen from Nigeria during the 1897 British raid on Benin City (Benin City: the Majestic City the British burnt to the ground). The return of these Benin Bronzes is the first return under the Smithsonian’s new ethical returns policy, policy which authorizes Smithsonian museums to return collections to the community of origin based on ethical considerations, such as the manner and circumstances in which the items were originally acquired. In my eyes, this Smithsonian ethical returns policy sounds more like the thief finding lexicon and grammar to explain its theft and the reason why it is hard for him to return the loot, or rather the reason why he needs to hold onto the loot. As always, the question remains: why now? Are the Western museums really going to deplete their museums from attractions that generate millions of dollars yearly? And then the even bigger question: how many Benin Bronzes are there, and should we applaud the return of 1 here, 2 there, or 29 here?
As a recap, on February 1897, an expeditionary force of 1,200 British soldiers and African auxiliaries, known as the Punitive expedition of 1897, captured, burned, and looted the city of Benin, bringing an end to the West African Kingdom of Benin. During the conquering and burning of the city, most of the country’s treasured art, over 3,000 pieces of art work, including the Benin Bronzes, were either destroyed, looted or dispersed; see Benin City: the Majestic City the British burnt to the ground.
So, according to C. Huera, 2,400 of Benin artworks including Bronzes, ivories, and more, are held in museums around the world, even though over 3000 were carried back to Europe in 1897. Of those, only 50 are in Nigeria. Today, there are over 900 objects from the historic Kingdom of Benin in the British Museum‘s collection alone. Around 1950-1951, the British Museum sold, exchanged, donated 26 to the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria (25) and the government of the Gold Coast (1) to be in their countries’ museums; it was said at the time that these were duplicates of originals still held at the British Museum (which was denied… but who can really confirm? after all, in the 1950s these countries were colonies of the Queen, did it make sense to return originals to mere colonies?). I wonder how many today are part of the Smithsonian Museum, or the Louvre, or the… the list is so long. In view of this, the return of 1 or 2, or even 29 Benin Bronzes, although laudable, can be seen as a token gesture, more than anything else. Plus, after 125 years spent outside of Benin City, who can really tell if the returned Benin Bronzes are the real ones? Also, are the returned Benin Bronzes the major ones, or part of the backup, you know the ones that never get exposed? Lastly, I hope the Benin people, and the people of Nigeria as a whole, have put in place great security systems and a loyal patriotic circle of trust so that the returned Benin Bronzes will never again leave the homeland!