Smithsonian Moves Toward Returning Benin Bronzes

The head of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art said Friday that museum officials have removed its Benin Bronzes from display and plan to begin the process of potentially repatriating the priceless West African artifacts that were looted by the British Army more than a century ago.

The announcement makes the Smithsonian the latest Western cultural institution — and one of the most prominent to date — to agree to explore returning items that were stolen in 1897 from Benin City, in what is now Nigeria.

The move was first reported by The Art Newspaper. A spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution confirmed the accuracy of the report.

“I can confirm that we have taken down the Benin Bronzes we had on display and we are fully committed to repatriation where it is warranted,” the museum’s director, Ngaire Blankenberg, said in an email to The New York Times. “We cannot build for the future without making our best effort at healing the wounds of the past.”

Writing to The Times from Lagos, Nigeria, where she said she is working on a series of artistic and institutional collaborations, Blankenberg also emphasized that the Benin Bronze process is part of “a much wider context and strategy,” and that the conditions that “gave rise to the Bronzes being looted in the first place and displayed in museums around the world must never happen again.”

The National Museum of African Art has 16 objects with provenance dating back to the 1897 raid, Blankenberg said. Ten of the objects were on display and have now been taken down. “There may be others in our collection,” Blankenberg said, “but we are still doing research.”

Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution, said that while the National Museum of African Art is committed to repatriation, it is “at the beginning of a process” with the Benin Bronzes. To remove an artifact from a Smithsonian collection, officials must thoroughly research the provenance of objects in question, have the works appraised by outside experts and discuss the return of objects with relevant parties.

The Benin Bronzes are high-value objects, and deaccessioning them will require approval from the Smithsonian Secretary and the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, St. Thomas said. When the process is complete, the Smithsonian will consider returning artifacts to their original home if they have been requested, she added.

Since the British Army’s raid on the ancient Kingdom of Benin, thousands of items have been scattered through museums and private collections around the world. And in recent years, a movement to return the brass plaques, carved elephant tusks, ivory leopard statues and wooden heads that are collectively known as the Benin Bronzes has gained steam.

Plans are underway to open a museum — the Edo Museum of West African Art — in Benin City as early as 2026 if enough money can be raised. The space, which is being designed by the architect David Adjaye, is expected to house at least 300 Benin Bronzes, which will come mainly from the collections of 10 major European museums.

Nigeria’s artists, historians, activists and royals have been clamoring for decades to get the pieces back. But there has been considerable resistance over the years from institutions that have at times argued that their global collections serve “the people of every nation.” In Europe, where collections often belong to the state, museums sometimes insisted that they were not empowered to decide whether to return artworks.

But in more recent years, as conversations about racism and the legacy of colonialism have proliferated, some Western museums have softened to the idea of loaning — or in some cases fully repatriating — the Benin Bronzes in their possession.

In April, Germany said it would return a “substantial” number of Benin Bronzes next year. Two months later, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it would return two brass plaques from its collection and had brokered the return of a third object that had been offered to the museum for sale.

Alex Marshall and Sarah Bahr contributed reporting.