Last week the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art announced that it had removed all its Benin bronzes from display and plans to repatriate the objects.
According to the Art Newspaper, the museum holds 38 objects from the Kingdom of Benin. Half of these objects have been traced to the British punitive expedition to Benin in 1897. In January 1897 a small British trading expedition to Benin City was ambushed by chiefs acted against the Oba’s wishes. In February 1897 British officials responded by burning Benin City and looting the royal palace. These looted objects are now held by over 160 museums and universities across the world. The punitive expedition and the role of museum’s in the dispossession of Africa is the subject of Dan Hick’s 2020 book The Brutish Museums.
The Smithsonian’s Benin bronzes will eventually be repatriated to Nigeria. Ngaire Blankenberg, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, said, “I can confirm that we have taken down the Benin bronzes we had on display and we are fully committed to repatriation. We cannot build for the future without making our best effort at healing the wounds of the past.”