I asked 31 museums if they would be prepared to return their stolen African art, here’s what they said.

Cast brass plaques from Benin City at British Museum

Benin Bronze plaques from the British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

While reading Professor Dan Hicks’ book The Brutish Museums – The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, I wanted to write something about this important subject. Professor Hicks suggested to me that I should look at the international dimension of the conversation on the return of art looted during the imperial era, so I emailed most of the institutions listed in Appendix 1 of his book which hold at least one Benin Bronze. Here are the responses I have so far received from 17 of the 31 institutions I emailed.
 
Royal Ontario Museum
 

Thanks for your query. The ROM is not commenting on this issue at this time.

Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim, Germany

The Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen are currently engaged in this important issue due to their provenance research,  also in dialogue with other museums. Actually the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen have a few objects, some of them are fragments. Up to now there is no contact or exchange with Nigeria.

Weltkulturen Museum Frankfurt

we welcome the new developments in the debates about the artifacts from the Benin Kingdom and are following the ongoing negotiations with interest.

Compared to other museums and collections, the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt am Main/ Germany owns a relatively small collection (50 objects) that can be attributed to the Benin Kingdom. We are currently working actively on the reappraisal of these holdings, researching the provenances and trying to record in detail possible previous owners, manufacturers and associated dealers and collectors. We are open to further measures and steps.

Royal Collection Trust

A trust spokesperson said “Questions concerning the restitution of items from the Royal Collection are matters for discussion by the Trustees of The Royal Collection Trust… We have nothing further to add at present.”

GRASSI Museum of Ethnology in Leipzig

The collection from the former Kingdom of Benin in the State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony comprises a total of 283 objects. Of these, 87 objects are in the GRASSI Museum of Ethnology in Leipzig and 196 objects in the Museum of Ethnology in Dresden. Following the decision of the Benin Dialogue Group, these were digitized in 2017 and have since been publicly accessible via the SKD’s online collection. The objects in question also have a reference to the theft context in 1897 and to the acquisition by the museum as a result of the robbery on the art market.

Almost all of the objects from the Benin collection of the GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig are on display in the current presentation of the Leipzig House. The central topic here is the history of employment and related ethical issues with a view to our dealings today. Whether and how the stolen objects can still be exhibited in the future is also a concern of our future program funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation. We too ask ourselves, as Dan Hicks puts it in his publication “The Brutish Museum”, to what extent the display of these objects represents a continuation of colonial violence and which solution strategies we can develop together as long as they are not returned.

The ethnological museums in Leipzig, Dresden and Herrnhut, as state institutions, cannot act on their own authority without establishing a basis from politics. We can recommend, draw attention and send appropriate signals to politicians. We make our position clear by publicly speaking out in favor of the return of the objects. In December 2020, the collaboration with the Nigerian Embassy in Berlin resulted in an artistic intervention by the artist Emeka Ogboh in the Dresden urban area, which under the title “Missing in Benin” dealt with the Benin bronzes at the Dresden Museum and publicly on their absence in Benin pointed out. The aim of the intervention was to accelerate the restitution debate about the works of art from Benin and to attract current interest. More information on the project can be found on the website of the same name http://www.vermisstinbenin.de/ .

Universität Zürich Völkerkundemuseum

The question of restitution has not been raised concerning objects from the Benin Kingdom held in Swiss public museums.

Together with seven other Swiss museums, the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich has initiated the “Benin Initiative Switzerland”, a collaborative research project between Switzerland and Nigeria. It aims at clarifying the provenances of objects from the Kingdom of Benin in public collections in Switzerland. The results will be presented online (for example on the platform digital-begin.org) and will serve as a basis for further collaboration and discussion with stakeholders in Nigeria. The Nigerian Embassy in Switzerland is informed about the project.

Weltmuseum Wien

As you may already know, the Weltmuseum Wien is part of the Benin Dialogue Group https://www.weltmuseumwien.at/en/science-research/#projects This may already answer some of your questions. Also please find below a short statement. As a member of the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG), we acknowledge the looting of Benin in 1897 and understand that many of the museum collections were assembled as a result of this event. With the deep loss that this event has caused in mind, the BDG members also share knowledge regarding various initiatives across Europe that are seeking to address the questions of return and restitution. There are national, international and institutional legal complexities that govern issues of return and restitution. In the case of Austria, any collections in federal museums are in legal ownership of the Republic of Austria, while the museums manage the collections and knowledge about it.

Through the BDG we are in contact with members of the royal court in Benin City, as well as the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja. You can find all objects from Benin in our online collection  https://www.weltmuseumwien.at/en/object/441024/?offset=1&lv=list.

The history of the objects is always told, both in the online database and in the permanent exhibition.

Linden Museum Stuttgart

We are a member of the Benin Dialogue Group that is a multi-lateral collaborative working group that brings together museum directors and delegates from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom with representatives of the Edo State Government, the Royal Court of Benin, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. In this group we discuss the future of the Benin objects in our collection.

Our museum is sponsored by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts, which is responsible for us, published the following statement last week in close consultation with us:

Benin bronzes: Germany should send a strong signal

„There is currently intense discussion about how to deal with the Benin bronzes, which are considered looted property from the colonial era. These are part of the holdings of many museums in Germany. Baden-Württemberg is also in possession of Benin bronzes – the collection of the Linden Museum includes 64 bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin. A large number of the bronzes were purchased around 1900 by Felix von Luschan from Berlin and financed by the entrepreneur and patron Carl Heinrich Eduard Knorr. In total, the Linden Museum counts 76 objects from the Kingdom of Benin, today’s state of Edo in Nigeria. The objects were stolen by British troops in 1897. Now the Federal Foreign Office has also taken a stand and spoken out in favour of restitution.

“In recent years, we in Baden-Württemberg have dealt intensively with the colonial past and the difficult heritage in our museums and institutions. The state is facing up to its historical responsibility. I therefore very much welcome the fact that there is movement on the issue of dealing with the Benin bronzes. The Linden Museum, with its director Professor Inés de Castro, is involved in the Benin Dialogue of European museums; a basis for future agreements has been developed there. It is good and right that the museums are working out a proposal on how to proceed. It is important to me that there is a joint, coordinated approach by the Federal Government and the Länder. We can send a strong signal from Germany. That’s what we should do,” said Theresia Bauer, Baden-Württemberg’s Minister of Art, in Stuttgart on Friday (26 March).

“The Linden Museum has been involved for many years in the intensive discussions and coordination within the Benin Dialogue Group, the European association of museums with large Benin collections. I am pleased about the push from the Federal Foreign Office, which is now helping to advance this long-standing dialogue process,” said the museum director, Professor Inés de Castro.

Like all participants in the Benin Group, the Linden Museum establishes transparency about its collections and involves the societies of origin – as in other areas of museum work – in the processing and presentation of the museum’s collections. “The exchange in partnership and the common view of the objects is important to us. The texts for the presentation of the Benin objects in our new permanent exhibition ‘Where is Africa?’ were written by representatives of the Benin royal house,” said de Castro.

In March 2019, Baden-Württemberg had returned the Bible and whip of the national hero Hendrik Witbooi from Stuttgart’s Linden Museum to Namibia and at the same time launched an intensive partnership with Namibia across several institutions – museums, archives, universities – with the state’s Namibia Initiative

Field Museum, Chicago

The Field Museum recognizes the significance of the objects from Benin that we curate, and we are engaged in the global conversations taking place regarding their potential return to the African continent. We will be welcoming a new curator of African anthropology and archaeology later this summer who will play a vital role in the Field’s engagement in these conversations.

Smithsonian Institution

Christine Kreamer, Deputy Director & Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art

Restitution is a very broad issue and it encompasses the process and action of repatriation. This issue of repatriation and return should be couched in a much broader conversation about restitution, which should address much more longstanding issues of equity, access, inclusion, diversity, in museum practice, the ways collections are accessed, ownership. These are issues that are fundamentally connected to ethical and moral concerns that we all should have as global citizens, to make a space for those who have been denied a place at the table.

You’ve got to develop a process of restitution of which repatriation is a part of that process to address these longstanding claims. In the United States, the 1990 NAGPRA act mandated a process of restitution for Native American art.

The fact that the United States doesn’t have a colonial history in Africa does give us a little bit of an easier time to address these issues, but I think what’s also needed is a total mind shift, a flexibility in the field of museum practice so that we are much more open to thinking about the real implications of what it means to have collections and share them. There’s a storage area at the Smithsonian for Native American materials where community groups can come and conduct rituals connected to selected objects that were collected decades ago but have a ritual purpose.

I think we’re up for it, I think we will start running with it in a very short time, I’ve been some pressure on our other colleagues so that we get moving with this, because there’s no reason to delay. There’s no way that this is not going to happen in the museum system in some fashion. Each institution will have its own processes which will include lawyers getting involved, because they need to address this notion of collection ownership. But there should be no impediment to going forward with a process of restitution that includes repatriation and beginning that process and being open to requests for return no matter where they might come from. The Smithsonian is aware of that moral imperative and we’re ready to create our own models and processes that might help other museums.

Liverpool World Museum

In May 2019, we began the process of changing the World Cultures gallery at World Museum, and discussions around the way we represent, interpret and display our collections within this gallery are active and progressing. The changes we make are being done in consultation with the public, our communities and important stakeholders and for our Benin display in particular, we are re-thinking Benin’s history and culture as part of a wider global story to make it more relevant and responsive to contemporary audiences in Liverpool and beyond. We have been working with an artist from Benin who has facilitated workshops with people from Liverpool’s Black communities to interrogate the future implications of holding and displaying Benin collections in museums and how we might do this specifically in Liverpool.

We have not been approached about the repatriation of Benin objects in our collections, but as an organisation, National Museums Liverpool is committed to engaging in open and respectful dialogue about the unconditional return of culturally significant objects on a case by case basis. Through responding to any claim, we aim to develop meaningful relationships and be truthful, respectful and transparent about the provenance of objects and their future.

MARKK

The MARKK is determined to enable restitutions and Senator Carsten Brosda supports us very much in this endeavor. In the context of the Benin Dialogue, German museums in particular, including the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, have announced restitutions in recent years. As co-spokesperson for the Benin Dialog group, I work closely with the Legacy Restoration Trust and the German Foreign Office to support the continued development of the EMOWAA museum project as the future home of the outstanding works of art.

New Orleans Museum of Art

NOMA has very few Benin objects in the collection, bequeathed to the museum in the 1970s. Though our collection of Benin objects is small, Ndubuisi Ezeluomba, NOMA’s Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art, has been active in the global repatriation discussion surrounding Benin objects.

NOMA was one of the first American museums to participate in the digital Benin project that is digitizing Benin art works around the globe (an idea generated from members of the Benin Dialogue Group – an exclusively European body that started the repatriation conversation some years ago).

Nigerian-born Ezelbuomba is a leading authority on the subject of repatriation and has regularly participated in discussions and presentations on the topic (most recently, Endy was in conversation with Dan Hicks, the author of The Brutish Museums). He works closely with the palace of the Oba and his council of chiefs, and participates in Nigerian conversations on the topic of repatriation, reparation and restitution. He serves on the advisory board of the Legacy Restoration Trust set up by the governor of Edo State, Nigeria, which is in charge of overseeing the Edo Museum of West African Arts project.

Recently, Endy and Susan Taylor, Montine McDaniel Freeman Director of NOMA, have begun the conversation about strategies to assist in the training of appropriate museum personnel for the new Benin museum as the project develops.

Dallas Museum of Art

The museum continues to study objects in its collection associated with the Kingdom of Benin. The issues involved in the study are complex and until its review is complete, the museum is not in a position to make a statement as to future actions.

Cleveland Museum of Art

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection includes eight Benin Kingdom works of art. These works of art are currently on view in the African arts gallery at the museum. Five of the eight Benin works in the CMA’s collection are thought to have been removed from Benin during the Siege of Benin of 1897. The other three Benin works in the CMA’s collection need further research to determine when they left Benin. As all of these works are undergoing further research, the museum is not in a position to make a statement as to any future actions. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s profound commitment to transparency and the highest ethical standards is apparent both from the way that our curator of African arts has interpreted these works in our galleries and from our long track record of engagement regarding cultural property issues.

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

In February, our Curator of African Art, Natasha Becker, participated in a virtual conversation around the Benin Bronzes along

with Dan Hicks, Curator of World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford; Dr. Lauren Kroiz, Director of the Phoebe Hearst Museum at UC Berkeley; and Dr. Marla
Berns, Director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA. A recording of the program is here.

Last year, we also put on a public Seminar to discuss the topic which is also publicly available on YouTube

Stockholm National Museums of World Culture

 “The National Museums of World Culture (NMWC) acknowledges the injustice and damage to the people of Benin City and Nigeria caused by the violent occupation of the city by British military forces in 1897.

NMWC—a Swedish government agency—holds 39 objects (made of bronze, ivory and wood) that were most probably looted in 1897 from the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria. The provenance of another 17 objects is not clear at present, but is likely connected to the same event.

NMWC has been a part of the Benin Dialogue Group since 2010 and is committed to its overall goal to support the establishment of a new museum in Benin City, the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), where Benin art works from European and Nigerian museums will be shown, including objects from NMWC.

Parallel to this commitment, the NMWC welcomes receiving and promptly processing – on a case-by-case basis – claims for the return of cultural objects managed by the agency, including the so called Benin bronzes. NMWC procedures for assessing claims of return strives to ensure consistent and impartial administration based on professional, ethical and humanitarian principles and in compliance with international and national legislation. We are looking forward to continue working with colleagues and institutions in Nigeria on resolving these important matters.”

Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden

Please find below the link to our recently published provenance research on the Benin collections at the National Museums of World Cultures, the Netherlands,  which includes a foreword that may answer some of your questions:

https://www.tropenmuseum.nl/nl/provenance-reeks

NMVW has been part of the Benin Dialogue Group since 2010, and is a member of the Steering Group since 2018. In 2018, the National Museum of World Cultures hosted the Benin Dialogue Group in Leiden at Museum Volkenkunde. NMVW is also a member of Digital Benin and we believe that the recently published provenance research will directly feed into that ongoing project.

The publication makes accessible our focused provenance research on the collection to all those who are interested, and by doing this allows a well informed conversation to happen about questions of return, which in the Netherlands is a state to state matter, as these are state collections.

For the majority of NMVW collection, the Dutch government is the owner, and NMVW the custodian. The Ministry of Culture, Education and Science, and the acting Minister make the ultimate decisions regarding claims for return and thus the removal of items from state collections. In the Netherlands the government at the beginning of 2021 published a policy vision, drawing from the advisory report published by the Raad voor Cultuur, or Council for Culture in October 2020 (entitled Colonial Collections and a Recognition of Injustice).  The policy vision will be debated in the House of Representatives when a new government is installed.

In this link you read our standpoint about the advisory report of october 2020: https://www.tropenmuseum.nl/en/nmvw-report-important-step.

Übersee-Museum Bremen

The Übersee-Museum Bremen has only a small collection on Benin Bronzes which might – at least in part – stem from the so called British punitive expeditionWe did not have any discussions about repatriation, or any engagement with the Nigerian government or the Oba of Benin, so far. However, we are willing to discuss the future of the collection with the Nigerians. We would appreciate if at least part of the collection could stay in Bremen to present Benin history and society, including the provenance history of the collection, to our visitors.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.