Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

David and Art - Back to Nigeria

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

A movement to give back art looted 125 years ago seems to be gaining speed around the world.

A couple of weeks ago when we talked about art in museums being destroyed, it made me think of something we looked at some years ago that I thought we should probably check back in on

Back in 2018, France began a process of reviewing the holdings in its museums that had been taken - either haphazardly or systematically - from French possessions in what was once colonial West Africa. President Emanuel Macron said that artifacts taken from French colonies should be returned to the now-sovereign nations from which they came, if governments and museums there wanted them back. It set off a world-wide soul-searching among major museums.

Artifacts from British colonies in Africa are the ones more widely discussed today. In 1897, British troops sacked a palace in the Kingdom of Benin (in what is today Nigeria) and hauled off its treasures that then became known as the "Benin Bronzes." They're not all made of bronze but that's become the label for the works. They're pieces of bronze, brass, copper alloy, ivory, and even wood, and over the past century and a quarter they've wound up all over the world.

Last month, the Smithsonian Board of Regents voted to deaccession 29 Benin bronzes in its collection and turn them over to Nigeria's "National Commission for Museums and Monuments." Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch noted that there's a growing understanding among museums that possession of certain works of art carries with it "ethical obligations to the places and people where the collections originated." Contemporary moral norms, he said, have to be considered when determining what should remain in a museum's collections and what should not.

The Washington Post recently surveyed 70 institutions large and small to determine how many of the Benin artworks they hold and whether or not they are taking steps to return them. It discovered that as many as 1,200 pieces are held by 56 museums in the United States. Of those 56, 16 said Yes, they are engaged in the repatriating process and five more said they would be willing to do so if requested. That's 21 out of 56. By the way, apparently about 75% of these 1,200 pieces are actually in storage, not on display, making them presumably easier subjects for repatriation. We'll see. But Christopher Woods, director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology which has almost 200 of the works, said that "If we can emerge from this having done the right thing, with collaborations that are mutually beneficial, it is a win for everybody."