Enrichment Arts & Culture

Smithsonian board of regents votes to return 29 Benin Bronzes 

The move comes months after the museum adopted a new ethical return policy. 

Story at a glance


  • On Monday, the Smithsonian Institution board of regents voted to repatriate 29 of its 39 Benin bronzes to Nigeria. 

  • The move marks a major shift in museum ethics when it comes to stolen artifacts. 

  • It is still unclear exactly when the artifacts will land in Nigeria. 

The Smithsonian Institution’s board of regents voted Monday to return 29 Benin bronzes to Nigeria.  

Last November, The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art announced the institution’s plan to repatriate 39 artifacts, at least three-quarters of which were stolen by the British during an 1897 raid on the ancient Kingdom of Benin, according to The Art Newspaper.

All of the institution’s Benin Bronzes — a term that is used to describe a number of artifacts taken from the raid, including brass plaques, elephant tusks and ivory animal statues — were subsequently removed from display as the museum worked to figure out how many of the artifacts were linked to the raid and how to return the artwork to Nigeria.  


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The Smithsonian’s board of regents said in a statement that the 29 artifacts it plans to repatriate were taken during the 1897 British raid on Benin City and will be returned to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments at an unspecified date.  

It is unclear what will happen to the remaining 10 Benin Bronzes in the Smithsonian’s possession with “provenance research” on those artifacts ongoing, a spokesperson told Changing America.

In April, the museum adopted a new ethical returns policy which authorizes each Smithsonian museum to return collections in certain circumstances “based on ethical considerations.” 

Those ethical considerations include how the museum acquired the collection, with the policy noting some examples of unethical acquisition as being taken under duress or stolen.  

Under the policy, in some cases, the Smithsonian’s board of regents will be required to approve the decision to return objects when “they are of significant monetary value, research or historical value” or when the collection might “create significant public interest.”  

The vote marks a global shift in museum ethics when it comes to keeping stolen artifacts. In May, the Denver Art Museum chose to remove its Benin Bronzes from display, and in November the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned three artifacts to the Nigerians.  


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