US museums return African bronzes stolen in the 19th century


A bronze sculpture of a West African king that had been in a Rhode Island museum’s collection for more than 70 years was among 31 culturally precious objects that were returned to the Nigerian government on Tuesday.

The Benin Bronzes, including a piece called “King’s Head” or “Oba” from the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, were transferred to the Nigerian National Collections during a ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. that were stolen by the British in the late 19th century included 29 that the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents voted in June to return, and one object from the National Gallery of Art, authorities said.

The RISD Museum piece, believed to date from the 18th century, was a gift from Lucy Truman Aldrich in 1939. It had been acquired in 1935 at a sale of Kingdom of Benin objects from the Knoedler Gallery in New York, the museum said. it’s a statement. .

The repatriation is part of a worldwide movement by cultural institutions to return artifacts that were often stolen during colonial wars. African nations and academics have pressured the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, to return stolen African artifacts for years, according to Chika Okeke-Agulu, director of the African studies program. at Princeton University. She but she said that most African artifacts tend to stay in Europe. French art historians estimate that 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is believed to be in Europe. However, Okeke-Agulu said leaders are pushing to change those numbers.

An important factor is “the pressure of African voices… that in the last decade have constantly maintained pressure on these institutions to hand over these objects that were expropriated from Benin City,” he said. “The other aspect has to do with the changing attitudes of these institutions, sometimes generated internally, as is the case of many university museums where students are the ones who often pressure their institutions to change their behavior and attitude and disposition towards our looted objects. , especially colonially.”

In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron said that returning African artifacts would be a “top priority” for the country over the next five years. The following year, he commissioned a report focusing on restitution efforts, which started a movement to repatriate African artifacts across Europe. Germany followed suit, forming an agreement with Nigeria in June to give Nigeria ownership of more than 1,000 artifacts in German museums. And in 2021, the Nigerian government requested the return of looted items by writing letters to British museums.

According to Okeke-Agulu, these actions created a domino effect, leading more nations, including the US, to participate in the return of artifacts.

A bust that was taken from Nigeria by British military force is placed on a table inside Benin’s Oba palace in Nigeria on February 19, 2022.Kola Sulaimon / AFP via Getty Images archive

“These institutions, for decades, have benefited financially and culturally from maintaining these objects through all kinds of means,” Okeke-Agulu said. He added that “it is not enough” for institutions to simply return these objects, but rather they should offer African countries full restitution.

Beyond repatriation, Okeke-Agulu said Africa is asking countries like the US and UK to establish collaborative relationships with Africa, including sharing knowledge about the origins of artifacts and helping to train the healers.

Abba Isa Tijani, director general of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, agrees and hopes the recent transfer of African bronze sculpture will inspire more museums to return African artifacts, opening the door to better relations.

“We look forward to great collaborations with these museums and institutions and have already opened promising discussions with them on this,” he said in a statement. “Everyone is welcome to join this new way of doing things. A path free of grudges and misgivings. A path full of mutual respect.”


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