The British stole the Benin Bronzes from the land in the late 19th century. However, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum (RISD) has returned one of the 31 objects, a bronze figure of a West African king called “King’s Head” or “Oba,” stored in a Rhode Island museum for over seven decades.
The Smithsonian Institution presented the sculpture stolen in 1897 to the Nigeria National Collections during a Washington, D.C. ceremony on Tuesday, October 11.
What are the Benin Bronzes?
These sculptures resided in the Edo Kingdom’s Benin City (modern-day Southern Nigeria). Benin City was renowned for its rich metalworking heritage thanks to the specialist bronze-sculpting guilds. The guilds are the groups of highly skilled artisans that created works such as the Benin Bronzes.
“Upon accession to the throne, the oba (king) of Benin would commission these guilds to craft intricate brass plaques remembering their predecessors’ reign. It is not clear how many works of art were produced, but experts agree the number was in the thousands,” Aljazeera states.
The sculptures were stolen in 1897 when British colonial forces raided and plundered the Kingdom of Benin under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson. The valuable collections of art were split amongst the troops and eventually returned with them to Britain. In contrast, others were auctioned off and even found their way to the United States. Queen Victoria, the British Monarch, was given four sculptures from the loot.
The Turning Point
In May, the Washington Post reported on the wishes of American museums to return these objects to Nigeria. Lead curator at Penn Museum Tukufu Zuberi said, “Colonialism was necessarily a violent action, and these objects were used to justify enslavement, colonialism and other forms of racism.”
The exhibition at the museum displays 73 of the thousands of treasures the British forcefully took.
“But a little more than two years after they opened the Africa galleries, museum officials have decided that the display is not enough. They are now in the process of giving their priceless Benin treasures back,” reports Peggy McGlone of the publication.
On June 13, the Smithsonian Board of Regents voted to deaccession 29 Benin bronzes held in the National Museum of African Art’s collection. The decision to give back the sculptures followed the introduction of an ethical returns policy that urges all Smithsonian museums to return artefacts to their rightful owners.
“Today, we address a historic injustice by returning the Benin Bronzes, magnificent examples of Benin’s culture and history,” Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, tweeted on Tuesday. He added that the institution recognises the “legacy of cultural theft” and that they will play their part in returning what rightfully belongs to Africans through repatriation.
“The RISD Museum has worked with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments to repatriate this sculpture to the people of Nigeria where it belongs,” RISD Museum Interim Director Sarah Ganz Blythe said in a statement.
This sets off a worldwide revolution. Institutions are waking up to the reality that they’ve not only protected the history of colonialism but also acted as accomplices to the white-washing and erasure of African culture. The return of these artefacts does not guarantee that these century-old wounds will heal. It will, however, help restore and preserve what colonialists pillaged from the many regions of Africa.