By: Kara Annett
While aimlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed a few days ago, something stood out amongst the 2021 photo dumps and pet posts: a bold headline from the Washington Post claiming that if it's looted, it gets booted. Ngaire Blankenberg, the new director of the National Museum of African Art, a part of the Smithsonian (of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian fame), has made the landmark decision to remove 18 objects stolen from Benin City in hopes of eventually returning them. This proclamation comes on the heels of Germany announcing they would begin returning the Benin Bronzes in their collections this year. I can't help but wonder: are other institutions going to follow suit?
Probably not if you're the British Museum.
The Benin Bronzes originated in the Kingdom of Benin, now Nigeria. When the British invaded in 1897, they stole roughly 3,000 works which have since been spread across approximately 161 different collections around the world, including the British Museum. In 2019, the British Museum was given the title of the "world's largest receiver of stolen goods" by lawyer Geoffrey Robertson. The official website of the British Museum claims that they have over 900 belongings from the Kingdom of Benin in their collection, in addition to other stolen goods like the Elgin Marbles from Greece and Moai from Easter Island. The British Museum has continually resisted repatriation efforts, citing that the "breadth and depth" of their collection is one of their biggest strengths, supposedly giving visitors a deep understanding of how global cultures have become "interconnected" over time through "trade, migration, conquest, or peaceful exchange." Basically, their educational value is considered more important than their cultural value.
The British Museum has continually used this reasoning in rejecting repatriation claims. In 2004, they denied the request for the return of seven human remains from Aotearoa New Zealand because they found it unclear if the “importance of the remains to the original community outweighed the significance and importance of the remains as sources of human history.” This same reasoning has been echoed in their reluctance to return the Elgin Marbles, the Maoi, and the Benin Bronzes. While the British Museum has pledged to lend their Benin Bronzes collection to Nigeria’s future Edo Museum of West African Art, there is yet to be a plan to permanently give them back. That’s right: they’ll let the Edo Museum borrow their own cultural artefacts.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the Smithsonian article, and I was curious to know what the public thought about it. Instead of subjecting myself to the horror of the comments section, I decided to take a risk and ask my followers (the majority of whom are not in history or museum fields) what they thought about all of this. Luckily, all my friendships remained intact.
Almost everyone answered “yes” to my posed question, should museums return stolen artefacts? When provided with a box to elaborate upon their thoughts, I was surprised/delighted with just how many people responded (but I must ask where this enthusiasm is when I post my dog or a selfie?). Many brought up the ethical issues of keeping these objects, while some suggested asking groups to create replicas so that the museum could continue to educate while the original owners got their belongings back. Others mentioned how keeping stolen artefacts in collections adhered to white supremacy and upheld harmful colonial values. A couple even called for a complete overhaul of museum collections so that we can move towards reconciling with our colonial past (if any of you are reading this: have you considered pursuing a graduate degree in Museum Studies?). I can't help but wonder if, in the age of the Internet and the digital catalogue, does the British Museum’s claim to educate still have any merit? Perhaps that'll be my next Insta debate.
It’s hard to say if the Smithsonian's actions will give the British Museum the push it needs to re-evaluate its policies re: repatriation. What is certain is that pressure to do so will continue to mount, especially as museums around the world begin to confront this reckoning.