The Smithsonian Institution’s board of regents on June 13 voted to deaccession twenty-nine of the thirty-nine Benin bronzes held in the collection of the National Museum of African Art. The objects, part of a roughly 90,000-piece trove of artefacts stolen by British troops in 1897 from the Republic of Benin, as Nigeria was then known, are to be returned to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments at a yet-to-be-announced date. The remaining ten bronzes are likely to be repatriated as well; the Smithsonian, which in March had said it would return all of the objects, is still conducting research on these.
The board’s vote follows quickly on the heels of the institution’s April 29 adoption of a new policy under which the nineteen individual museums operating under its aegis may return to their rightful owners items that were looted or unethically acquired without first seeking the umbrella organization’s imprimatur. Board approval is necessary to do so only when the items in question are of notable monetary or research value, or are historically important, or when their return might create significant public interest. The Benin bronzes meet all these criteria.
To date, the Smithsonian return encompasses the largest group of Benin bronzes being repartriated. Though its announcement of the returns postdated those of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dublin’s National Museum of Ireland, and museums across Germany, the Smithsonian is the largest institution thus far to repatriate its Benin bronzes. In establishing its new ethical return policy shortly thereafter, the Smithsonian moved away from the concept that had previously governed its return practice, which was that legal ownership of an object provided sufficient justification for its retention. Smithsonian leaders at the time expressed hope that other cultural institutions would follow their lead and establish similar policies of their own.