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After 125 years, museums across Europe and the United States which housed and displayed stolen artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southwest Nigeria, during a violent raid by British colonial forces, are taking steps to return the pieces.
Smithsonian created ‘ethical returns policy’ in its artifacts role
According to the Smithsonian’s Jacquelyne Germain, the sculptures, plaques, ceremonial objects, altars and other artifacts that British soldiers stole in 1897 in this act of colonial violence are collectively known as the “Benin Bronzes.”
In a joint ceremony on Tuesday, the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) collectively transferred ownership of 30 Benin bronzes, 29 of which come from the Smithsonian, to the people of Nigeria. Of the 29 items, 20 will be returned to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments(NCMM) and nine will remain, loaned to the NMAfA for later display.
Some of the works of art going back to Nigeria include a ceremonial sword made of copper, iron, alloy and wood as well as a sculpture made of copper, alloy and iron that depicts the head of an oba (king), with an emphasis on the ruler’s finely detailed beaded collar.
The official transfer of ownership comes after the establishment in April of the Smithsonian’s ethical returns policy, which allows for artifacts that were stolen, taken by coercive means or unethically obtained, to be returned to their appropriate community or individual.
“At our museum, we’re embarking on projects of African museology,” says Ngaire Blankenberg, director of the National Museum of African Art. “What does it mean to amplify African voices, African artists, African creatives, but also African knowledge systems, African languages? What does it mean to shift the power of definition within our museum? I think that the restitution, the reparations is one part of the equation, but it’s really a kind of major existential shift in how we operate as a museum and how we’re willing to operate moving forward.”
Museums across the world are returning what was never their own.
A bronze sculpture of a West African king that had been in the collection of a Rhode Island museum for more than 70 years was among 31 culturally precious objects that were also returned to the Nigerian government on Tuesday.
Earlier in August, Britain’s Horniman Museum and Gardens also agreed to hand over 72 artifacts, including several Benin bronzes, after receiving a request for the artifacts from the Nigerian government, according to ABC News.
British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii Museum has received numerous repatriations, including from the Museum of Vancouver and other private collectors.
Jisgang/Nika Collison, executive director and curator of Haida Gwaii Museum, stated, “This has nothing to do with British law. This is humanity.”
The Rosetta Stone belongs in Africa
Thousands of Egyptians are now demanding the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum back to its home country.
The iconic artifact, which helped scientists finally decode Egyptian hieroglyphs almost exactly 200 years ago, has been in English hands since Napoleon gave it up – as well as 16 other artifacts – as part of the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801.
The latest campaign to reclaim the Rosetta Stone has gathered more than 2,500 signatures in an online petition launched by a group of prominent archeologists.
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