In a potentially landmark move, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. is reportedly in talks related to a plan to send back dozens of Benin Bronzes that it owns, according to the Washington Post. An agreement has not yet been signed for the repatriation, but, citing the head of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, a plan for the return could be expected to be signed next month.
The Benin Bronzes are a group of objects that were looted in 1897 by British troops from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria. Those pieces made their way to England and have since been dispersed across the world, ending up in some of the world’s biggest institutions, most notably the British Museum in London. In the past year, following a decision by Germany to begin repatriating its Benin Bronzes, various institutions have followed suit.
The Smithsonian would not be the first U.S. museum to return its Benin Bronzes—the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York already sent back two objects from the group, and the University of California, Los Angeles’s Fowler Museum has initiated talks to undertake a similar return. The Met has only returned a small portion of the Benin Bronzes, however, given that it is believed to own around 160 of them.
The Smithsonian’s repatriation would be more extensive, and could spur other U.S. institutions to send back their Benin Bronzes. The agreement would focus on the majority of the 39 Benin Bronzes held by the National Museum of African Art, around half of which had once been on view at one point. That museum previously announced that it was mulling sending back certain Benin Bronzes in its holdings with “uncertain provenance,” but the newly reported deal would formalize those plans. The museum had received those Benin Bronzes through donations.
In recent years, the National Museum of African Art has been working to shift the way it presents the Benin Bronzes that it owns. In a panel discussion held last year, Christine Kreamer, the museum’s deputy director, said that the museum no longer used certain terminology—for example, the phrase “punitive expedition” to describe the British troops’ purpose in coming to the Kingdom of Benin—in its wall text to characterize the violent means by which the Benin Bronzes were taken.
The Washington Post’s report was based on a statement from Nigeria’s National Commission for Monuments and Museums, which has previously managed repatriations of Benin Bronzes.
In an email to ARTnews, a Smithsonian spokesperson said that the plan is part of a larger revision of the museum’s collections policy to include ethical terms. “Under the new policy, we will ask the Board of Regents to approve the return of Benin bronzes taken from a raid in 1897 to the National Commission of Monuments and Museums in Nigeria,” the spokesperson said.
One Benin Bronze will not be returned, the spokesperson continued, because it did not come from that 1897 raid.
Nigerian officials have made clear that, once the Benin Bronzes are returned, some will be shown in Benin City, in a museum called the Edo Museum of West African Art that had been given a 2025 opening date when it was first announced two years ago. That museum will be designed by David Adjaye, who has described the project as an “undoing of the objectification that has happened in the West through full reconstruction.”