The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art has transferred ownership of 29 Benin bronzes to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria.

The bronzes, which were part of the museum’s collection, were stolen from Nigeria during the 1897 British raid on Benin City. The Smithsonian’s Board of Regents voted to deaccession the bronzes in June 2022, in keeping with the Smithsonian’s new ethical returns policy.

The transfer of ownership was formalized in a ceremony at the National Museum of African Art on Tuesday, 11th October 2022. The ceremony was held in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art, which returned the Benin bronze from its collection.

Secretary of the Smithsonian, Lonnie Bunch, said “Not only was returning ownership of these magnificent artifacts to their rightful home the right thing to do, it also demonstrates how we all benefit from cultural institutions making ethical choices. Sharing knowledge and stewardship with origin communities will help us better understand and preserve important cultural heritage like the Benin bronzes and illuminate it for future generations in the United States and around the world.”

The Secretary was joined at the ceremony by Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed and Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, representing the Oba, or the traditional ruler of the Kingdom of Benin.. Others in attendance include the Director of the National Museum of African Art, Ngaire Blankenberg, and Kaywin Feldman, Director of the National Gallery.

Lai Mohammed stated that “Nigeria is immensely gratified at the commendable decision of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design to return these artefacts that left Africa over a century ago. Nigeria looks forward to working with these institutions on joint exhibitions and other educational exchanges. By returning the artefacts, these institutions are together writing new pages in history. Their brave decision to return the timeless artworks are worth emulating.”

The return of these Benin Bronzes is the first return under the Smithsonian’s new ethical returns policy announced this spring. This policy authorizes Smithsonian museums to return collections to the community of origin based on ethical considerations, such as the manner and circumstances in which the items were originally acquired.

Story: Ene Ken-Yawe