Opinion: If U.S. Museums Say Black Lives Matter, then they Should Return Africa’s Stolen ArtBreaking News
tags: museums, art history, African art, Benin Bronzes
In the 2nd century B.C., Greek historian Polybius warned mighty Rome and other powerful states against plundering cultural objects from the peoples that it conquered. He cautioned “those who take upon themselves to rule over others” that “they may not imagine that, when they pillage cities, the misfortunes of others are an honor to their own country.”
Now, after global protests over white supremacy and the vestiges of slavery and colonialism, a number of museums have announced that they will repatriate items looted from Africa back to the continent.
In April, Germany announced that Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum would be returning hundreds of artifacts looted in the 19th century from what was the Kingdom of Benin back to Nigeria. Other European nations and museums are beginning to do the same: In March, Scotland’s University of Aberdeen said that it would send a Benin Bronze back to Nigeria. And last year, France indicated the return of artifacts stolen from West Africa. However, the government of Britain, the country that was responsible for the 1897 raid on Benin City, has by law prevented national institutions from returning looted items.
That a number of European institutions are finally taking heed of what African scholars and activists have been demanding for decades is a welcome step. Alas, much less attention has been paid to the responsibility of U.S. institutions that choose to keep objects that were looted from African countries.
So far, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have not commented on whether their institutions will return the artifacts that were plundered from the Kingdom of Benin, though the Smithsonian has said it is convening a working group to discuss its policy on looted art. The National Museum of African Art in D.C. has 42 objects from Benin; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has at least 160 objects that can be traced back to Benin City.
Institutions such as the Smithsonian and the Met claim to want to start dialogue about culture and history. After the murder of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis, both released statements about combating systemic racism. The Met invested in antiracism training for its staff and said that it was committed to “new approaches” in “how we build, study, and oversee our collection and program.” So then why the silence and institutional foot-dragging on questions of returning looted art back to the countries that request and want them back?
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