AMAM Discusses Process of Repatriating Benin Bronze Pieces

With the recent launch of the Digital Benin archive and the repatriation of 31 Benin Bronzes by multiple American museums, the treatment of “Uhunmwun-Ekhue” — the bronze currently housed in the Allen Memorial Art Museum — deserves particular scrutiny. At this point, it remains to be seen where the work will ultimately end up. However, according to AMAM staff, thoughtful dialogues are being had about its ethical display, and repatriation to Nigeria is a very real possibility.

“I think all of us in the museum world are grappling with the problematic histories of many of the works in our collections,” Andria Derstine, John G. W. Cowles director of the AMAM, said. “There are special issues around cultural property when you are working at a museum like the Allen with collections that are so global and span 6,000 years.” 

Derstine mentioned that the thorny history of the work has been a topic of ongoing discussion among museum employees ever since she began working at the AMAM as a curator in 2006, and likely before that as well.

“[The fact that the work was looted] is something that we’ve made a concerted effort to put on the labels for the work and to put prominently in text on the website,” Derstine said. “It’s definitely something that we’ve been talking about with colleagues from other institutions.”

It’s easy for well-intentioned people to urge museums to simply “return” art that was looted by colonial powers to their countries of origin. However, the process of transferring ownership is far from straightforward, and it requires grappling with complex questions.

“For many years, [the entity that should receive the artwork] has just been unclear,” Derstine said. “Is it the Oba (the Nigerian sacred king)? Is it the royal court? Is it the government? Is it the people building the new museum?” 

Although each of these entities claims ownership of the bronzes, they aren’t necessarily equally qualified or well-equipped to receive these works. The Nigerian government, for instance, has a history of mishandling these artworks and failing to protect them from theft. 

“It’s only been in the last couple of months that it has become clear to whom museums should speak about repatriation, [which is] Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments,” Derstine said.

To complicate matters further, some organizations actively oppose the transfer of the Benin Bronzes. The Restitution Study Group, self-described as a non-profit with goals to “examine and execute innovative approaches to healing the injuries of exploited and oppressed people” through “litigation, legislation, genealogy and DNA research, and direct action,” filed a lawsuit against the Smithsonian in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stop the repatriation of the bronzes in their collection. They argued that the bronzes should stay in the U.S., where they can be viewed by descendants of enslaved populations.

“We believe you voted under misleading circumstances — deliberately made unaware of the fact that most of the bronzes were cast with metal manillas the Benin kingdom [paid for by selling people] into the transatlantic slave trade from the 16th to the 19th century,” Executive Director of the RSG Deadria Farmer-Paellmann wrote in an open letter to Vice President Kamala Harris, Chief Justice John Roberts, and other Smithsonian Board of Regents members.

Debate over the rightful ownership of these works is tricky and multi-layered, but Derstine made clear that both she and her colleagues are deeply committed to making decisions about what to do with “Uhunmwun-Ekhue” thoughtfully, with transparency, and while prioritizing cross-cultural dialogue.

“I will say we haven’t been approached by anyone about repatriating the bronze,” Derstine said. “However, given what is happening at other museums in the country — [the Rhode Island School of Design], the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art — we are certainly looking at connecting with the entity that they are working with on the repatriation. … It is so complex, and yes, people can say, ‘This was looted in 1897. It just needs to go back.’ That may well be what happens for all of these works. I would say, though, that it is more complex than just that … Until recently it’s been unclear, among multiple entities in Nigeria, which is in charge. Then, there is a group in America who’s filing a lawsuit. Then, you’ve got the fact that the people in Nigeria who are dealing with the restitutions on their end, you know… you want them to have some degree of agency as well, and not be overwhelmed by the process.”

For now, the AMAM is able to safely house the bronze in its collection, and the work can continue to serve as a centerpiece for scholarly criticism on campus until the appropriate course of action is decided upon.

“I do think that one of the good things that has come about since 1955, when the museum purchased [the bronze], is the fact that generations of Oberlin students have been able to study it, to see it in the context of other African artworks in the museum,” Derstine said. “There have been scholarly articles published on it. It has engendered this dialogue, which I think is a good one. So, I think that having some of these works remain in the United States … would be a good thing for scholarship and for understanding these works. But that would be something to be decided on in collaboration with Nigerian colleagues.”

After correspondence between the AMAM and Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, “Uhunmwun-Ekhue” might transfer hands, but it will likely be a slow process. In the meantime, the work will continue to be displayed along with clear indication of its violent history, and hopefully it will continue to spark conversations about ethics, colonialism, and cultural ownership.