Written by Staff Writer by Mariane Barraclough, CNN London
Benin bronze sculptures are to be returned to the West African country after a nearly 500-year journey around the world.
The Smith Center for African Art has withdrawn from a “Marshall Plan for Africa” in Boston, USA, that would have seen the 15 bronzes featured in a major European display, and plans to return them to Benin in 2020.
The museum works with non-profit museum association Pax in its exchange program between European museums and West African communities. Pax has visited the Smith Center four times in recent years and recorded several monologues, testimonies and public talks by Benin art experts and scholars.
In the third of such talks in June 2017, an open letter to Pax from the chairman of the Benin Council, Honorable Boni Bello, expressed the Benin government’s readiness to return the bronzes. Benin requested that they be sold to contribute to and bankroll the restoration of the St. Giles Museum, in downtown Benin, and the first planned public exhibition of the bronzes.
The 18th century Benin bronzes are among dozens of African bronzes and sculptures that have been on loan to Europe’s most prestigious art institutions — including the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in London and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg — since the 1960s. For a number of cultural institutions, their status as looted objects from Africa has blocked the return of these works.
For most Europe’s largest museums, the arrival of colonial-era sculptures in Europe drew out fierce debate over how they could be handled or changed into museums, or destroyed in the name of eliminating competition in public collections.
The notion of what constitutes an object of heritage, the historical provenance of a particular object, and the relationship between a person and a historical object became central.
Using this premise, these relics have been treated as primary cultural items in Europe, with no restrictions on who can own and display them. European museums, however, have in many cases still refused to return African objects to their original homes.
“Museum of African Art has a clear policy regarding our collections and program,” said Carol Smith, the director of the museum, in a statement published Monday. “As a result, we remain vigilant to ensure that every component of our collection maintains integrity and cultural integrity, and we continue to actively solicit media, academic and public commentary around this principle. Upon receipt of the requested commission, MOAA pledged to consider the acquisition and repatriation of Benin bronzes to Benin.”
Mairead Lockyer, head of the museum’s conservation and conservation management department, said: “It has been gratifying to see that the South African embassy in Washington DC was so supportive of the museum’s move on this issue and we hope that other institutions will follow our lead. This demonstrates our firm commitment to work as a team for a healthier relationship with local partners and communities, from the ground up, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.”
A conservation study at the Smith Center commissioned to evaluate the status of the Benin bronzes (the Bonyabo) and an original deposit of the pieces from the St. Giles Museum in Benin, concluded in October 2016.
According to the study’s findings, the objects were on loan and in good condition until May 2017, when they were returned to the museum’s “art on loan” display at the Arsollo Siena in Italy. The study also confirmed that all the pieces were historical, not looted objects, and had been put on loan in good faith.
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The terms of the loan has still not been settled, as the St. Giles museum has attempted to renegotiate the conditions for the loan with Pax.
“MOAA will continue to maintain a dialogue with the Benin Ministry of Culture,” the museum stated. “In the meantime, the museum is continuing its long-term mission to integrate African contemporary art and special collections into the narratives, exhibits and tours of the museum.”