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Benin kingdom court style plaque
Benin kingdom court style plaqueSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

The Smithsonian is giving back its looted art

@BritishMuseum

Over the past few years, calls to return looted artworks to their countries of origin have grown loud enough that few western institutions can afford to keep ignoring them. In France, Germany, and Belgium, museums have begun sending thousands of stolen objects back to their African countries of origin – including the much-disputed Benin Bronzes. 

Many British museums and galleries are yet to catch up (who’s surprised tbh?), but the conversation is heating up there too, with campaign groups such as BP or not BP? shutting down galleries to highlight objects acquired through colonialism.

The latest development, however, comes from the US. Earlier this week, the Smithsonian Institution – the world’s largest group of museums and research centres – announced a groundbreaking change to its policy on returning looted artworks from its collections. Taking effect last Friday (April 29), the new “ethical returns” policy is meant to reflect shifting views about the repatriation of artworks and artefacts that were stolen from their country of origin, or acquired unethically by modern standards.

“Today, cultural institutions are gradually shifting away from the idea that certain artefacts belong in a museum setting, regardless of the origin community’s wishes,” Smithsonian spokesperson Madeleine Weyand-Geise tells Dazed. “We began to think seriously about a change last spring, when museums in Germany and elsewhere were beginning to question their holdings – particularly artefacts and art from former colonies – such as the Benin bronzes from Nigeria currently in the National Museum of African Art’s collection.”

The Smithsonian is an eclectic institution, including 21 museums, a zoo, and dozens of libraries and research centres. Its new policy places the power in these museums’ hands, allowing them to return collections to their rightful owners. However, it should be noted that the Smithsonian’s board will be required to approve the deaccession of certain artefacts “of significant monetary value, research or historical value, or when the deaccession might create significant public interest”, according to an official statement

The new guidelines shared in the statement also explicitly encourage museums to base their decisions on “ethical norms”, rather than existing legal frameworks that are likely to be out of touch with today’s attitudes. This idea has also informed the Smithsonian’s decision to ship most of its 39 Benin Bronzes back to Nigeria (as announced earlier this year) despite legally owning the items.

Why is this happening now, though, after years of activists calling for museums to get rid of their looted artefacts? Well, partly because it’s a complicated issue, and ownership disputes take a long time to work out – many of these decisions have been in the pipeline for years. For Smithsonian, bringing outside voices into the mix also helped to kickstart the process, with a group of curators and specialists coming together to inform the new policy.

“As the ‘national museum’, the Smithsonian seeks to set a standard for ethical collection practices that reflects an emphasis on shared stewardship or partnership,” says Weyand-Geise. “A museum is not the sole interpreter of the cultural artefacts in its collections.”

It remains to be seen whether the decision can trigger a chain reaction across other cultural institutions (we’re looking at you, British Museum) and lay the blueprint for returning stolen art. The Smithsonian itself refuses to comment on other museum’s positions, as a general rule. It does seem to suggest a tide-shift in how we recognise the provenance of art, though. In the meantime, continued pressure from activists can’t hurt.