Nelson Atkins Museum Under Fire for Displaying Stolen African Art

Though nothing new to Western institutions, Kansas City’s most prominent museum, The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, is a central figure in the unraveling global drama of Western institutions displaying stolen African art. 

In the late 1980s, the Nelson purchased a rare Nigerian artifact from British Art Dealer Lance Entwistle. At the time, the museum boasted of the prized object as “perhaps the most expensive piece of African art ever bought by a museum” at just under $1 million

Screenshot via entwistlegallery.com/notable-sales/bronze-commemorative-head

This particular artifact, The Commemorative Head of an Oba (King), is known in the museum world as a Benin Bronze, and is one of at least four of them on display at the Nelson. In 1988, Nelson curators described the piece as ranking “among the masterworks of Benin art.” 

The commemorative heads specifically represented idealized images of an oba (king) in the Kingdom of Benin. They portrayed the preceding ruler and were exhibited at a shrine in his honor, serving as divine symbols of lineage and kingship. They also exemplified the kingdom’s preeminent metal-casting techniques.

“They are not just art but they are things that underline the significance of our spirituality,” spokesman Charles Edosonmwan for the Oba palace in Benin City told CNN in an interview.

Among Africa’s most significant heritage objects, The Benin Bronzes were stolen by Europeans in the Benin Massacre, a mass murder of Benin people located at the seat of the Benin Kingdom in 1897. This event is also euphemistically called the “British Punitive Expedition” or simply “the 1897 Expedition” by white and European institutions.

A Benin plaque from the mid-16th to 17th centuries. Courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.

The Harvard Art Museum, which owns forty-seven artifacts with provenance dating to the Benin Massacre, admits on their website that “the presence of this cultural material in western museums is experienced as continued injustice by descendant communities.”

Benin Bronzes are not from the current-day country of Benin, but rather the once mighty but now-destroyed Kingdom of Benin which was located in what is now Benin City, Nigeria. 

“As part of this horrific raid, they stole as many as 10,000 sculptures, plaques, ceremonial objects, altars and other pieces dating largely from the mid-16th to early 17th century,” the Smithsonian Museum notes, also stating that “over the ensuing 125 years, they have made their way to museums and galleries around the world, most of which were aware that the works had been taken by force.”

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Joy of Museums

The Defender spoke with Barnaby Phillips, Former BBC Nigeria Correspondent and author of Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes, who mentioned that the Commemorative Head “is one of the Nelson’s star items; it was hugely celebrated when they acquired it in the 1980s, but suddenly its provenance became quite problematic…they haven’t been in the firing line in the same way as the Europeans but it is definitely problematic.” 

The President of the Society of Nigerian Artists, Mohammed Suleiman, told Africa News earlier this year that it is “time to return the Benin bronzes from Nigeria, which were looted and removed by the British colonialists 125 years ago, to their homeland.”

Suleiman went on to say about the Bronzes in British/Western museums: 

“These artifacts are not looting, they are stolen… You went somewhere, killed people and forcibly stole their property, and you call it loot. In fact, it is not booty, it is what we call a stolen artifact…They have been making money from these artifacts for years, but they don’t give anything to Nigeria, the real owner of the artifacts.”

Still, the Nelson Atkins Museum has no plans to return these stolen objects.

The Defender reached out to the Nelson Atkins Museum to see if they would provide the public updates to their research from the past two years. We were referred to their Media Relations Manager, who said the following:

“Our research into the provenance of all our African collections is ongoing. It is a time-consuming process that is dependent upon the gathering and reconstruction of information from a variety of international and historical sources. We have not yet reached any conclusions.”

Given that the response offered virtually no new information regarding the progress of the research or even if any had been made, our second inquiry was more pointed and asked three specific questions:

What are you looking into regarding the provenance of the Benin Bronzes? What progress has been made in the past 2 years? And is the Nelson interested in creating a relationship with the Government of Nigeria or facilitators like Dr. Sodipo to discuss returning these items?

The Nelson gave the following response to the first two questions;

“The pace of research on each object varies depending on access to information and accumulation of verifiable evidence. Our research indicates two of the objects in our African collection may have links to the 1897 expedition.”

The Nelson did not respond to the third question regarding the potential return of the stolen items, instead only citing their involvement in a German-led digital data and documentation initiative called the Digital Benin Project. The project aims to create a global catalog of the artifacts, but takes no position on whether countries involved should return them. 

Screenshot of Digital Benin Project Website

The Nelson’s admission that two objects “may have links to the 1897 expedition” both underplays the actual violence of the Benin Massacre and indicates that the museum is aware their bronzes are likely stolen.

The level of difficulty involved in obtaining even bare bones information from this publicly funded museum is concerning. More importantly, with such a closed, nontransparent process in addressing repatriation, the Nelson Atkins keeps itself from being held accountable. 

Barnaby Phillips noted this trend in museums across the world, telling the Defender, “They often say we’ll wait to hear from the Nigerians, we’ve got a lot we are dealing with from restitution claims from Native Americans, all will happen in good time but it is on our radar.”

But no action is ever taken. With neither commitments nor concrete plans from the Nelson, there’s nothing to guarantee that in another two years, we won’t be receiving the exact same message. 

While the Nelson drags its feet, some museums have chosen to return their Benin Bronzes.

The University of Aberdeen and the University of Cambridge, both in England, as well as the Smithsonian Museum in the United States were among the world’s first institutions to begin a repatriation movement to return the stolen items to the government of Nigeria.

The Church of Canterbury has also announced that it would return its two bronze artifacts to Nigeria and Germany and Nigeria signed a memorandum of understanding that laid out a timetable for the return of nearly 1,100 sculptures from Germany’s museums.

Prince Isa Bayero, a Prince of the Kano Emirates, Chief Charles Uwensuyi-Edosomwan, the Obasuyi of Benin and Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, the younger brother of the current Benin monarch. Courtesy of the University of Aberdeen.

The Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC shocked the art world by removing their Benin Bronzes from display last year and committing to repatriate all artifacts that were looted in the Benin Massacre.

Museum Director Ngaire Blankenberg said, “I can confirm that we have taken down the Benin bronzes we had on display and we are fully committed to repatriation.” She continued, “We cannot build for the future without making our best effort at healing the wounds of the past.” Blankenberg, who became Director last July, ordered 10 of the Benin Bronzes to be removed from display within days of taking on her new role.

Such a quick and decisive action stands in stark contrast to the museums who say making decisions about the Bronzes requires years of vigorous research and provenance verification. 

Further, Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas announced that the Smithsonian has 39 of the Benin pieces in its collections, and most, but not all, are marked for return to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCCM). The museum says that all items which are verified to have been stolen will be returned. 

Left to Right: Commemorative head of a king, Edo artist, 18th century; Plaque, Edo artist, mid-16th to 17th century. Photo: Franko Khoury/National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

“What is more important than being in control of how your heritage, your artifacts, are displayed?” director general of the NCCM, Abba Isa Tijani, said in an interview with the Washington Post, who was first to report the Smithsonian’s return of the Benin Bronzes. “I commend the Smithsonian,” she said, adding, “We have not encountered another museum that has done as much.”

Given that the Smithsonian, one of the largest museums in the world, made a commitment to the repatriation of the Bronzes within days of hiring a new Director, the Nelson’s claims of it being a “time consuming process” after two years of research are seriously brought into question. 

Considering their much smaller collections and responsibilities, it would be tremendously easy for the Nelson to follow suit. With each day that the Benin Bronzes remain on display, the museum further proves that they have no respect for the cultures, people, and histories that they claim to preserve.

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