The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum complex in the world, made up of nineteen museums and twenty-one libraries across the United States. As one of the world’s cultural giants, the Smithsonian is often used as an example of how major museums operate. And recently, I think they may have set a new standard. The Smithsonian has recently announced a new policy regarding the return of looted works. The policy, which took effect on April 30th, states that the individual organizations that make up the Smithsonian do not need the approval of the Institution to repatriate potentially looted or stolen items. Previously, the constituent museums would need to pass a restitution request through a bureaucratic chain until it made its way to the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents. The policy was enacted after extensive conversations with Smithsonian curators and historians over the previous year and will apply to all Smithsonian museums.
The topic of restitution has become more commonplace in recent years. New and difficult conversations are taking place that allows us to reevaluate the role that racism and colonization have played and continue to play in our lives. Within museums, one of the most prominent discussions surrounds the Benin Bronzes. These are several thousand bronze statues, sculptures, and plaques, some dating back to the thirteenth century, that once decorated the royal palace in Benin City in what is now Nigeria. In 1897, the British army embarked on the Benin Expedition, where the British sacked Benin City and forced the Kingdom of Benin into being absorbed by Britain’s Southern Nigeria Protectorate. During the sacking, these bronzes were stolen and distributed across several European and American institutions. Though Nigeria has been requesting these artifacts be repatriated since the country gained independence in 1960, Western art institutions have only been heeding those requests within the past few years. The French and German governments, the Church of England, and Cambridge University have all agreed to return the some or all bronzes in their possession back to Nigeria. This past March, the Smithsonian decided to do the same, with most of their thirty-nine bronzes returning to Nigeria and a few others remaining in the United States as long-term loans. While restitution campaigns have progressed, many museums and collections still hold onto Benin Bronzes and have not stated if they will take action. The Boston Museum of Fine Art has twenty-eight pieces. Though New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has repatriated several of their Benin Bronzes, they’re still holding onto a collection of one hundred sixty pieces. It may come as no surprise that the largest collection of bronzes is housed at London’s British Museum, with around seven hundred pieces. But we all know that, based on previous behavior, those looted artifacts aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
In a recent interview, Lonnie G. Bunch III, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said that the new policy is just as much about leadership as it is about ethically navigating the arts and antiquities world. It is so that the Smithsonian can become the new model upon which other museums base their restitution policies. “There is a growing understanding at the Smithsonian and in the world of museums generally that our possession of these collections carries with it certain ethical obligations to the places and people where the collections originated.” Bunch has also stated that because the organization’s collections contain over 150 million items, restitution would be considered only when performing research for exhibits or when requested.
This is an incredible step in the right direction. The regents, who previously had the final say over restitution, include the Chief Justice, the Vice President, members of Congress, and some CEOs. While they may know quite a fair bit about business or communications or healthcare, it may be best to take the restitution process out of the hands of appointees. Suppose a constituent museum’s researchers and curators agree that a particular item has a problematic provenance. How is it fair that a senator from Arkansas or an insurance executive might prevent a cultural artifact from returning to where it belongs? Thanks to the Institution’s newly adopted policy, that situation won’t ever have to be considered.