The Fowler Museum at the University of California (UCLA) is planning talks with the Legacy Restoration Trust in Nigeria about the future of 18 objects in its collection from the former Kingdom of Benin. The discussions could lead to the restoration of the works that were looted by British forces in a raid on the royal palace in Benin in 1897, the director said.
Fowler’s statement, emailed to The Art Newspaper, comes after the federal government announced it was laying the groundwork for the return of Benin bronzes in German museum collections. The proposed refund is part of a far-reaching agreement with Nigerian stakeholders represented by the Legacy Restoration Trust. The Trust plans to build a new museum in Benin City to house returning art stolen by British troops.
“The Fowler has set itself the task of developing a process with which the return and return of African objects can be included in its collection,” says Marla C. Berns, director of the Fowler Museum, in a statement. “We assume that we will be able to start talks with authorities in Nigeria about the disposition of the 18 Benin objects in our collection in the coming months.”
She adds, “We know these discussions can lead to various resolutions, including their return or a long-term loan that would allow us as a university museum to share them while teaching the history of the Kingdom of Benin.” She hopes conversations “Will lead to a solution based on the Legacy Restoration Trust guidelines”.
After the looting of 1897, artifacts from Benin’s royal palace were sold and scattered around the world. There are now objects in Benin that are kept by more than 160 international museums. A large part of the Fowler Museum’s holdings of African art was donated in 1965 by the Wellcome Trust in London, which after his death distributed the huge collections of the pharmaceutical industrialist Sir Henry Wellcome, says Berns. Three objects from Benin – two bronzes and a carved ivory tusk – are currently on view in a long-term exhibition.
“We’re rewriting exhibition texts to contextualize the circumstances under which these objects were added to our collection, including where they came from,” says Berns. “We were able to reconstruct these biographies based on research funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.” Berns adds that the museum is “also holding talks about possible returns in connection with Wellcome objects from Ghana and South Africa”.
Christine Mullen Kreamer, the chief curator of The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, suggested at a conference hosted by Columbia University on April 9th that the museum could have discussions about returning items from Benin to U.S. museums. She added that another conference planned for June this year could be the moment to set up a working group. The National Museum of African Art has 42 objects from the Kingdom of Benin; Provenance research is ongoing.
“There are many colleagues out there who fully realize that not only is the time right, but that it is overdue to move forward at all deliberate pace,” she said. “The Smithsonian has a process under way to develop a policy and framework, not just for Africa but also for other areas of the world, associated with looted collections and collections from the colonial era.”
Other US museums approached by The Art Newspaper stated that they are either doing provenance research or are not yet ready to commit to refunds. The Cleveland Museum of Art has eight works from the Kingdom of Benin in its African art gallery, five of which were believed to have been looted in 1897. The origin of the remaining three is not yet clear.
“Since all of these works are being researched further, the museum is unable to make a statement about future measures,” says a spokeswoman for the museum.
The art newspaper received similar statements from the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which exhibits 32 Benin objects in a special gallery. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which contains about 160 objects traced back to the 1897 looting in Benin, declined to comment on whether the objects would be returned.