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Art museums are some of the world’s most important cultural institutions, and Harvard’s own museums are no exception. However, the objects of great museums can have ugly, bloody colonial pasts that they sweep under the rug.
An entire 47 works of the so-called “Benin Bronzes” at Harvard are part of this legacy. There are currently two bronzes in the Harvard Art Museum and 45 in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The bronzes are beautiful and historically important metal sculpted busts, ivory statues, and coral beads. The history of the works, however, is marred by the atrocities and cultural robbery that tarnish the value of holding these works in museums like Harvard’s.
The Kingdom of Benin was a state in modern-day Nigeria that was the main player in trade with Europe on the Nigerian coast for centuries. The state was ruled by an Oba, or king, who was considered divine and was given ornate art that held extreme cultural significance.
In 1897, a group of British soldiers invaded Benin, massacring people who held swords and muskets with machine guns and artillery. They captured the Oba, pillaged all of the artwork from the palaces in the name of preservation, and burned the royal compound to the ground. Art from this horrific expedition was then shipped all over the world, ending up in museums all over the Western world, including Harvard.
Harvard acknowledges this atrocious history. The Harvard Art Museums’ website reads, “we acknowledge the violence and trauma of that expedition and understand how the presence of this cultural material in western museums is experienced as continued injustice by descendant communities.”
Despite their acknowledgment of harm, Harvard has not taken further steps to repatriate the stolen art that it now controls. The Benin Bronzes, even with their legacy of colonial violence and theft, remain in the University’s museums.
There is a precedent for repatriation of colonially pillaged art. The German Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage signed over ownership of 512 items to Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments this year, which constitutes the largest transfer of museum artifacts derived from colonialism to date. The Smithsonian, as well, has transferred 29 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria’s National Commission. But Harvard has remained relatively silent.
Some, like The Atlantic’s David Frum, have asked whether repatriation actually makes any difference. He argues that it was a victory for activists to even get African art the respect to be displayed in European museums as real art. It is also argued that the art is currently seen and appreciated by more people than it would be if it was not condensed in institutions like Harvard’s museums. And he is correct in saying that, no, transferring art cannot erase the atrocities of the past.
Still, the claim that Western museums care for the bronzes better than Nigeria could is inherently colonially minded. The art is a part of Nigerian history, and who has more of a right to easy access to it than the Nigerian public? Yes, institutions like the Louvre, or the British Museums, or even the Harvard museums allow a wide public to enjoy masterpieces of human achievement, but it is a skewed, Eurocentric view of the world that claims that Western audiences and tourists deserve access to this art more than the country the cultural artifacts were stolen from.
There is also controversy within Nigeria over what will happen with the returned art. Various stakeholders want vastly different things, with many pushing for a museum specifically dedicated to the legacy of Benin City, and the current Oba claiming personal ownership. This raises questions within Western establishments about who will actually get the returned art, whether it will be properly protected, and whether it will be displayed openly. But this is analogous to a thief forcing the group they stole from to prove they will take care of their own rightful property before returning the stolen goods.
Despite the nebulous nature of the proposed transfers, and the potential positive impacts of Western museum stewardship, art stolen by colonial powers should be returned, especially in this example which is the result of an abject atrocity. Harvard holds the responsibility to work actively towards the repatriation of these cultural marvels, especially since there is a clear precedent for this action.
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