Museums must return stolen artifacts, experts say. That requires an 'institutional transformation.'

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Ngaire Blankenberg has brought her children to museums around the world, and by now they expect to hear her point out things that shouldn't be there.

"They are always braced for a rant," she said with a laugh.

Blankenberg, who is South African and the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, said seeing objects that may have been obtained unethically can make her "tense and uncomfortable." Objects legally procured by museums may still have been stolen in their history, experts told USA TODAY. .

"I, like many Africans, have quite a visceral reaction," she said. "I feel insulted, feel harmed, feel that there's a violence associated with even that act of display, no matter how many caveats there are."

Individuals and communities for decades have used the legal system to push museums to return stolen cultural objects. Although more institutions have started examining and addressing the issue voluntarily in the last five years, the requests still face pushback, experts said. told USA TODAY.

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Shortly after arriving in Washington to lead the Smithsonian, Blankenberg removed 18 pieces that were or were possibly taken from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, during a British punitive raid in 1897. She replaced the objects with photographs and text explaining that displaying them without resolving the issue of ownership causes harm.

Blankenberg said she has been working with the Nigerian Council of Museums and Monuments to discuss returning the works, which, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, are just a few of the 3,000 looted objects collectively known as the Benin Bronzes that are now in museum collections around the world. The decision ultimately must be approved by the Smithsonian's Board of Regents.

"They belong to their rightful owners and creators, to the country and to the people who produced them," Blankenberg said.

Benin kingdom court style; Edo peoples; Nigeria; Mid 16th-17th century; Copper alloy; H x W x D: 47 x 34.2 x 8.2 cm (18 1/2 x 13 7/16 x 3 1/4 in.); Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn to the Smithsonian Institution in 1979
Benin kingdom court style; Edo peoples; Nigeria; Mid 16th-17th century; Copper alloy; H x W x D: 47 x 34.2 x 8.2 cm (18 1/2 x 13 7/16 x 3 1/4 in.); Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn to the Smithsonian Institution in 1979

Items acquired in 'an intense and violent way'

There's progress happening, but returning stolen cultural objects isn't "a strong area museums are excelling in, said Mike Murawski, a museum consultant and author of “Museums as Agents of Change.”

Although it's not always clear from gallery labels, Western museums hold large amounts of material that was taken, often in an "intense and violent way," in the 18th and 19th centuries by military personnel with explicitly nationalist aims, according to Alice Procter, an Australian art historian based in London. Merchants, missionaries and individuals that contributed to the work of colonization also took items for their collections, Procter added.

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The items were then often sold, traded or passed down to other owners before being acquired by or donated to museums, she said. Often times, collections are named after their final donors.

"There are very, very few museums that don't have at least one object in their collections that has some questions in its history," Procter said. "They are mirrors of their makers and their makers are overwhelmingly very wealthy, white men in the 1800s."

The problem persists.

Arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million for allegedly buying thousands of artifacts that had been smuggled out of Iraq and last year was forced to return the rare Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, which the company planned to display in its Museum of the Bible, founded by owners Steve and Jackie Green.

In 2018, a report commissioned by the French government estimating that upwards of 90% of African art is held outside the continent in major museums got international attention.

The report recommended that objects taken from their countries of origin without consent be permanently returned upon request, though few of the at least 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa held in France have actually been given back years later.

The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was seized by US authorities after being purchased by Hobby Lobby.
The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was seized by US authorities after being purchased by Hobby Lobby.

A 'strong streak of defensiveness'

As colonies gained independence in the mid-20th century, new nations began pushing for the return of their sacred cultural artifacts, Procter said.

"For as long as people have been taking objects, people have been resisting that process of taking and requesting the return of pieces," she said.

The requests made little headway until the 1990s, when the U.S enacted federal laws requiring certain Indigenous remains and cultural objects be returned to the tribal lands they were taken from. Some museums continue to drag their feet on those claims, Murawski noted.

"I really appreciate when museums don't just use legal requirements to start looking at these things," Murawski said, adding the decision to repatriate objects can sometimes take "a decade or two."

Procter said she noticed an increase in calls for repatriation of artifacts about a year after she started running "Uncomfortable Art" tours in 2017. The tours examined the role of imperialism and colonialism in several major British museums.

As she got more media attention, Procter said her audience "massively grew" and the museums she worked in began to take notice. In response, the British Museum started a series of talks about how they acquired certain items to counter the idea that their collections were the product of colonial looting, the BBC reported.

American museums also began looking at their own collections, particularly in the wake of the racial justice protest movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

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Last fall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returned three pieces to Nigeria and announced a formal agreement to collaborate with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

The Smithsonian is expected to update its policy on returning objects in light of ethical concerns in the spring, the result of a review started in May spearheaded by Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, according to spokesperson Anne Williams.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art fosters the discovery and appreciation of the visual arts of Africa.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art fosters the discovery and appreciation of the visual arts of Africa.

Recent campaigns like the push to return the Benin Bronzes benefited from online attention, Procter said.

"The cultural landscape around museums and repatriation has got this new online aspect to it that means that there's much greater movement and conversation," she said.

Although museums have become more transparent about repatriation requests, Procter said "there's also a very strong streak of defensiveness."

France is giving looted treasures back to Berlin: Some worry it will open the floodgates.

The British Museum, which Murawski called "a shining example of colonialism within a museum," has repeatedly denied requests to return statues from the Parthenon, which the Greek government says were illegally sawed off by a British diplomat in the 19th century while the country was subjected to Ottoman rule.

Greece obtained a marble fragment from the Parthenon carved with the foot of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, on loan from an Italian museum this week, a gesture designed to encourage the British to make a similar move.

"To a lot of people who've already been working on these subjects, it feels like nothing's really changed," Procter said.

Acropolis museum staff members display a marble fragment from the Parthenon, believed to depict the foot and lower tunic of the goddess Artemis, in Athens on January 10, 2022. - The marble will be displayed at the Acropolis Museum for the next eight years following an agreement with the Antonino Salinas Museum in Palermo, Sicily.

Parts of the Parthenons eastern frieze depicting Greek gods watching a sacred procession,  were formerly in the collection of 19th century British diplomat Robert Fagan before being purchased by the University of Palermo after 1818.
Acropolis museum staff members display a marble fragment from the Parthenon, believed to depict the foot and lower tunic of the goddess Artemis, in Athens on January 10, 2022. - The marble will be displayed at the Acropolis Museum for the next eight years following an agreement with the Antonino Salinas Museum in Palermo, Sicily. Parts of the Parthenons eastern frieze depicting Greek gods watching a sacred procession, were formerly in the collection of 19th century British diplomat Robert Fagan before being purchased by the University of Palermo after 1818.

More than repatriation required for change

Procter said it's possible for museums to educate the public about objects without displaying them. It's important to acknowledge and unpack why a returned object was on display in the first place, as well as examine what potentially harmful narratives the object contributed to, she said.

"We have these institutions that are used as an expression of power and as a way of defining and creating systems and hierarchies. And we often don't think of art and museums being used in that way," she said.

Museums need to shift their priorities from objects to relationships with the communities those objects belong to, Murawski said. To accomplish this, museums have replaced repatriated items with replicas and hired curators who share cultural backgrounds with objects still on display, he said.

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"Those are things that can happen without going to the extreme of saying, 'well, museums shouldn't have any objects,'" he said.

At the Smithsonian, Blankenberg said removing unethically acquired pieces is just one part of her broader strategy to create a "place of belonging and inspiration for global Africans." Museums must also examine their hiring practices, what kind of art they don't display, who has decision-making power and who has access to the pieces, she said.

"My vision is really to explore regenerative art ecosystems and to really get away from this extractive model," she said.

Blankenberg said the Smithsonian's leadership has supported the changes, but she does anticipate "a certain amount of pushback."

"This kind of institutional transformation is not easy," she said. "We have to do it. There is no other way."

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: History experts push museums to return stolen cultural artifacts

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