Museum of Fine Arts Boston gets Benin’s royal blessing over bronzes display

The educational display of objects, many captured during a punitive raid in 1897, have the approval of the king of Benin himself


The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, opened a gallery devoted to Benin bronzes and ivory sculptures on 24 September with the blessing of the king of Benin, 16 months after Nigeria demanded the objects’ return.

The banking heir Robert Owen Lehman donated the West African works, many of which were looted by British troops in the 19th century, last year. When Lehman’s donation was announced, the director of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Yusuf Abdallah Usman, told The Art Newspaper that the objects should be “returned to their home, where they will be meaningful”. Chris Geary, the museum’s curator of Oceanic and African art, says the museum had not received any correspondence from the Nigerian commission. A spokeswoman from the commission did not respond to a request for comment.

The king (oba) of Benin, Oba Erediauwa I, has expressed his support for the project, although he was unable to attend the gallery’s opening. A letter sent to the museum by his secretary-general, O. Oronsaye-Guobadia, says: “It is the hope and prayers of Omo N’Oba [the king] that the event will be successful.” Tony Omoruyi, the president of the Benin Club of Massachusetts, reiterated the king’s position. “I have no problem with the new gallery,” he says.

The objects, dating from the 15th century to the 19th century, “are among the best-known works from the African continent”, Geary says. Thirty-four of the 36 works on show are in the museum’s collection; two are on loan from Lehman.

Labels “fully acknowledge” the objects’ history, Geary says, recounting their removal, along with around 4,000 other works, from Benin by British soldiers in a punitive raid after a British delegation was killed in 1897.

After the attack, the British sold a number of works to defray the cost of the campaign. Some went to the British Museum (two were later deaccessioned and are in the Lehman collection) and the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Farnham, Dorset. Others were passed down within the soldiers’ families.

Lehman bought his works at auction, beginning in the 1950s.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Boston gets Benin’s royal blessing'