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Demonstrators Protest Looted Benin Bronze in RISD Museum Collection

Above: Head of a king (Oba), unknown artist, Benin (ancient Nigerian style), probably 1700s. Gift of Miss Lucy T. Aldrich. Courtesy RISD Museum.
Above: Head of a king (Oba), unknown artist, Benin (ancient Nigerian style), probably 1700s. Gift of Miss Lucy T. Aldrich. Courtesy RISD Museum.

PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND—Members of the Rhode Island School of Design, Brown University, and the Providence communities staged a protest Friday, November 30 at the RISD Museum demanding the restitution of a Benin bronze artifact in the museum’s collection and the implementation of other decolonizing practices. Thirty people attended the protest, which concluded with the reading of a letter addressed to RISD Museum administration requesting the artifact be returned to the heirs of the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria.

The bronze sculpture of an oba, a king of Benin, entered the museum’s collection in 1939 as a gift from philanthropist Lucy T. Aldrich and was looted by the British military in 1897 as a part of the Benin Punitive Expedition, Kevin Andrade reports for the Providence Journal. The protest follows the recent publication of a report by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr recommending the French government return art and artifacts plundered from former French colonies.

Ariella Azoulay, professor of modern culture and media at Brown University and an organizer of the demonstration, said, “As scholars, we have a right to question the privileged access to looted objects that the museum gives us while people from whom these objects were looted are denied access to them and claim their restitution. As scholars, we also have a right to imagine decolonization processes regarding the material wealth that was accumulated in institutions in which we are invited to conduct research and to consult documents and precious objects that belong to others. This should empower the museum to go farther with a process of decolonization, reparations, and making justice.”

Responding to the demonstration, Matt Berry, a spokesperson for the RISD Museum, said in a statement, “We have initiated a process of communication with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, which has been established to address this very issue. We see this as an opportunity to confront the histories of colonialism that exist within museum collections.”

December 3, 2018