A stylized cat face, five inches tall and sculpted in brass, stares from a wall in the Middlebury College Museum of Art. This is the Leopard Head Hip Ornament, whose label explains that the piece was made sometime between the 16th and 19th centuries and probably once adorned the hip of a Benin Empire ruler’s costume. The ornament was stolen after the disturbingly named Benin Punitive Expedition in 1897, when British forces destroyed a Benin palace in present-day Nigeria and took thousands of objects, collectively known as the Benin treasures. Some of the looted pieces, like this one, were handed out to expedition leaders as souvenirs; others went to the British Museum and other institutions.
Richard Saunders, the museum’s director, purchased the piece in 1997, seeing its violent backstory as part of its value as a teaching tool. “The way we’ve used this piece at Middlebury is not to hide its history but to basically raise the question ‘Do we have rightful ownership of this?’” he says. It is the sort of academic discussion a museum, especially one at an institution of higher learning, welcomes. But it’s also one that has, in recent years, prompted museums around the world to reassess the objects in their collections and, where appropriate and possible, take steps to return stolen objects to their rightful heirs.
Saunders could see, in the face of growing cultural sensitivity, that the museum’s possession of the leopard ornament was becoming problematic. “It finally came to a head in 2019–2020, when we were publishing the handbook of our collection, and the copy editor said, ‘Richard, you say in this entry that this is stolen. Why would you want to have a stolen object in your handbook?’” He had no good answer. He reached out to Middlebury president Laurie Patton to explain his feeling that the time had come to return the ornament to Nigeria. With her approval, he met online with a representative of the Legacy Restoration Trust, a Nigerian nonprofit, to initiate the process of repatriation.
The trend of returning stolen antiquities is, Saunders says, “the result of an increasing awareness of colonialism and the fact that certain countries around the world have had the power and the privilege to control things and own things. And now that’s no longer seen as something that is completely acceptable in the old form.” He admits this was not always the case. “I’m sure that when I first walked into the British Museum or the Met and looked at things that were on view, I didn’t think twice about how those objects got there.”
Times have changed. A December 2022 article in the New York Times calls the current spike in repatriation a sign that “the Indiana Jones era is over.” A May 2022 article in the Washington Post (in which Saunders is quoted) explores how the Benin treasures are currently a major focus for institutions all over the world. So many places are trying to return looted objects that the Nigerian government is struggling to keep up with all the requests.
FINDERS, NOT KEEPERS?
Though the leopard-head hip ornament is the only object in the museum’s collection that can clearly be documented to have been stolen, Saunders points out various antiquities whose rightful heirs could be debated—a two-foot-tall warrior sculpture from the Congo, a Chinese porcelain excavated off the coast of Vietnam. He explains that provenances of antiquities rarely go back far enough to tell their original stories. An object may have been stolen or it may have been sold or given as a formal gift. And even if an ancient artifact is proven to have been taken illegally, how can it be returned to its owners if the country’s borders, and even the culture, no longer exist? What about items that are lost—and later found—at sea?
As an example, Saunders brings me to a 90-by-94-inch Assyrian alabaster relief, Winged Genie Pollinating the Date Palm, mounted in the entry of the museum. It was the first alumni gift to the museum, given by the Reverend Wilson Farnsworth, Class of 1848. Dozens of related reliefs, excavated from the same ancient palace site in what is now Iraq, are housed all over the world. Given that the reliefs are over 2,000 years old, it would be difficult, Saunders says, to determine who owns them today. “And who would you return them to? You could return them to the Iraqi government, but when ISIS controlled that area of Iraq, they bulldozed what remained of the palace.”
For the time being, the Leopard Head Hip Ornament will remain at the Museum of Art. While there are plans for a new museum in Benin City—designed by renowned Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye—to house the thousands of objects that are being returned from around the world, completion is years away. Construction won’t begin until the British Museum finishes conducting archaeological work on the site of the old royal palace, on which the Edo Museum of West African Art will eventually be built.
Saunders isn’t sure yet how repatriation of the leopard head will be handled. “We could have a formal transfer to the Nigerian authorities before then, so the museum plaque would say it is owned by either the Legacy Restoration Trust or another Nigerian body. But it would stay on view here until this new museum exists.” He’s happy for it to spend a few more years at our museum; its presence tells a story about colonialism that, however dark, should be told.
The repatriation of the Leopard Head Hip Ornament is the result of a growing conversation about what objects come into a museum’s collection and how—and even whether—they should be displayed. While Saunders calls these issues “complex,” he says a museum, particularly one at a teaching institution, must be open to that conversation. “What’s important is the dialogue.”
As for the responsibility of a museum director in the face of rapidly changing attitudes, he says, “All you can do is try to be responsible and ethical and do your best and admit when you’ve made a mistake.”
Leopard Head Hip Ornament, Nigeria, Benin Kingdom, Edo peoples, 16th–19th century, Brass, 5-1/4 x 4 x 2 Purchase with funds provided by the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Art Acquisition Fund, 1997.020