Patricia ALLAN: I’m quite famous for not doing what I’m told.
Stephen DUBNER: Well, that’s very convenient for our purposes, I have to say. You think we’re 100-percent safe here?
ALLAN: Well, we can just keep a weather eye on those three, especially the man with the big fuzzy microphone.
That is me with Patricia Allan in the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. Allan is the curator of world cultures for the 11 institutions that make up the Glasgow Museums. This makes her responsible for all non-European objects in their collections. We have come to the Kelvingrove to see a group of objects known as Benin Bronzes, artworks and artifacts looted by Britain from the historic Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria. The last time I tried to see some Benin Bronzes in a museum — at the British Museum, in London — our microphones were confiscated and then, as it turned out, all the Africa galleries were closed that day. Today, in Glasgow, we’re having better luck.
ALLAN: This is the head of an Oba. So, all of these heads were made by ancestors.
An Oba is a Benin king.
DUBNER: What is that?
ALLAN: That’s a ceremonial sword carried by the Oba. So we have two of these heads, this head and another one that used to be on display at St. Mungo Museum of Religion. Glasgow Museums bought them in auction in 1898. So that was a year afterwards.
“A year afterwards” — meaning, after the bloody 1897 expedition in which British soldiers burned Benin City, killed much of the population, expelled the Oba, and took home everything from the palace that wasn’t bolted down. Actually, as we heard in our previous episode, they took some of the bolted-down stuff too:
Dan HICKS: They even took the bolts from the doors, these ivory bolts.
Victor EHIKHAMENOR: The Western colonizers were kleptomaniacs. They stole hair pins. They stole keys to the doors in the palace.
The British shipped thousands of objects, from everyday tools to religious and historical objects, back to England. Many of the best pieces went straight into the British Museum; others were auctioned off to museums throughout Europe. For the British Empire, plunder was an important economic activity. In recent decades, Nigeria has repeatedly asked for the return of the stolen artifacts from Benin. The British Museum has thus far refused; but many other institutions, including the Glasgow Museums, have begun to repatriate their Benin pieces. Today on Freakonomics Radio: the third and final episode in our series on the economics, politics, and ethics of returning stolen art. We’ve already learned how easily stolen art can still get into even the most prominent museums:
Matthew BOGDANOS: Let’s talk about the gold coffin, the $4 million gold coffin.
We’ve learned how quickly public sentiment has changed:
Bénédicte SAVOY: If they will tell the truth, it would be so disgusting that it would be the end of the British Museum.
And today on the show: what does it mean to be a museum in the 21st century?
Lonnie BUNCH: Well, I always think that people go to the worst-case scenario.
Reporting from museums in Glasgow, London, Washington D.C., and more — beginning right now.
* * *
Okay, let’s get back to Patricia Allan, curator of world cultures at the Glasgow Museums.
ALLAN: My role isn’t so much front-of-house, curating exhibitions at the moment. At the time of lockdown, I took it upon myself to focus quite heavily on repatriation and restitution.
DUBNER: I feel like I’ve read in your biography that you came to curation via perhaps archeology and maybe even biology. Is that true?
ALLAN: That is absolutely true. I started as a microbiologist. And then I moved into archeology and then ultimately into museum curation.
DUBNER: So, my amateur, unscientific brain — if it’s looking for the most obvious connection between what you did, perhaps as an archeologist, and what you do now, as a museum curator of world culture — the linchpin that my brain puts in the middle is looting. Am I wrong there?
ALLAN: I have not made that connection before, but looting is big in both professions. I have been on archeological sites in South America, where you go off for the night and then come back and find that people have got into the site and have dug everything out. And so that is depressing. But also the reason I felt that this was important is that I’m not, myself, British. And when I got the job as curator, I was surrounded by my own heritage, and I wondered how it got there and whether actually the British had a right to be storing it and hoarding it. So I was like a mole for it.
DUBNER: A mole not in the animal sense, in the spy sense.
ALLAN: A mole in the animal sense is more like an archeologist. But this is a mole in the sense that I sort of got in there as one of the colonized. And I was really the only one at the time. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and everybody else was very much British or European, if you’re lucky.
DUBNER: Where’s your family from?
ALLAN: Well, I was born in Brazil. So that’s where part of my family’s from. My mother is Singapore-Eurasian. And my father, I suppose he was French. But, you know, he was raised in colonial Africa. And so, yeah, from lots of non-British places.
DUBNER: It’s interesting you got involved in a field where most of the curators and people on the museum side, it sounds like, were — to be brutally reductive — on the colonizing side. And you’re coming from the colonized side. What was that like for you?
ALLAN: As people often say, I pass — so, like, nobody really knew. I just had that sensibility. And I just, from the very beginning — the previous curator was showing some individuals some Chinese dolls. They were like dolls I’d had as a child. And so she was telling the others what the dolls are for. And I was standing there as a recent recruit, and I thought, actually, that’s wrong. Everything she said was wrong. And I tried to interrupt, but all I could say was, “No, it’s wrong! I had dolls like that!” And everybody looked at me, and there was silence.
DUBNER: That must have made you very popular.
ALLAN: But it immediately made me question what on earth was going on. Because very little of this collection is appreciated, or it’s not given the same status as European art, a very small amount is on display. Very small percentage. And there are big diaspora communities here now, and they don’t get to see their own culture. But, yet, we were keeping it. If you don’t like it, just give it back, is my feeling.
DUBNER: When someone like me, an American, comes to Scotland where we are now, or England, where we were just previous, and we go to your wonderful and beautiful old museums, I have to say, the more I’ve learned about this topic, the more those museums feel less like curated collections of the world’s great treasures and the more they feel like trophy cases, I guess. Is that too reductive?
ALLAN: No, I think you’ve got part of the story there. They were trophy cases and now they’re sort of harbingers of doom, particularly as we slide down the economic scale. I think of them as big, sort of almost like warehouses of loot. They are part of the history. And for a long time in my early years as a curator here, I could only display this material in terms of the British sensibility. It was another way of interpreting Britain’s place in the world.
And now we are back in the gallery at the Kelvingrove Museum where Allan was showing us around earlier. She leads me to the display case we came here to see, of the Benin Bronzes.
ALLAN: So the Benin palaces were decorated with these bronze plaques. And we have a fragment of a plaque.
The British Museum, in London, is thought to possess nearly 200 of the Benin plaques, which portray centuries’ worth of Benin history. The Glasgow Museums’ one fragment shows a man standing, his head in profile, with long straight hair and “finely patterned sleeves.”
ALLAN: It was made by a known artist, the Master of the Circled Cross. It would represent a Portuguese soldier or sailor who traded with Benin and Western Africa extensively from the 14th century onwards. And a lot of the copper that was the basis of these pieces came from Europe. There’s a huge amount of trade from maybe the 10th century onward with West Africa, the Malian empire, you know — highly sophisticated travel, great trade routes and networks throughout Africa.
DUBNER: So when someone says that these African countries wouldn’t have been able to care for and preserve their art were it not for the British, they’d done it for hundreds of years already, had they not?
ALLAN: Absolutely, thousands of years. I mean, the earliest record of iron smelting is within sub-Saharan Africa.
In the spring of 2022, Glasgow Museums publicly committed to returning the Benin objects from its collection to the federal government of Nigeria.
ALLAN: Glasgow Museums is currently holding 19 pieces that we have identified as coming from Benin, probably taken during the punitive expedition of 1897 by Britain. But the ownership has effectively been transferred to Nigeria.
The Glasgow Museums have also announced the return of seven antiquities to India and more than two dozen artifacts to the Lakota tribe of Native Americans. What led to the decision to repatriate all these pieces?
ALLAN: Well, I was approached to discuss this, and I had already earmarked various pieces that I felt we should not have because I feel that as a museum service, we really shouldn’t be fencing stolen goods. I’d identified them through research, because most of them had come with quite extensive notes, and one was a confession of theft that ran for four pages.
DUBNER: Wow. Why would one put down in writing a confession of theft?
ALLAN: Because they thought it was more of a confession of entitlement.
A confession of entitlement. Consider this yet another reminder that many artifacts in the world’s great museums were plundered during an era when plunder was the norm.
Andrea BAYER: I would say that the standards of excavation have been completely reversed.
That is Andrea Bayer, deputy director for collections and administration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We also heard from her in the first episode of this series, describing how only recently, the Met paid $4 million for a gold coffin that turned out to have been looted from Egypt about a decade ago. Bayer admitted the Met’s failure.
BAYER: We asked a certain number of questions, but we did not ask nearly enough questions about it.
BAYER: There is no one in the museum field today that would follow the path that our first director, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, would have followed, in which he was able to excavate and remove thousands of objects from Cyprus, which he then was able to sell. That is a paradigm that no one would follow now.
Still, the Met has recently had dozens of looted artifacts seized from its collections, and returned to their countries of origin. Just last week, the Met announced a new research unit to help weed out looted or stolen acquisitions. But even when a museum does uncover an ill-gotten object, repatriation is not a foregone conclusion. The Glasgow Museums, for instance, repatriated their first Lakota object in 1998. Around the same time, they received a request from Nigeria to repatriate a Benin object. Patricia Allan again:
ALLAN: And they turned that down straightaway.
DUBNER: Why was that one turned down?
ALLAN: They felt that there were issues with Nigeria, where the objects would go, where they’d end up, there was a certain amount of judgment.
DUBNER: What do you mean by there were certain judgments or issues there with Nigeria?
ALLAN: Well, I found a letter once from our then-director saying that, you know, would they be so quick to refuse a similar request if it had been from Native Americans? There was a certain level of sympathy towards — ‘cause the Scottish love a bit of the Wild West.
DUBNER: But Nigeria, not so much?
ALLAN: It would seem that way. And I’d found this letter when I was researching and writing a paper, but it was from our then-director posing that question and thinking that maybe they should have something more objective.
To be fair, the repatriation of the Benin objects is complicated by the fact that there are several potential claimants — including the Nigerian government and the current Benin Oba. He is a direct descendant of the Oba who was exiled by the British in the 19th century. Just recently, things got even more complicated: the outgoing Nigerian president declared that any repatriated Benin artifacts must be “handed over to the Oba.” On the one hand, this makes sense: he is a descendant of the man from whom the objects were stolen in the first place. But from the perspective of a European museum, this means the repatriated Benin Bronzes are less likely to remain accessible to the public. Still, the issue of repatriating art is much broader than this one set of artifacts; to that end, the Glasgow Museums have created a set of criteria to help guide the process — “something more objective,” in Patricia Allan’s words. There used to be five criteria on this list; now there are four.
ALLAN: The current criteria are, one, the status of those making the request, which is their right to represent the descendants of the community to whom the artifact originally belonged. The second one is the continuity between the community that created the objects and the current community on whose behalf the request is being made. So there has to be a connection, a continuity there. The third one is the cultural, historical and/or religious importance of the objects to the descendant community. And the fourth, which is not necessarily that important anymore, is how the objects were acquired by the museum. But that’s really to put the onus on the museum to prove that these objects are genuine.
And what is the old, fifth criteria?
ALLAN: The fifth was the fate of the object if returned. In that case, you were supposed to have a museum or return the objects to another museum. It made it very difficult for indigenous communities in particular to put in a claim because many don’t have those facilities and those resources. By taking that criterion away, and acknowledging that what you’re returning is ill-gotten gains, if you like — looted material — that we are effectively either facilitating robbery by sort of laundering this material or actually directly doing it ourselves. That as thieves, we don’t really have a right, perhaps, to set conditions on the return of stolen property.
At this point, you may find yourself wondering: if museums are full of objects that were essentially stolen; and if museums are starting to return those objects — will they have anything left to show?
BUNCH: You know, I never go to the extreme, because that’s not an answer.
So what is the answer?
* * *
In early 2022, Nigeria put in a formal request, on behalf of the Oba of Benin, to repatriate the stolen Benin objects that are in the collection of the Glasgow Museums. The request was made to the Glasgow City Administration Committee, which controls the museums, and the city agreed to the return. Does this mean the Benin objects will be leaving Scotland and heading to Nigeria? Not necessarily. Here, again, is curator Patricia Allan.
ALLAN: We haven’t established the full details, but it’s possible that we’ll hold them for a while. We’ll either transfer the ownership officially on paper so that they become theirs, that we have on loan. They’re quite keen on that approach because they have had so many offers from across the world. Germany is giving everything back. And that’s hundreds of objects.
DUBNER: The Smithsonian?
ALLAN: The Smithsonian is giving back. Also Pitt Rivers, Oxford. Cambridge, The Horniman Museum. Aberdeen gave their sole Oba’s head back last year.
DUBNER: So you’re saying that there’s a glut of Benin bronzes returning to Nigeria now?
ALLAN: Well, I don’t think they describe it as a glut. It’s just they haven’t quite got the infrastructure in place.
DUBNER: And so in the case of the Glasgow Museums, it sounds as though the Nigerian government, or the parties that represent the government there that you’re dealing with, would prefer that you keep them here on loan and on display perhaps?
ALLAN: Yes, I think that is certainly one option because the museum in Edo State, it doesn’t have storage, so they’re building something within Lagos where the security’s better. They had to change the indemnity because the cultural sector did not have sufficient indemnity. So it’s now government indemnity.
DUBNER: Indemnity, we mean insurance, yes?
ALLAN: This is art. This is high art. Gradually, their storage facilities will be developed and then gradually take everything else back.
The Glasgow Museums’ plan may be complicated by the recent announcement that the Nigerian government will hand over repatriated pieces to the Oba himself. But remember: Nigeria has been asking for the Benin Bronzes for decades. I asked Allan why the Glasgow Museums finally acquiesced.
ALLAN: As a result of Black Lives Matter. What sparked an interest or a revisiting of the whole subject of cultural repatriation and restitution of objects is an awareness that maybe we did sort of bad things. And it came out of Black Lives Matter, the connection with that, an atonement for transatlantic slavery. And so Benin was first in line, really.
Lonnie BUNCH: Well, the murder of George Floyd and all the challenges that that brought with it really were crucially important and meaningful to me as a historian of Black America, as a historian of violence in America — those moments really transformed me.
That is Lonnie G. Bunch III.
BUNCH: But also, part of my job as a historian was to contextualize this to say that this is not new, unfortunately. This will happen again in the future, and the challenge really is to understand that the struggle for fairness in America is a perpetual struggle, and that you never get to the promised land of equality, you only aspire to get there. And so it was really important for me to see that museums, especially the Smithsonian, play a role when a nation was in crisis.
Bunch is the Secretary of the Smithsonian, based in Washington, D.C. Sometimes called “the nation’s attic,” the Smithsonian is a collection of 21 museums, 21 libraries, a variety of research and education centers — and the National Zoo. Bunch has worked on and off at the Smithsonian since 1978; he became Secretary in 2019; before that, he was founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.
BUNCH: We started with no staff, no collections, no site, and no money.
And how do you build a museum collection from scratch?
BUNCH: We knew we wanted to tell stories around the Civil War. We knew we wanted to tell important stories about women and work. And we wanted to talk about the impact of culture. And then what we did is we went around the country in an Antiques Roadshow way, and asked people to bring out their stuff. It was really to preserve, to help them preserve grandma’s old shawl, that 19th century photograph. And then if people wanted to give things to us, the first thing we did was say, give it to local museums. We wanted people to benefit in local museums from the Smithsonian’s coming to town. But if it was extremely significant, obviously, it came back to Washington.
In the end, they collected … a lot:
BUNCH: Forty thousand artifacts, of which 70 percent came out of the basements, trunks, and the attics of people’s homes.
This was an entirely different approach than how the first director of the Metropolitan Museum looted artifacts from archeological sites, or how the British Museum stocked itself with plunder from Britain’s empire-building.
BUNCH: The British Museum in some ways is a colonial creation, that so much of what it collected initially were things that would help them celebrate British identity — some from internal, others from, you know, India, Africa, other places where the British colonized. The difference with the African-American Museum is, first of all, this was going to be a museum that shared authority, and was shaped by community. Not only did we collect material, but in essence, we collected people’s stories. The goal was that the artifacts were really the way to give people a sense of ownership. By doing artifacts that sometimes seem common, like an old 19th-century iron or wash pot, suddenly people could see that they were shaped by this history, and they could tell the stories of their own parents or grandparents.
This experience, of creating a museum from scratch, led Lonnie Bunch to think more broadly about how any museum builds its collection. And this led to a new, institution-wide collections policy at the Smithsonian.
BUNCH: I asked a group of curators in 2021 to think about an ethical returns policy, to really think about what should we do with material that is problematic. But I didn’t want it simply to be, “How do you deal with the problem?” What I wanted it to be is to say that as important as scholarship, as provenance, as resources to acquire these collections, equally important is the ethical considerations of how we got them. And so what I wanted to do was to basically add that equation into the mix so that therefore, no matter what we did, ethical considerations could in some ways trump scholarship and other issues. I just wanted to make sure that ethical considerations were as important as anything else in determining what you acquire and what you maintain.
Based on this new policy, the Smithsonian might deaccession a piece from its collection and return it to the rightful owner; or it might enter into a shared stewardship arrangement with communities or descendants who’ve made claims to the objects.
BUNCH: For example, there are several Native communities who, instead of saying they want material repatriated, they said, “You’re better at preserving it than we are. Let’s you keep it as long as we know it’s there.” So I think it really was a process that would allow us to either return, to negotiate and work effectively with community or with the owners, and then if the choice is made, these materials can stay with us.
Among the museums that Bunch oversees, in addition to the new Museum of African-American History, is the Museum of African Art. This museum had over the years accumulated many artifacts that had been looted from Benin by the British in their 1897 “punitive expedition”: brass plaques, ceremonial heads, jewelry, and more. They had come to the Smithsonian primarily by donation, from wealthy collectors like Joseph Hirshhorn, and from institutions like the Walt Disney Company, which had bought Benin art from the collectors Paul and Ruth Tishman. Under the Smithsonian’s new collections policy, Lonnie Bunch committed to repatriating these pieces to Nigeria. For some guidance, he turned to an institution that had much larger holdings of Benin Bronzes.
BUNCH: I would say a year ago, I had conversations with the British Museum just to understand where they were with this whole process.
The British Museum, remember, has thus far decided against repatriating their Benin Bronzes, although that could change at any moment.
BUNCH: And then I had conversations with people from the Nigerian museum community to understand their thinking. In essence, it was a period of negotiations because I wanted to make sure that ultimately we were going to return ownership. No doubt about that. But I also wanted to see if there was a way at least a percentage of this could remain in the country for the people to see.
Here’s what the negotiation led to: the Smithsonian sent 20 of their Benin objects back to Nigeria, while 9 more will stay at the Smithsonian on a long-term loan.
BUNCH: We had a formal ceremony where representatives of the Nigerian government and I signed the transfer document that gave ownership back, and then ultimately a document that would agree to the long-term loans. We like the idea of being able to have some material on long-term loan that would allow us to both talk about the beauty and creativity of the Benin Bronzes, but also about the process.
So what do we think about this kind of arrangement, where a museum returns a portion of its contested collection, and works out a long-term loan for the rest?
Tom Wilkening: I’m kind of excited about this. It actually is a place where really efficient outcomes are going on.
That is Tom Wilkening. As you can probably tell by his praise of “efficient outcomes,” Wilkening is an economist, at the University of Melbourne. His speciality is called market design.
WILKENING: And market design is the branch of economics that’s interested in designing the rules for markets, auctions, and economic institutions.
Wilkening, along with the University of Chicago economist Michael Kremer, analyzed the market for antiquities.
WILKENING: The antiquities project started with discussions with Suzanne Blier and Michael Kramer about 15 years ago. Suzanne is a professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard University. And she was really interested in whether economics could offer ways to reduce the size of the black market in antiquities, and help protect African art in general.
Most countries already have laws to protect the export of their cultural antiquities.
WILKENING: I would say export bans are partially effective in the sense that they make it more difficult for people to illicitly dig up objects and move them abroad. But they’re obviously imperfect.
Wilkening and Kremer eventually wrote a paper called “Protecting Antiquities: A Role for Long-Term Leases?”
WILKENING: So the main argument of our paper is that we’re asking whether we can complement export bans with fixed-duration, long-term leases. Our view is that they can strengthen incentives for maintaining and identifying antiquities and antiquities sites. But because we’re going to be restricting things to leases, our view is that that’s going to allow countries to preserve their cultural patrimony for the future or in the long run. Let’s say ten years from now, Nigeria is able to recover all the Benin Bronzes that were looted in 1897. They’re going to have the same issue that museums have all over the world, which is that they will have more objects than they can actually put in their museum at one time. Now, there are two ways to deal with that. One, you can create giant storage, and you can store everything and keep it at home. And the issue there is that’s still costly, you still have to maintain and protect that storage system. An alternative would be to allow at least a subset of those things to be leased abroad as a way of basically generating either revenue or in-kind transfers for protecting museums or sites.
This is essentially the arrangement that the Smithsonian has worked out with Nigeria. This idea is not new, by the way.
WILKENING: I would view the King Tut exhibit as a very good template for how to do traveling exhibits.
The tomb of King Tut, or Tutankhamun, “the boy king,” was excavated in Egypt by the British archeologist Howard Carter in 1922. It included a stunning gold funerary mask and a variety of other objects.
WILKENING: If you look at Egypt, their King Tut exhibit that has gone all over the U.S. That’s essentially a lease system where they’ve leased off parts of King Tut objects to a third party. That third party has shown that all around the world, and the revenues have gone back to the Cairo Museum. That sort of thing is a way for governments to turn something that right now is something of a cost into something that would be a resource. And it also solves a little bit of this problem of, you know, there is a value for keeping the exhibit home. There’s also a value for people in the rest of the world being able to see them.
So that’s one established method of leasing antiquities. Wilkening and Kremer have some other ideas. One is for objects that haven’t yet been excavated. In these cases, the right to lease could be granted in exchange for performing the excavation. The British Museum, for instance, could fund and operate an excavation in Syria; the museum would have the rights to exhibit the objects that are found, while the objects would officially still belong to Syria. The researchers have a third idea, too:
WILKENING: So the third scenario is probably the most controversial one, which would be offering leases to individuals who reveal objects that are already out of the country.
In other words: amnesty, essentially, to individuals or institutions who possess objects that were originally looted. In this case, the country of origin would say: “Yes, those things belong to us — but if you, the illegitimate owner, acknowledge that we are the legitimate owner, you can hang onto them under the terms of a lease.” So is this third path of repatriation the best way forward?
* * *
Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced an agreement with Greece regarding a large collection of antiquities that had been acquired over the years by the American billionaire Leonard Stern. Here again is Andrea Bayer, deputy director of administration and collections at the Met.
BAYER: Mr. Stern owned approximately 160 important Cycladic objects. He got us into a discussion with the Greek government and with the Cycladic Museum in Athens about this somewhat complicated but logical path forward.
The Cycladic objects are primarily marble figures and vessels, carved thousands years ago in the Cyclades, a group of islands off the Greek coast. The “complicated but logical” agreement that Bayer mentioned will put Leonard Stern’s personal collection on display at the Met for 25 years, starting in early 2024 — but the objects will ultimately belong to Greece.
BAYER: And then at the end of 25 years, there will be a further discussion to see whether some or all of them remain for an additional 25 years, and then they will go back to Greece. At the same time, we’re also in an agreement with the Greek museums to do some fundamental research projects with them to publish these objects.
Even before the Met exhibition opens, some of these pieces will be put on display in Greece. And after 10 years at the Met, some of the collection will travel to Greece in exchange for other Cycladic works to be displayed at the Met. Why such a complicated arrangement?
BAYER: Because we are convinced that given the complexity of the world we find ourselves in, these kinds of situations are going to arise, and we want to help find solutions that are satisfying to all partners.
It’s worth noting that Leonard Stern did not donate his collection directly to Greece. He donated it to a Delaware-based nonprofit called the Hellenic Ancient Culture Institute, whose board members have close ties to the Greek culture ministry. Here is the legal scholar Patty Gerstenblith, whose specialty is cultural heritage.
Patty GERSTENBLITH: It has gotten a lot of disapproval amongst Greek heritage professionals. I find it very problematic because what we have is an agreement between a private museum and a U.S. corporation in which the collector gets his tax benefit. The objects, most of them or many of them, stay in the United States, and this museum in Greece gets a benefit.
Gerstenblith is concerned that Greece doesn’t have control over the collection even though they have been given ownership on paper. She thinks the Smithsonian’s arrangement with Nigeria over the Benin Bronzes is a better model. But the economist Tom Wilkening is more sympathetic toward the Greek arrangement.
WILKENING: It’s not a place where I’m an expert, but most of that collection looks like it has very strong provenance.
What Wilkening means is that the Leonard Stern collection isn’t obviously full of looted or stolen objects.
WILKENING: And so it wouldn’t have been something that Greece would have gotten back without some sort of an agreement. And it’s something where all parties essentially have won, right? In the short run, those things are shown at the Met. That was the place where Leonard Stern wanted to donate his collection in the first place. In the long run, Greece gets all of its objects back and can control its cultural patrimony. And so that looks like maybe a nice blueprint for a number of these cases, of trying to either return objects or get collections back into the hands of the country of origin.
So, this approach — of pairing repatriation with a lease agreement — has helped resolve some of the thorniest disputes around contested artifacts. Maybe it will eventually provide a solution for one of the longest-running and most controversial disputes of this type: the British Museum’s ownership of the Parthenon Marbles. That’s the set of sculptures removed from the Parthenon in Athens by the British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 1800s. Greece has long argued they were taken illegally and should be returned. A few months ago, it was reported that the chair of the British Museum was in secret negotiations with the Greek prime minister over some kind of settlement. Andrea Bayer again, from the Met:
BAYER: The only thing I can mention about the Parthenon Marbles is that every time I read one thing, I almost immediately read its opposite the following day. So I know that they’re in deep, deep, and difficult discussions back and forth, but I don’t have the crystal ball that tells you how it comes out.
The British Museum is famous for not saying much publicly about their various controversial holdings, including their Benin Bronzes. We discovered this first-hand during our months of reporting for this series, when we couldn’t even get a museum spokesperson to engage with us, to say nothing of a more senior official. And then, as I mentioned earlier, we went to London to see the Benin Bronzes for ourselves, accompanied by the Oxford professor and author Dan Hicks — but the Africa galleries happened to be closed that day and even before we got into the museum, security guards asked us to surrender our recording equipment.
MUSEUM STAFF: Anything like this is an absolute flat no. What happens is we get a lot of trouble with protesters with a view to discredit the museum. So this is why we take such a hard line on it.
In case you missed that, the guard said the museum “takes a hard line” because they “get in a lot of trouble with protestors.” Not long ago, for instance, there was a large demonstration against one of the museum’s big sponsors — B.P., the giant oil and gas company that’s headquartered in London.
PROTESTORS CHANTING: The sun is setting on B.P. Make B.P. history.
PROTESTOR: The museum is essentially displaying stolen artifacts. They are ironically taken from spaces where indigenous people are affected by B.P.’s extraction.
After our visit to Glasgow, where the curator Patricia Allan showed us the Benin Bronzes that the Kelvingrove Museum plans to return to Nigeria, we went back to London, and I tried once more to see the much larger collection of Benin Bronzes at the British Museum. No professional recording equipment, just an iPhone, so you’ll have to excuse the audio quality.
DUBNER: Okay, proceeding in. Front door. I’ve been through security. Heading toward the Sainsbury Gallery, which means going through the big rotunda. Okay. Here we go toward Africa. I think it’s open. There it is. Okay. And the sign says there is indeed a tour. And I think I see her coming, perhaps. Hello. How do you do? Would love to go to Africa with you, thank you. I’m Stephen. What’s your name? Anne? Nice to meet you.
Anne is a volunteer who’s been giving tours at the British Museum for years. She’s originally from southern Germany. Several German museums, by the way, have been repatriating their Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Anne leads us downstairs into the underground Africa galleries. It’s a small tour group — just me and a family from Ireland. Nearby, some school groups are also touring, so it’s pretty noisy. Anne notes that some of the objects we’ll see were acquired by bloodshed.
AFRICA TOUR GUIDE: Some objects have come into the museum as a direct result of military intervention, and many relate to the European colonization of large parts of Africa.
She shows us some contemporary works, some ceramic pots, and finally we make our way to the Benin Bronzes. The main attraction is a grid of the famous wall plaques that had been stripped from the Benin palace, some of them 500 years old, each plaque representing a key moment in the history of the kingdom. The Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor told us earlier what it was like for him to first see how these plaques are displayed at the British Museum:
EHIKHAMENOR: They are disjointed, because it’s like taking William Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Hamlet. You go to first act, you tear the page off. Then you go to the last act and you tear it off, then you paste it on the wall and call it William Shakespeare. I mean, the sentences are nice, the phrases are great, you can quote from them. But it’s not the entire story.
There are many other Benin objects here besides the wall plaques. There’s a large cast head of an Oba, or a Benin king. As we learned earlier, each new Oba would commission a sculpture of his predecessor to be mounted on an altar. There’s an impressive sword with a cross motif, made of iron and brass. A large and beautiful cockerel, cast in brass. The wall labels describe not just the objects themselves but who gave them to the British Museum. The most frequent donor, from what I can tell, is the U.K. Foreign Office, the British equivalent of the U.S. State Department. In most museums, this might stand out; but here, where many of the treasures are the physical emblem of conquest, of empire-building, of “punitive expeditions” like the one that happened in Benin in 1897, I guess it makes sense that the Foreign Office is such a major donor. Anne, our tour guide, does mention the punitive expedition that brought the Benin Bronzes to the museum. And then a woman in our tour group speaks up:
TOURIST: It was a bit of a massacre, wasn’t it?
Yes, Anne agrees, it was a bit of a massacre. She says the British Museum acknowledges this, and she adds that there have been talks lately with the Nigerian government.
AFRICA TOUR GUIDE: I think there’s a lot of compassion involved. I think other museums have handed theirs back, but—
NUALAH: Germany has handed theirs back.
AFRICA TOUR GUIDE: That’s right.
NUALAH: I forget which one. Yeah.
AFRICA TOUR GUIDE: But I can only say for myself, maybe that is possibly not the right course just now. But this is personal, personal. And there’s such a lot of controversy about it, of course.
It’s a little hard to hear Anne, but she says, “I can only say for myself” that repatriating the Bronzes “is possibly not the right course just now.” When the tour was over, and Anne had gone back upstairs, I asked the woman from our tour group — her name was Nualah — what she thought about the British Museum’s position on the Benin Bronzes.
NUALAH: The British Museum is holding out. Regardless of what they’re talking about. Now, she may have a point. Maybe if this museum isn’t ready, I don’t know, I haven’t heard that part of it. There is a big campaign going on. But it’s also like that they have loads of these pieces, half of which aren’t even being exhibited, they’re all in the archives. So that’s the other part that seems a bit off, like, you know, it’s not like they’re displaying them all here anyway.
DUBNER: Were you surprised by her opinion?
NUALAH: It’s what I’d expect. Just in the sense that, you know, she’s working here.
DUBNER: But I thought from a volunteer it might be a little different.
NUALAH: She probably gets the museum perspective on it is what she hears. So I don’t know. That’s why I just, you know, given that she was German, I was wondering what she’d say about Germany having a different take on it.
My visit to the British Museum made me want to go back to Lonnie Bunch, the Smithsonian director, for some perspective.
DUBNER: I recognize you’re an historian and not a psychotherapist, but when we think about the British Museum and what it represents to Great Britain, I wonder if one of the challenges is that the museum to some degree does represent the empire that is essentially gone. But in addition to that, their current democracy is fragile. And in a way, the museum itself represents a fragile national psyche. Do you think that is perhaps complicating this issue for them?
BUNCH: It’s crucially important to recognize that cultural institutions like the Smithsonian, like the British Museum, are part of the glue that holds the country together through the way it shapes our identity. One of the things that you see in the U.K., really even going back to the commemoration of the bicentennial at the end of the slave trade, is you begin to see this grappling with: what does it mean to be British? And how is there room for everybody not to just be part of the empire, but to show how that has shaped profoundly who the U.K. is? And I just think that’s a fascinating dilemma and challenge.
DUBNER: I’d like you to talk about the role of a museum in the modern era, especially older museums. When people object to the return of works that are in museums, one argument is that if you pull this thread, the whole thing comes undone.
BUNCH: Well, I always think that people go to the worst-case scenario. When we began to do repatriation of Native materials, the notion was everything would be gone. That’s not true. But what is true is that museums can no longer simply be what they once were. They can no longer simply be collections of material that really tells old stories, not new stories. Museums have to recognize that they have an obligation to make their community better, whether that is raising issues of social justice, whether it’s raising environmental issues.
DUBNER: Now, when I walk in one of the entrances to the Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian, I’m greeted by this lovely Moai stone figure from Easter Island.
BUNCH: Yeah. Mm hmm.
DUBNER: I’m just curious about a fellow like him. How was he acquired? Is something like that potentially liable to reclamation?
BUNCH: It could be. I don’t know the specifics of that at all. The goal is to basically recognize that if these issues get raised, you’ve got a process to move forward to handle them, rather than either being ad hoc or rather to be under the whim of a particular director or curator.
DUBNER: Let me ask you about a potentially different objection for a modern museum audience. At the main entrance of the Natural History Museum at the Smithsonian, there’s this amazing wild African elephant that we are told by the tag, was killed by a big-game hunter in Angola in 1955. Would the museum accept that elephant today?
BUNCH: You know, I don’t know. I think that we would really look at it from different points of view, that’s for sure. And then depending upon the educational value, depending upon how we received it, there would be questions to be asked. What I love about it is we get to ask those questions.
DUBNER: Hmm. You have a hard job, I have to say — I don’t mean just you. It’s not just you. But these are hard questions, aren’t they?
BUNCH: You know, I think that the job of good scholars, the job of the Smithsonian, is to tackle the hard questions, not the easy ones. And that yeah, there are days I’d love to have an easy month, but the reality is museums matter. They matter because they have to have a contemporary resonance. This is something you need to grapple with. And I think the question really is, are you institutions that look back, or institutions that look ahead?
Thanks to Lonnie G. Bunch III and all the museum curators and directors who spoke with us for this series; thanks to the scholars and researchers and prosecutors; a huge thanks to producer Morgan Levey; and thanks especially to you, for listening.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This series was produced by Morgan Levey and mixed by Greg Rippin, with help from Jeremy Johnston; we had additional help in London and Glasgow, from Zack Lapinski; also in London from Rob Double and London Broadcast Studios and in Glasgow from Josh Nixon and Upload Studios. Our staff also includes Ryan Kelley, Katherine Moncure, Alina Kulman, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Sarah Lilley, Eleanor Osborne, Jasmin Klinger, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Elsa Hernandez. The Freakonomics Radio Network’s executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.
- Patricia Allan, curator of world cultures for the Glasgow Museums.
- Andrea Bayer, deputy director for collections and administration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
- Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
- Victor Ehikhamenor, Nigerian writer and artist.
- Patty Gerstenblith, professor of law at DePaul University College of Law.
- Tom Wilkening, professor of economics at the University of Melbourne.
- “After Seizures, the Met Sets a Plan to Scour Collections for Looted Art,” by Robin Pogrebin and Graham Bowley (The New York Times, 2023).
- “Nigeria Benin Bronzes: Buhari Declaration ‘Blindsides’ Museum Officials,” by Barnaby Phillips (B.B.C., 2023).
- “Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns Policy,” by the Smithsonian Ethical Returns Working Group (2022).
- “Protecting Antiquities: A Role for Long-Term Leases?” by Michael Kremer and Tom Wilkening (Working Paper, 2015).
- “Stealing Art Is Easy. Giving It Back Is Hard,” series by Freakonomics Radio (2023).