Repatriation: Ethical Collections Practice and Museum Transparency

The 2022 Culturefix morning conversations explored arts and culture as tools for diplomacy. The following session centered around repatriation.

Museums in the United States and across the world have in recent years faced increased scrutiny and pressure, both public and internal, to implement more ethical and transparent practices related to their permanent collections---not only in how new acquisitions are selected and vetted for, but also in repatriating looted or stolen art, cultural artifacts, and ancestral remains. This panel will discuss the ethical and moral obligations of the public sector, museums, and other cultural institutions, as well as their role in the greater public discussion surrounding their controversial origins rooted in Western colonization.


  • Dr. Jami Powell, Curator of Indigenous Art, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth - Moderator

  • Ngaire Blankenberg, Director, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian

  • Faridah Mohammed, Representative, Embassy of Nigeria

  • Mark Vlasic, Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center

Here are some top takeaways from the repatriation session:

This panel was moderated by Dr. Jami Powell, the curator of Indigenous Art at the Hood Museum of Art in Dartmouth College and a citizen of the Osage Nation. She was joined by Ngaire Blankenberg, the director of the National Museum of African Art, Faridah Mohammed a representative of Embassy of Nigeria, and Mark Vlasic, Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

The panelists opened discussion with their thoughts on the role of repatriation and restitution in relation to cultural diplomacy and soft power, emphasizing the importance of culture and museums when it comes to nurturing relationships, not only between nations, but also between people. They discussed the Benin Bronzes that are native to Nigeria, and addressed the lack of transparency and action in museums, while also acknowledging the shift that is being made by some museums.

1. Nurturing Relationships Between Countries and People. The panelists opened discussion with their thoughts on the role of repatriation and restitution in relation to cultural diplomacy and soft power, emphasizing the importance of culture and museums when it comes to nurturing relationships, not only between nations, but also between people. Blankenberg expressed appreciation for these relationships while also analyzing the flawed relationship between Western museums and the Global South, stating that there is no trust between the two. She expressed that restitution could be an opportunity for nations to collaborate and reset their cultural relations. The panelists agreed that transparency and retribution were an opportunity to have a regenerative relationship with Africa as well as working with contemporary artists from those countries be a part of Western museums in an ethical way.

2. The Lasting Effects of Colonialism. During the panel, Blankenberg acknowledged the colonial roots of certain Western museums, recognizing that museums were once methods of establishing imperialism and supremacy. Faridah Mohammed spoke to this in relation to the Benin Bronzes, which are a collection of thousands of metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the Kingdom of Benin and date back to the thirteenth century. The pieces were looted by British forces in the late 1800s as a form of imperial control over Benin, which is now Nigeria. The pieces are now scattered across the world in different museums, mostly American and European ones. Mohammed explained how the power dynamics and imbalances that date back to this period of colonialism are still present today. The demands of the Nigerian government and its citizens to have the pieces returned have often been met with resistance, however, Mohammed acknowledged the progress that has been made as we are now seeing more conversations happening. Professor Vlasic echoed the points made regarding imperialism and further explained that the lack of representation of people of color in museums adds to the unequal power dynamic that Faridah spoke to.

3. The Public’s Voice. When discussing the shift that some museums are taking in relation to transparency and repatriation, all of the panelists emphasized the importance of the public. Blankenberg understood that museums bring people together and that, at the end of the day, museums serve communities. When explaining the shift towards restitution and transparency that some museums are making, Professor Vlasic stated that pressure from the public was one of the most important causes of this shift. Faridah Mohammed echoed this by explaining how the access to the internet and the media has educated Nigerian citizens on the bronzes and has allowed them to begin a conversation and come up with solutions. It seems the panelists agreed that the public demanding change is incredibly powerful when it comes to museum management. In addition, the panelists reflected on the question: who even is the public? Up until recent years, most Western museums have catered to Western audiences, and have argued that unethically attained pieces should not be returned to their countries of origins as they are serving their audiences by educating them on these pieces. However, Ngaire emphasized that the public also includes non-Western audience members who wish to see pieces from their country back in their place. Faridah elaborated by stating that the people of Nigeria have not had the opportunity to learn about their own history and heritage and that museums are not taking them into consideration when thinking about the public.

4. What’s Next? The panelists discussed next steps regarding repatriation and retribution, especially when asked by audience members: what happens once looted or unethically attained works are returned to their countries of origin? In relation to the Benin Bronzes, Faridah Mohammed explained the development that is being made in Nigeria to be able to host their artefacts, including two museums that are to be built in the country. Ngaire Blankenberg answered the question with another question: who decides how these pieces should be kept? She rejected the Western idea that they are the only ones who can take care of these pieces or that they are the ones to set the standard for conservation. She argued that this debate was not only about where the pieces end up, but who the pieces belong to. Having a transfer of ownership and power can make the process more collaborative and enjoyable for all parties involved and expressed that Western museums are being presented with the opportunity to offer support and assistance for the countries that need it.

Project summary

Repatriation: Ethical Collections Practice and Museum Transparency | June 2022
Impact Areas: Cultural Diplomacy
Program Areas: Culture