Last year, artist Simone Leigh represented the U.S. at what is widely considered the world's most important exhibition of contemporary…
Museum works to repatriate artifacts looted from West Africa
Judy Woodruff: As a debate over how and when to repatriate art continues to roil, one clear-cut case of looting in the 19th century has art leaders taking strong stands now.
Jeffrey Brown went to look at a museum that is confronting the controversial origins of some of its collection.
It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: A 17 century brass head of a ruler, or oba, from the empire of Benin in modern-day Nigeria, a treasure exhibited in a famed American archaeology museum. But note the placard underneath telling us how this came to be here. After looting by British troops, it was later sold to the museum.
Tukufu Zuberi, University of Pennsylvania: We need to come to terms with both the history and potential of the museum.
Jeffrey Brown: What stories do museums tell us? And what should they tell us?
One answer comes at the redesigned Africa Galleries at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, known as the Penn Museum.
Lead curator Tukufu Zuberi:
Tukufu Zuberi: How do we take that activated conversation and transform the narrative in here, seize this moment to transform the museum, the narratives in the museum, and the service we can provide to the community about the national narrative, about the international narrative, about the narrative of humanity?
Jeffrey Brown: Zuberi as a professor of sociology and Africana studies at the university,also one of the hosts of the long-running PBS series "History Detectives."
Tukufu Zuberi: One ivory armlet is one of the key items in our new galleries, beautiful.
Jeffrey Brown: His starting point here?
Tukufu Zuberi: If we're going to tell the story of human civilization, we must reconfigure these spaces to speak to various audiences in ways that remove the race bias and prejudice which are the foundation of museums everywhere.
These museums were to justify empire. They were to justify the colonization. They were to justify the marginalization of certain groups of people. We have to challenge that.
Jeffrey Brown: That's done in different ways to make clear the history of colonialism and enslavement that led to these objects being here and reframe the objects themselves, for example, through photographs showing how they would have appeared in their original religious functions.
There is also an effort to connect past and present through the commissioning of works by contemporary artists from the African diaspora.
Tukufu Zuberi: We wanted a story that said, this past is in conversation with our now, that we here are standing here looking at these objects, and they have a meaning now.
Jeffrey Brown: And the idea then?
Tukufu Zuberi: Is an introduction. So, it's an invitation. Come on in. Check us out.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes. Yes.
Here, as elsewhere, a major question surrounds the Benin Bronzes, the name used for a wide variety of artifacts that day to at least the 16th century. Their story is one well-documented, an 1897 British invasion, the looting of as many as 10,000 objects, and ultimate dispersal to many of the world's leading museums.
In recent years, some institutions have begun to return the treasures, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. It held a ceremony in October to hand over 29 objects to Nigerian officials and a member of the royal family of the Benin.
Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch:
Lonnie Bunch, Smithsonian Institution Secretary: What this really is, is a reckoning for museums, for museums to say, we no longer say -- collect things just because we think it's right.
But now we marry the relationships with the communities. And then, as we collect, we're ultimately doing a better job, because it's about not so much what we collect, but what we preserve.
Jeffrey Brown: The Penn Museum, founded in 1887, holds some one million objects spanning 10,000 years of history, and it's also a leading research center.
It's been undergoing a major renovation in recent years, updating its exhibition spaces, reevaluating its collection and the information it offers the public, while also addressing several controversies surrounding its holdings.
One involved the Morton Collection, more than 1,300 human skulls gathered in the 19th century and used to advance racist eugenics theories. It came to the Penn Museum in the 1960s. More recent research suggested it includes the remains of 13 Black Philadelphians. Plans for a reburial are ongoing.
Another recent revelation, that the museum held the partial remains of victims killed in the 1985 bombing by the Philadelphia police of a residential row house, home of members of the Black liberation MOVE organization. The remains were returned last year, but the university and museum face continuing lawsuits.
Museum director Christopher Woods, who arrived a year ago, has a simple policy mantra for all repatriation questions: Let's do the right thing.
Christopher Woods, Director, Penn Museum: I think repatriation work is increasingly going to be a big part of what this museum does and what museums like ours do.
Jeffrey Brown: His museum has agreed to return all its Benin Bronzes. The best scenarios, he thinks, could be a win-win.
And when we talk about repatriation, it can be a kind of all or nothing.
Christopher Woods: Right.
Jeffrey Brown: Send it all back, it's gone, issue ended.
Christopher Woods: I think that is the wrong way to think about it. And it's not simply a matter of FedExing the material back. It's about building these types of partnerships and collaboration.
In an ideal situation, we'd be allowed to keep some portion of the material on long-term loan, acknowledging the ownership of that material. And the ability to have, say, a conservation training program or to conduct archaeological fieldwork in Nigeria, to have an exchange of personnel and ideas with our counterparts in Nigeria, this is exciting, and it really enhances the portfolio of projects that a research museum engages in.
Jeffrey Brown: But it's complicated. The Benin Bronzes are a clear-cut case of looting.
So much else here and elsewhere was collected in ways that were then legal that now, at the very least, raise questions of power imbalances and collection practices that are no longer considered ethical.
And Tukufu Zuberi seeks to complicate it further. Yes, the Benin objects must be returned, he says, but that can't be the end of the conversation for museums. They must engage more with African American communities, for one thing, and rethink their entire mission.
Tukufu Zuberi: Restitution can become whitewashing the issue if we forget that these objects came with people.
The enslavement of Africans, the enslavement of Africa, and the colonization in Africa are part and parcel of what we're looking at when we see these objects. So, you can't now just sever that relationship.
Jeffrey Brown: Send them back and then forget about it.
Tukufu Zuberi: And then forget about it.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes. That would be bad.
Tukufu Zuberi: That would be bad. It is bad where people are doing it, because they're not creating a conversation.
It's too late to just see, you're going to put things back the way they were, because they are not like they were.
Jeffrey Brown: In the meantime, negotiations continue for the return of the Benin Bronzes.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.
Judy Woodruff: And astonishing how many of these artifacts there are.
Thank you, Jeffrey Brown.