Thursday, October 15, 2015

An unknown gem

After Bouchercon I headed for what I regard as one of the most beautiful cities in the world – Washington D.C.  Its French heritage is obvious everywhere.

However, my affection for Washington really comes from its museums.  How can one not be blown away by the Air and Space Museum or the Natural History Museum?  Or the Museum of American History?  Or the Museum of the American Indian?

This time I discovered another Smithsonian museum.  One that I’d never heard of.  It is called The Museum of African Art.  Apparently it is the least visited museum in town.  When I googled it for this article, the official Washington site ( doesn’t even list it.

But it is a gem.

Built next to the Smithsonian Castle, it appears from the outside to be insignificant.  This is because it looks small and only one story high.  However, I discovered that its above-ground profile is small so that it doesn’t block the view of the castle.  It is actually big, because it extends deep into the ground and spreads in many directions, far exceeding its footprint.

There are many different exhibitions at the moment, all interesting in different ways.  There are also many stunning examples of African art – masks, jewellery, sculptures, etc.  But it was one small exhibit that caught my attention, comprising three Benin bronzes.  Of course, since I collect African art, I knew about the Kingdom of Benin, situated in what is now southern Nigeria, close to what was the Kingdom of Ife.

What I didn’t know about prior to this visit was the existence of hundreds of bronze panels, some of which date back six or seven hundred years, maybe even more.  And I also didn’t know about their history.

Then Benin society dominated the area for centuries, being at the confluence of a number of trade routes.  The ruler was an oba, who was believed to be the direct descendent of the founder of the dynasty, Oranmiyan.  The oba was considered a deity and was revered throughout his lands.  He also controlled all the major resources that were valuable as exports, namely ivory and slaves. 

Distinct from tribal art, the art of the oba’s palace was all commissioned by the oba and executed by guilds of craftsmen.

Benin City, the capital of the kingdom was a highly organised city on par with any of the great European cities.

A Dutch explorer and writer, Olfert Dapper, wrote about Benin City in 1668.  He said

The king's palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town.  It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries...resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean."

The Kingdom of Benin came to an abrupt end in 1897.  

What happened was that a trading expedition comprising a number of British officials and traders and several hundred porters had requested permission to enter Benin City.  They were told not to do so because it was a time of sacred rituals, which no foreigners could witness.  They ignored that order and continued.  They were ambushed and all but a few were killed.

The British sent a punitive force and burnt Benin City to the ground, killing many of its inhabitants.  Then it plundered thousands of works of art, which are now in museums around the world – the British Museum has hundreds of them, despite repeated requests by Nigeria to return them.

Initially, the beauty and technological sophistication of the art was explained away by saying that the objects must have been made by the Portuguese, or ancient Egyptians, or even a lost tribe of Israel.  No one in Europe could imagine that the objects could have been made by black Africans.  (This is similar to the situation when the wonderful bronzes and terracottas of the Kingdom of Ife were found in the early 1900s – they were initially attributed to being made by the inhabitants of the lost Atlantis.)

Here are some of the bronzes taken from Benin to give you a sense of their beauty.  Actually, they are actually made from brass, but are generally known as the Benin Bronzes.  Many are between 400 and 700 years old.

Bronze of a Portuguese soldier from about 1600

And here is one made from ivory.

If you are in Washington D.C., I heartily recommend a visit to the Museum of African Art.  It will be an eye-opener.


  1. Wonderful works of art, horrible history of oppression and destruction. Sigh.

  2. Well that's another place on the must visit list! Thanks Stan.

  3. Stan, How did I miss that? I saw the Benin sculptures at the British Museum and never knew there were some in Washington. Regarding that punitive expedition, you and I have talked about that in these precincts in the past. No question in my mind who the real barbarians were. More than one of the historians I read in preparation for my post about the Mau-Mau uprising speculated that the Kikuyu learned their violent ways by serving as troops for the British in punitive expeditions in previous decades. "Punitive," What an ugly word. What an even uglier concept.

  4. What an amazing discovery--on many levels! (Pun intended...) It sounds like a wonderful museum. I'll definitely have it on the list when I go to D.C.

    It also intrigues me how often Eurocentric history attributed lovely art to Europeans because the population who lived where the art was created "couldn't possibly have created it"--despite the clearly indigenous features of the people in the artworks, and the fact that European artists almost never produced works featuring solely indigenous peoples. (There's almost always a conquistador in the frame...)

  5. Extraordinary. You inspire me to come to WDC, a place I've been avoiding because of the plague represented by it's current occupying forces.

    If the British had to return everything they've plundered, they'd be left only with kilt underwear.

  6. And when the Scots 'go indy', no doubt we shall demand the return of the kilt underwear!!

  7. And when the Scots 'go indy', no doubt we shall demand the return of the kilt underwear!!

  8. Hang on a moment, Caro. Isn't kilt underwear supposed to be no underwear at all ...?

  9. Ditto with everyone's comments. The top piece of sculpture of the woman just knocks my socks off it's so beautiful.
    I think it's about time for Britain to return all of the art and artifacts to Benin and everywhere else! But then what would be left in Britain? That question has been answered here tersely and well.