Not Standing For It

I think I understand most of the issues around the Restitution Study Group’s unsuccessful attempts to get an emergency restraining order to stop the official transfer of the Smithsonian’s Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian government–everything except the timing. Why is this story dropping now, almost two months after a judge denied the motion? The RSG is insisting reporters note that its lawsuit is still active, even though the judge’s refusal of the ERO seems to find every argument in the Smithsonian’s favor. Going public now is somehow part of a strategy to amend their complaint and add new theories to the public debate over what to do with Benin Bronzes. Or more interestingly, to add a new constituency to that public and new voices to that debate.

RSG sued the Smithsonian to claim co-ownership of 39 bronze objects (looted in 1897 from Benin by the British) on behalf of the American descendants of the enslaved people sold to European and American slave traders by the kings of Benin. In addition to the as-yet genetically untraced hundreds of thousands or millions of descendants, RSG founder Deadria Farmer Paellmann counts herself among that group. Every legal argument or statutory claim RSG made against the Smithsonian could fail or fall away–and so far, they all absolutely have–and the assertion will still ring clear: that the descendants of enslaved people should be considered, consulted, involved, and ultimately find justice in the reparative processes our society undertakes.

It’s an argument that demands moral atttention, even when it fails. If anything, the failure of descendants of the enslaved to obtain redress, or even standing, casts a strong light on the persistent biases of the institutions around us all. When she sued Harvard, Tamara K. Lanier didn’t win ownership of the dagguerotypes of her enslaved ancestors taken in 1850 by a white supremacist researcher at the university. But she certainly changed those powerful and disturbing images, grounding their subjects in a familial legacy, but also thwarting Harvard’s unaccountable use of the photos for its own promotional strategies.

The moral clarity of Lanier’s position, and the institution’s inability to dismiss her, probably strengthened RSG’s own claim to speak for descendants of the enslaved. Farmer Paellmann had multiple meetings with Smithsonian officials, including the director of the National Museum of African Art, which she detailed in her initial complaint. [pdf. Also here are pdfs of the Smithsonian’s response and the judge’s order.]

But the directness of Lanier’s claim was also more explicit; she spoke as a direct descendant of Renty, the enslaved man in the photo. Farmer Paellmann, meanwhile, claimed co-ownership of the Smithsonian’s objects because they were made from copper, a metal historically traded to the obas of Benin for captives; and because a 23&Me test traced her ancestors to areas of West Africa at times within the obas’ reach. The Department of Justice, arguing for the Smithsonian, questioned every link in the chain of assumptions of an actionable connection, and the judge agreed. If the legal case for descendants’ standing is to be made, this is not how it will happen.

Unfortunately, RSG’s other argument, poorly fleshed out, found even less favor in court, even as it’s been floated, problematically, in the press. RSG implicated the Nigerian governmental and royalist recipients of the Smithsonian’s bronzes as beneficial successors of the Beninese slave trade itself. Returning the bronzes, then, is actually rewarding the heirs of the oppressors who already profited from slavery, even if they did get massacred and ransacked by the British that one time. The footnote for this argument is David Frum’s concern trolling Sept. 2022 article in The Atlantic. Frum started out with a “just asking questions” about where restituted Benin bronzes might end up, and, surprise, ended up with a well-worn defense of keeping this stuff safe in the West, because Africans can’t be trusted with their own heritage. Nothing in RSG’s lawsuit bolstered this position, which never made it past a footnote.

And that is one of the ironies of Farmer Paellmann’s ostensible failure here, because she has had some of her most novel and important impact by tracing culpability for the ill-gotten gains of slavery from the archives to the contemporary institutions and corporations of today. In 2002 Farmer Paellmann filed a class-action suit against 17 companies, seeking profits from their historic activities financing and insuring slave trading. That action set the stage for Cameron Rowland’s 2016 work, Disgorgement, which placed shares of one of those companies, Aetna, into a Reparations Purpose Trust, for eventual disbursal to descendants of enslaved people who were once the subjects of slave life insurance policies.

Ownership of the bronzes was transferred, as scheduled, on October 11th, and the RSG’s claims and motion were denied on October 14th, with no claim against the Smithsonian left intact. “Plaintiffs might be able to establish standing based on a different injury,” the judge helpfully offered in a footnote, “such as harm to an academic or aesthetic interest in the Bronzes, which might be heightened by their alleged ancestral ties, but they do not advance those arguments in any detail.” When artnet first wrote of the lawsuit’s failure on December 2nd, Farmer Paellmann echoed these claims exactly: “We study the bronzes as scholars, students, and descendants of the people who made them. We need access to them to study them. We suffer a concrete and imminent injury as a result of this transfer.” But they have still not advanced those arguments in any detail.

Previously, related: Why Does The National Gallery (Still) Have This Benin Bronze Sculpture?