Ngaire Blankenberg, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, is stepping down from her position after less than two years at the helm.
She left the Washington, D.C. museum in March after being pushed to resign, as first reported by The Art Newspaper. John Lapiana, the Smithsonian’s senior advisor to the undersecretary of museums and culture, will step in as acting director while the institution searches for a replacement.
“Individual and institutional resistance and then backlash,” barred her from enacting change at the museum, Blankenberg told The Art Newspaper. “Despite the widespread public commitments to ‘change,’ few seem to have the courage to ride out the inevitable waves that any change necessarily entails,” she said, adding that institutions are more afraid of lawsuits than becoming irrelevant or impotent.
Announced as the museum’s director in July 2021, she succeeded Augustus Casely-Hayford, who stepped down in March of 2020. She previously consulted for institutions like the National Gallery of Canada, Superblue, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Museum and Archive of the Constitution at the Hill in Johannesburg.
Blankenberg, who is from South Africa and Canada, also worked at management company Lord Cultural Resources and Dutch design company Kossmanndejong.
Supporting the repatriation of Benin Bronzes
Less than two weeks after taking up her new position at the National Museum of African Art, Blankenberg removed the museum’s Benin Bronzes from display. The works are linked to the 1897 British raid of Benin City, located in current-day Nigeria.
In October of 2022, the museum returned 29 of its Benin Bronzes to Nigeria in a joint repatriation ceremony with the National Gallery of Art. While nine of the works will remain on loan at the National Museum of African Art, the remaining 20 were returned to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).
The transfer was the first action under a new ethical returns policy at the Smithsonian, which allows for stolen or unethically obtained artifacts to be repatriated.
Germany and the Horniman Museum have also agreed to return Benin Bronzes to the NCMM, which plans to showcase the artifacts in a museum in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja. But earlier this year, outgoing Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari declared that the Oba, the traditional ruler of Benin, will be responsible for the Benin Bronzes, which cannot be moved without his written authority.
The Oba has expressed his desire to display the works in a Benin Royal Museum near his palace, causing confusion for institutions that had planned to return the bronzes to the NCMM. The University of Cambridge, which previously agreed to return more than 100 Benin Bronzes to the NCMM later this month, has since postponed the repatriation.
The National Museum of African Art also received backlash from the Restitution Study Group, a New York City non-profit that claims that American descendants of slaves traded by the kingdom of Benin in exchange for metal used to make the bronzes should have the right to view them in the U.S. The group attempted to block the museum’s transfer of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria with a lawsuit in October of 2022. Its request was denied, although a judge invited the group to file an amended complaint.
“I’m sorry that she lost her job, but I’m more sorry that we lost our bronzes,” Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, executive director of the Restitution Study Group, told Observer in an emailed statement, adding that the group plans to file an amended complaint against the Smithsonian in the coming week.
The National Museum of African Art did not respond to requests for comment from Observer.