In 2012, the MFA gratefully accepted the Robert Owen Lehman Collection of 34 rare West African works of art. Thirty-two objects are from the Kingdom of Benin in present-day southern Nigeria and two are from present-day Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Benin Kingdom, founded around the year 900, has played an important political and art historical role in the region since the 15th century. Among the most famous works, created by artists in the service of the king, are ivories and so-called bronzes (copper alloy pieces made in the lost wax-casting technique). The bronzes range from sculptural heads of kings and freestanding figures to pendants and high-relief plaques that once adorned the walls of courtyards in the palace. The Benin Kingdom Gallery displays this transformative gift. An interactive feature on the iconography of ancient bronzes from the Benin Kingdom provides gallery visitors with a new way to explore key motifs of Benin art. The touch-screen display provides a close-up view of four objects: the Horseman, Battle Plaque, Double Gong, and Oba Dominating Leopards. Users can investigate these works in detail—zooming in on helmets, leopards, tunics, and swords—to gain insight into their symbolism in the culture of the Benin Kingdom.
Today, the ethics of collecting and displaying works removed from their places of origin during periods of European colonialism is a subject of debate among museums, local and national governments, collectors, and the public. The MFA displays these Benin artworks for the benefit of communities in Boston and abroad, and holds them in the public trust where they may be studied and viewed by all.