The calls for repatriating museum objects have become impossible to ignore. Photo: PA

There is no longer any excuse for not repatriating museums' colonial art

In the digital era, there is little to be lost from returning collections to their countries of origin—and everything to be gained
March 25, 2019

Generations of museum visitors in Europe have been spoiled by direct access to foreign artefacts, but it is time to give them up.

When Senegal’s president Macky Sall opened the Musée des Civilisations Noires (the Museum of Black Civilizations, “MCN”) in Dakar in December, he brought a new weapon into the arsenal of activists fighting for the repatriation of treasured objects from foreign collections. The MCN has all the mod-cons and knowledge needed to protect and preserve ancient treasures—and that might prove to be its most radical feature.

Six decades after Ghana became the first African country to gain independence from the UK, we need to decolonise our cultural institutions to counter the lasting damage wrought by imperialism. Rhodes must go, along with objects brought to Britain by colonial-era travellers. When it comes to defending their ownership of artefacts plundered or bought from the Global South during the colonial era, museum directors often point to issues of safe-keeping and provenance to preserve the status quo. Current laws and precedent demand a kind of evidence of ownership that is often impossible to supply for those still recovering from the violence of imperialism. As a result, only temporary restitution—which doesn’t address the structural issues at the core of holdings—is considered.

“Well, it would be exciting if the items held at the V&A could be part of a long-term loan with a cultural institution in Ethiopia,” Tristam Hunt, the museum’s director, told the Independent after the Ethiopian government demanded the return of all objects of Ethiopian origin from the V&A’s collections. A spokesperson for the British Museum, which is currently facing multiple repatriation requests, recently told the Guardian that the strength of the collection “is its breadth and depth, which allows millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect—whether through trade, conflict, migration, conquest, or peaceful exchange.”

Fair enough, you might think—until you consider the fact that the geographic location of these artefacts, and the impact of the Home Office’s hostile environment on visa applications, mean that the people who most need to see them—the residents of former colonial states from whom the objects were taken – aren’t among the millions given the opportunity.

This is not just a British problem, but a by-product of imperialism repeated around the globe: first we take your artefacts; then we decide that you’re incapable of looking after them.

A few weeks before the opening of MCN, a report commissioned by Emmanuel Macron on the restitution of African artefacts held by French museums hit the headlines. Written by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, a French art historian and Senegalese economist and writer, the report recommends that all artefacts and works of art that have been taken without consent should be returned if their countries of origin ask for them.

It is a proposition that seems reasonable, but it led to defensive outbursts from many current guardians of disputed collections. In the Arts Newspaper, Hartmut Dorgerloh—the general director of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum—stressed the need for provenance research before adding that “looted art must always be returned.” He neglected to mention that even the purchased objects, which under this rule would remain in collections, were often acquired because of power imbalances between buyers and sellers.

And who are we to decide that other nations can’t look after their own artefacts? It is true, as the argument often runs, that the British Museum Act of 1963 limits the museum from disposing of donated objects (it also emphasises the need to maintain the educational value of its collection), but laws can be changed—and it is difficult to see the constant referral to legal matters as anything other than a stalling tactic intended to keep collections intact. German ministers are currently planning to develop new repatriation measures, having recently described the return of artefacts as “an ethical and moral duty.”

The British Museum is currently facing repatriation demands from Italy, Greece, Egypt and the Easter Island; the idea that it is a better host to the Parthenon Marbles than Athens’ state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum is preposterous, as is the idea that the Rapa Nui don’t know how to look after Hoa Hakananai’a, the Easter Island stone statue they believe is the living incarnation of a prominent ancestor.

When Indigenous visitors left notes, flowers and rocks in front of displayed artefacts at the Royal Academy of Arts’ Oceania exhibition last autumn, they underlined their continued emotional connection to disputed objects. Even more upsetting is the unwillingness to return human remains that are found in collections, cupboards and attics across Europe—each a reminder of the very racist environment in which colonial-era exchanges were made. 

Ten years ago, British collections held at least 61,000 Indigenous Australian remains and many have fought repatriation attempts. When the remains of explorer Matthew Flinders were found underneath Euston Station in London in December, Alison Whittaker, a Gomeroi poet and researcher at Sydney’s Jumbunna Institute, tweeted: “He belongs in a museum. His people can have him back in two hundred years if they can find him in an unlabelled box in our archive, if they can prove a cultural connection, and only if we’re no longer using him for phrenological studies.” So far, thousands have approved of her comments.

The imbalance between museums’ legal approach and activists’ emotional connection to objects is in itself a continuation of imperial hierarchies and brings to mind the racist assumption of the rational European and emotional ‘other’ that underpinned colonialism. It is made worse by the fact that museums rarely acknowledge the grief and anger caused by their unwillingness to return artefacts. At best, curators make veiled references to the origins of collections in exhibition notes—but few point to the violence that brought items to Europe.

Yet there are ways in which museums can address the history of their collections right now. At Frankfurt’s Weltkulturen Museum—home to over 65,000 items from around the world—an exhibition that examined the collection of objects acquired in ‘problematic circumstances’ has just closed. In London, the academic Alice Procter organises unofficial tours of museums that reveal their colonial roots and legacies, which she calls “Uncomfortable Art Tours.” At the University of Sussex, Professor JoAnn McGregor has just commenced a project in partnership with African curators and UK-based diaspora interest groups on historic African collections held in Sussex and Kent Museums which will examine the role they can play in decolonising British public institutions.

Visitors to European museums will not necessarily lose access to artefacts through repatriation. Redressing the balance between institutions in the Global North and South might facilitate cooperation and exchanges. In the digital era, there are also alternative means of seeing collections: even if you can’t make it to Dakar in person, anyone can visit the MCN on Instagram.