Decisions on repatriating museum artefacts should be about the objects - not the politics

We should do a lot more to distribute collections equitably, but a political assault on the idea of universal museums is not the answer

Greek archaeologists have renewed calls for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures from the British Museum to Athens in recent months. The National
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In the aftermath of revelations surrounding the potential theft of stored objects at the British Museum, critics of universal museums have wasted little time in urging the dismantling of western collections.

The director of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, Despoina Koutsoumba, renewed calls for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures (taken by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s) to Athens and thought the museum now had to “reconsider everything”. The Global Times, a state-run Chinese newspaper, has demanded the “return home” of 23,000 Chinese artefacts.

These criticisms align with broader contemporary trends we see around the world of nationalism and populism, deglobalisation and nativism.

Every museum should be able to account for the provenance and purpose of its collections, including interrogating their colonial or imperial origins. But that should not result in the negation of museums’ role as spaces to explore, understand and admire foreign cultures and ethnic differences. Museums are places of multiculturalism and exchange, cultural appreciation and appropriation – and that means not limiting themselves solely to displaying their own nation’s artefacts.

With varying degrees of success, encyclopaedic or universal museums – such as Louvre Abu Dhabi or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – seek to chart the arc of human history through material culture.

Since, for thousands of years, empire was the natural state of governance for humankind – be it the Ming, Asante, Ottoman, Safavid, or Mughal empires – museums necessarily display the products of imperialism. Indeed, “partly because of empire”, as the great Palestinian critic Edward Said once wrote, “all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogenous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic”.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, for instance, there is displayed a sumptuous blue ceramic basin from Puebla, Mexico, made in the later 17th century.

On the rim and inside wall of the basin are painted compartments in Chinese style with floral motifs, but in the centre is a crowned, double-headed eagle. While eagles were a feature of central American pottery from the Aztecs on, this tin-glaze design is clearly a Mexican interpretation of the double-headed Habsburg Eagle, the symbol of the rulers of Spain and its colonies until 1700.

Here, in one object, is all the interplay of global design brought about by imperial politics.

Yet we also know that the European empires, especially of the later 19th century, were highly rapacious, militaristic and racist enterprises for whom the act of collecting was part of the psychology of colonialism.

They helped to entrench a hierarchy of racist ethnography, the consequences of which we are still living with. Vast amounts of cultural material were looted, stolen, or purchased under pressure by British, French, Dutch, German, Belgian and Italian agents across what we now call the Global South.

The extraction of art, objects and craft was especially heinous in Africa, leading in 1978 to Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, the director general of Unesco, to deliver his “Plea for the Restitution of an irreplaceable Cultural Heritage to those who created it”.

Mr M’Bow argued that the “victims of this plunder, sometimes for hundreds of years, have not only been despoiled of irreplaceable masterpieces but also robbed of a memory which doubtless would have helped them to greater self-knowledge”. He called on “museums that possess the most important collections, to share generously the objects in their keeping with the countries which created them and which sometimes no longer possess a single example”.

Mr M’Bow proposed that this could be addressed through a wide range of different means, such as “long-term loans, deposits, sales and donations between the institutions concerned in order to encourage a fairer international exchange of cultural property”.

The act of collecting was part of the psychology of colonialism

Some 40 years later, the unlikely figure of French President Emmanuel Macron – concerned about both rising Chinese and declining French influence in West Africa – took up the cause. “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France … In the next five years, I want the conditions to be created for the temporary or permanent restitution of African patrimony to Africa,” he told a crowded lecture theatre at the University of Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, in November 2017.

Since then, museums across Europe have accelerated the restitution of colonial-era artefacts.

Germany is building a strong bilateral relationship with Nigeria and returning Benin Bronzes taken in the late 19th century. The Dutch government has announced that: “There is no place in the Dutch State Collection for cultural heritage objects that were acquired through theft. If a country wants them back, we will give them back.” And collections have started to be sent back to Indonesia.

In the UK, many regional and university museums have repatriated items to Aboriginal communities in Australia; First Nation tribes in Canada and America; and, in the case of London’s Horniman Museum, Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.

However, both the British Museum and the V&A are prevented – by an Act of Parliament – from removing any objects from their collections. One day, British politicians might change this legislation and free up trustees to repatriate contested artefacts, but that is not going to happen quickly.

Given these constraints, one of our strategies at the V&A is to develop Renewable Cultural Partnerships – long-term loans of artefacts to source nations, and building around them programmes of conservation, curatorial exchange, knowledge-sharing and partnership.

Last year, for instance, we worked with the Turkish Ministry of Culture to reunite the broken head of a statue, removed in the late 1800s by a British official, to the Roman sarcophagus with which it belonged. Today, it rightly resides in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums and around this partnership we have built an exciting programme of collaboration.

To my mind, this is how the difficulties of the colonial past should be negotiated.

First, begin with the object and not the politics. Museums cannot absolve the crimes of colonialism and they should not be mobilised to assist contemporary geopolitical objectives. What is more, the provenance of each individual artefact is different: not everything acquired during the colonial period was looted or stolen. Objective, detailed research is vital.

It also pays to have some appreciation of the agency of the maker, whose work in museums can sit alongside displays from comparative periods or materials. This sense of a global civilisation – and the particular contribution of different races, nationalities and communities – is what Louvre Abu Dhabi achieves so well.

What is more, with digital technologies and ease of global freight transport, we should think much more creatively about innovative sharing practices beyond the current, zero-sum discourse.

There is much to be done to build a more equitable distribution of collections – as well as curatorial practice, conservation techniques and education – between the Global North and South, but a political assault on the idea of universal museums is not the answer.

The role of museums is to provide a civic space, in which all feel ownership, that helps both to situate contemporary concerns within broader histories and also, through the scholarly and challenging display of material culture, to move beyond the limitations of prescribed identities and nationalist ideologies.

From Crimea to Aleppo, Tel Aviv to Tehran, that appreciation of a multi-cultural inheritance is needed more than ever.

Published: September 08, 2023, 6:00 PM