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Should British museums return artefacts taken during colonisation?

Laura Gavin June 16, 2020
colonial artefacts museums

…And how can you lend something which was not your property in the first place?

Recent weeks have seen the UK forced to face up to the horrors of its colonial past, with the Black Lives Matter movement making clear that uncomfortable wrongs often thought to be buried in history are still affecting people’s lives today.

Statues venerating figures associated with the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and white supremacy have all come under re-examination.

But what about the many cultural artefacts still in Britain and elsewhere in the Western world, claimed from former colonies at the height of imperialism?

This is not a new debate, but the question of whether these objects should be returned to the countries they were taken from has been brought to the fore once more.

African art in Europe

A staggering 90-95% of sub-Saharan cultural artefacts are housed outside Africa, according to a UNESCO forum.

A 2018 report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron on African art in French museums unequivocally recommended restitution. Where there are objects in French collections which were taken by force in the past, or where there is no evidence to suggest otherwise, these objects should be returned to their country of origin, the report said.

Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

Claims of the British Empire

In the UK, the ‘Elgin Marbles’ debate between the UK and Greece dominated much of the 20th-century discussion of this topic. But there has been ongoing pressure in recent years for the British Museum to return artefacts taken from countries such as India, Egypt and Nigeria in the days of the Empire.

Objects looted by British colonial troops from the former Kingdom of Benin – part of what is now present-day Nigeria – have come under particular scrutiny.

The ‘Benin Bronzes’, a collection of plaques and sculptures created by the Edo people using techniques that date back to the 13th century, were loaned to a Nigerian museum in 2018. This was presented by the British Museum as a compromise, and a step in the right direction, but the key word here is ‘loaned’.

How can you lend something which was not your property in the first place?

Image: Nicole Baster via Unsplash

Facing a colonial past

Some have argued that it is natural for countries who have a shared past to hold examples of this in their museum collections, so that people today can understand their nation’s heritage – good and bad.

Retaining objects obtained during colonisation is part of facing up to this darker side of history, and so long as they are placed in context, we can learn from them.

This is something which has arguably been achieved in Belgium, transforming what was once a hideously racist museum during the period of King Leopold II’s reign over the Congo and creating space for past and present Congolese voices to be heard.

Cultural exchange

Of course, true cultural exchange happens between universities and institutions across the globe in a wholly positive way, ensuring more people have the chance to share research, experience different perspectives and learn to value art which is made with unfamiliar approaches to style and representation.

Sharing historical artefacts is all very well if you’re talking about an object that has been exchanged or gifted from one nation to another. Artefacts can end up with a very different final destination, and new fusion art styles created, simply because people throughout history have travelled, traded and settled elsewhere.

After all, British history has been built on the shifting sands of diaspora and migration since the days of the Anglo-Saxons right up to the Windrush generation, paving the way for today’s multi-cultural UK.

However, it is a different thing entirely when you are talking about something that was taken without consent. Even glossed with the noble purpose of education, shouldn’t the country who produced these artefacts at least be given the option to repatriate them?

Encyclopaedic institutions

At a time when travel has become temporarily restricted, and will likely be discouraged in the longer-term interests of keeping our carbon footprint to a minimum, it’s a good thing that we can pop into our national museum or gallery and see the world in a day.

This ‘encyclopaedic’ argument only works one way, however.

Western societies may be lucky enough to dip into everything from feudal Japanese costumes to Mesoamerican sculpture in places like the V&A Museum, the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum in Paris or the Met Museum in New York. But it’s not often you see Italian Renaissance masters on tour in Lagos, or pop art loaned out to Vanuatu.

The legacy of colonialism

Many people living in poorer parts of the world cannot afford to travel to see examples of their own heritage. So-called developed countries retain their advantage over much of the world precisely because of the political and economic legacy of colonialism.

The days of the British Empire bringing back treasures from its many conquests are over. Perhaps it’s time our museums reflected this.

Lead image: Hulki Okan Tabak / Pixabay

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Laura currently works in charity comms, and previously freelanced as a copywriter and editor, covering everything from travel to the arts.