Written by Madylene Beardmore
As a curator, it is my job to collect and protect artefacts, it is the foundational part of the role. However, the question is, to what cost?
Across Europe there are countless collections of artefacts which have been collected or transferred during times of Imperial rule. Artefacts which were plundered, stolen, commandeered, or traded (sometimes legitimately, sometimes by knowingly making the very most of the power imbalance and communication barriers.) These collections are held, in large part, in national museums. There are countless cases where you visit a site or country to find a replica in their museum and a note marking that the original is held in the British Museum.
The British Museum is by no means the only institution who holds and displays collections from other cultures, nations and peoples, and Britain is not the only country, however they do seem to be becoming the poster child for repatriation, and not in a positive way.
The argument is: These collections were taken from communities who would not have otherwise given them willingly, they are the cultural and indeed material property of other cultures and museum’s have a responsibility to explore the possibility of reinterpretation and repatriation and at the very least must consider applications for repatriation as a matter of utmost importance.
This mindset is becoming part of a broader call for change, in her 2019 article for The New Statesman, Ellen Peirson- Hagger argues ‘Many now think that museums should engage in “decolonisation”: Clearly stating that the ways they benefitted from a racist and colonial past, addressing this power imbalance (which may include repatriation) and actively engaging with minority groups so their present-day work is more inclusive of modern-day Britain”
The French government have already gone to some lengths to address this, commissioning a report in 2018, widely known as The Macron report. In this report authors Savoy and Sarr make recommendations for French museums, citing the British Museum as a particular example of an institution burying it’s head in the sand. They argue that “to speak openly about restitution is to speak of justice, rebalancing, recognition, restoration, and reparation. But above all it is to pave the way for the establishment of new cultural relationships”
France voted to take this report forward and implement it. German museums are intending to do similar.
The arguments against moving towards repatriation also have some weight. The British Museum in a statement about the process have argued that “We believe the strength of the collection is its breadth and depth which allows millions of visitors on understanding of cultures of the world and how they interconnect whether through trade, migration, conquest or peaceful exchange. We are also committed to lending the collection as widely as possible across the world and within the UK but the integrity of collection should be maintained”
The argument here is that the method of collecting in question is in itself part of the museum narrative and therefore should remain where it is in order to maintain the important story. However, when only 1% of museum objects are on display it is hard to argue that collections are better off in storage box in the stores of a museum on a foreign shore, when they could be at their place of origin, on display and actually being accessed. Unless of course the idea of the collection’s integrity is showing the wholesale worldwide plundering which took place, in which case, yes it would be a priority to keep it together.
There is a camp who argue that the British Museum is a world leader in collections care, with the experts, budget and capability to care for collections in a way that cannot be offered by many other places. This argument is however becoming less and less relevant. Many countries are now investing more and more in their cultural and artistic heritage. After independence from Empire and the struggles of forging new nations in its wake, many peoples are looking for tangible evidence of the past in order to learn their histories, stories and collective pasts as they look to the future. Many governments are therefore investing in the infrastructure and education to ensure they can build museums and institutions to provide this important part of nationhood.
It is also hard to believe that every tribe, nation, or country touched by the British Empire is banging down the door of the British Museum ready to clear out all of the collections even remotely related to them. These are professionals, approaching other professionals and asking to negotiate terms for the return of items to their place of origin in order for them to be researched, displayed, interpreted and shared. The British Museum’s apparent fear of a mass exodus of items goes to show quite how large the collection of ‘colonial’ items is.
In regard to the statements in relation to encouraging and supporting lending programmes, this is also problematic. It implies that those items acquired through conflict and theft were ever the museums to own. Furthermore, the process of loaning items is lengthy and potentially very expensive. It seems that the main pressure against considering a more open-minded discussion in regard to repatriation comes from high up the management structure not from those working with collections or visitors. Indeed, I believe most curatorial staff would be supportive of the process, but even with the best will in the world it would not make the process any quicker or cheaper.
There is also the incredibly complicated ethical argument about human remains in one instance and religious/cultural artefacts which hold significance to the religions or belief systems of certain tribes. Certainly, a bigger topic than can be covered in this article, but still an important part of the discussion for the decolonisation of museums.
The difficult topic of repatriation is as deep, rich and varied as the collections the museum holds. But things must change, even if the change is slow at first, a commitment is needed to moving forward. To reject repatriation across all cases is short sighted and unnecessary and makes it seem to all the world that we really have not moved on any further than colonialism. Of course, any discussion about objects leaving the British Museum should be taken on a case-by-case basis, but each request does deserve that respect at the very least.
Bakare, L. British Museum ‘has head in sand’ over return of artefacts | British Museum | The Guardian, 21/06/2019 (accessed 04/05/2021)
Peirson-Hagger, E. Can we decolonise the British Museum? (newstatesman.com), 20/07/2019 (accessed 04/05/2021)
Wilding, M. Museums grapple with rise in pleas for return of foreign treasures | UK news | The Guardian, 18/02/2019 (accessed 05/05/2021)
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