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Confronting the Past: The Ethics of Museums' Foreign Artefacts

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

Kate Byng-Hall explores the complex and controversial subject of how Britain’s colonial past is still reflected in our museums.

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Photo by Jeff Siepman

Museums are widely accepted as one of the symbols of modern culture. The opening of free museums in Victorian times represented the democratisation of historical and cultural leisure, and allowed mass education to extend beyond the elites.

Today, visits to museums and galleries can leave you awe-struck and hungry for more in a way that little else can. They motivate children to become artists, historians and archaeologists, inspire stories of ancient worlds and elicit passionate reactions from young and old alike.

One of the most intriguing things about the UK’s famous and treasured museums – the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery, to name a few – is the cultural and geographic variety of their collections. The wide range of countries and civilisations represented in our establishments provides us with a window to the rest of the world, and can promote tolerance and appreciation of other cultures, as I believe was the case in my experience.

However, the origins of such varied collections are nothing if not dubious. In some cases, and certainly not uncommonly, the artefacts on display were collected by colonial force rather than gifted or lent voluntarily by their country of origin. This fact has been brought increasingly into the spotlight in recent years, and has led some to become disapproving of museums altogether.

I believe it is essential to national culture and education that our museums and galleries remain central in society, but, looking to a more enlightened future, this may not be possible if they do not alter the narratives surrounding their collections or reconsider how they regard the artefacts they keep.

Britain’s Colonial Past

In the 19th century, Britain was the biggest colonial power in the world. The British Empire was at its peak midway through the century, and Queen Victoria was the most powerful person on the planet. While this fact elicited pride and patriotism at the time, British imperialism is deeply problematic, built upon a Eurocentric superiority complex which cast all non-western cultures under an umbrella of ignorance, savagery and inferiority.

The belief in this inferiority justified an era of vicious colonisation, invading countries across Africa and Asia, then claiming them as the latest addition to the Empire. While British occupation in the colonies did afford some natives new opportunities in education and employment, cultural erasure and aggressive racism were arguably the defining features of the period. Historical artefacts from these places were treated either as badges of honour – the spoils of yet another imperial conquest – or an amusing demonstration of the primitive nature of foreign ‘savages’.

Despite the fall of the Empire many years ago, many of the spoils of colonial plunder remain in our museums, with little to no recognition of how they got there. In the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which forced anti-racism and decolonisation into the spotlight, this needs to change. People argue for two differing approaches to do so.

Some say that all objects obtained through imperial pursuits should have this fact clearly marked on their displays, so visitors reading about the collection will be fully aware of the history of the objects. Others go one step further, saying that artefacts taken unwillingly should be repatriated, i.e., returned to their nation of origin.

Demands for Repatriation

British establishments have been facing increasingly urgent calls to give up some of their artefacts for a number of years now. Last year, this came to a head, as Arts Council England released a document addressing the ethical and practical issues surrounding the repatriation of objects, as more and more restitution claims are being made against UK museums.

Perhaps the most infamous artefacts in any British Museum are the Elgin Marbles – a collection of marbles taken from the Parthenon in Greece by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, in 1816. The collection currently in the museum represent around half of a 160-metre frieze which originally adorned the iconic temple located in Athens. Elgin did receive permission from the Greek government to take some of the marbles, but, according to environmental philosophy scholar Karin Edvardsson Björnberg, “few (if any) scholars are willing to defend the view that formal permission was given to remove as many of the Marbles as Lord Elgin did in the end.”

Despite the Acropolis Museum in Greece having to use plaster replicas of the original marbles currently in UK, the British Museum’s trustees have defended their choice not to return the objects, claiming that “the breadth and depth of [the museum’] collection allow a global public to examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures”, and the marbles “are a vital element in this interconnected world collection.”

The British Museum has also come under fire for not returning Hoa Hakananai'a – an ancient Chilean statue taken from Easter Island in 1868 as a gift to Queen Victoria. Indigenous tribes from the iconic island argue that the statue should be returned as it has both spiritual and historical significance, but the museum is determined to hold onto it. Carlos Edmunds, the president of the Council of Elders, states that “It embodies the spirit of an ancestor, almost like a grandfather. This is what we want returned to our island – not just a statue.”

“Museums, state officials, journalists and public intellectuals in various countries have stepped up to the discussion. The British Museum, born and bred in empire and colonial practice, is coming under scrutiny. And yet it hardly speaks.” - Ahdaf Soueif

Soueif is an Egyptian writer who resigned as a trustee of the British Museum due to their failure to consider repatriation.

The Beginning of Progress

Some countries have already begun repatriation projects, with a recent announcement that Germany will return their entire share of the long-disputed Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. The bronzes – a large collection of 16th-century bronze plaques and sculptures – were previously on display in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg after being plundered from Nigeria by British soldiers in 1897. This move puts the British Museum under even greater pressure to return 900 Benin artefacts they gained in the same raid, especially since both the Horniman Museum, London and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge have volunteered to return their Benin items.

In recent weeks, many have called upon the British Museum to exploit a discretionary loophole to return items, in particular, a selection of Ethiopian sacred tablets (tabots) claimed while the country was in the British Empire. The loophole would allow for items to be repatriated if the museum brands them “unfit” for display. A letter to the museum’s trustees, signed by peers and celebrities including Stephen Fry, states that “We believe that today the British Museum has a unique opportunity to build a lasting and meaningful bridge of friendship between Britain and Ethiopia by handing the tabots back to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.” The museum has yet to respond.

Few people believe that all British museums and galleries should be emptied of all artefacts with foreign origins, but it is crucial that they recognise and are vocal about the ethical issues surrounding some of their displays, both in terms of the future of UK cultural representation and in how younger generations engage with the results of colonialism. The only thing that should be stuck in the past is these establishments’ displays, not their mindsets.


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