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.