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Can we decolonise the British Museum?

Despite ongoing attempts to return stolen treasures to their countries of origin, critics argue that the history of museums will always tie them to a colonial mindset.

Next time you visit the British Museum and hover around the Gweagal Shield, an Aboriginal Australian object made of bark and wood sometime around the turn of the 19th century, and you might hear the words “theft”, “Captain James Cook” and “warrior Cooman”. Hang out by the Benin Bronzes and see if the terms “looting” or “punitive expedition of 1897” are sounded. Lean in close enough, and you might notice a tour guide wearing a badge with the motto, “Display it like you stole it”

Alice Procter, an art historian studying at University College London, has been leading small groups around the British Museum, V&A, National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain since June 2017. Her Uncomfortable Art Tours invite participants to question the provenance of objects and images, grapple with repatriation – the process by which objects are returned to their origin state at the request of its government – and think critically about Britain’s former colonial empire. 

When I speak over the phone with Procter, who has lived in the UK most of her life but originally hails from Australia, she explains what she covers on an average tour. "We’ll talk about how these items end up in the museum and the issues surrounding their potential repatriation, with a particular focus on the way museums display these objects”, she says.

"It’s not just: this was taken illegally, people want it back. It’s also: what does looking at this piece in London in 2019 tell us about contemporary British identity, historical British identity, and the power dynamics that create empire and create these institutions?”

The tours are a practical, public response to something that activists have long been fighting for: the repatriation of museum objects that were historically stolen from other countries during the years of the British Empire. Many now think that museums should engage in a process of “decolonisation”: clearly stating the ways they benefitted from a racist and colonial past, addressing this power imbalance (which may involve repatriation) and actively engaging with minority groups so their present-day work is more inclusive of modern-day Britain.

Last November, a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron called for a change in the law. It recommended that all African works originally taken without consent and currently held in French museum collections be returned to their countries of origin. The UK government has made no such statement.

The authors of the French report, Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, have directly criticised the British Museum – which is the UK’s leading tourist attraction and displays, among other exhibits, Hoa Hakananai’a, a statue stolen from Easter Island in 1869, and the Parthenon Marbles, removed from Athens in the early 1800s – for acting like “an ostrich with its head in the sand.” Notably, just 1 per cent of the museum’s eight million objects are exhibited at any one time – the museum keeps many of its items, including plaques representing the Ark of the Covenant that were taken from Ethiopia, in storerooms away from public display.

Earlier this month, the British Museum released details of a significant repatriation case involving fourth-century Buddhist terracotta heads and other precious artefacts that were looted, likely by the Taliban, from Iraq and Afghanistan, and illegally exported to the UK in 2002. After lengthy legal proceedings, the objects were sent to the British Museum to be analysed, conserved and catalogued.

The objects will be returned to Kabul after they’ve been exhibited in London for a short time. Activists and museum workers in favour of repatriation have praised the decision, but it inevitability raises questions about the comparatively little work the museum does to repatriate colonial-era objects. The British Museum shared their recent press release with the New Statesman, but declined to comment further.

On Monday 15 July it was announced that the author Ahdaf Soueif had resigned as trustee of the British Museum, citing the institution’s sponsorship from BP and the fact it “hardly speaks” in the debate over repatriation as reasons for her departure. In a statement published in the London Review of Books, Soueif wrote that the museum's task "should be to help us all to imagine a better world, and – along the way – to demonstrate the usefulness of museums. This would go some way towards making the case for keeping its collection in London. But its credibility would depend on the museum taking a clear position as an ally of coming generations.”

One of the most significant cases in the repatriation debate is that of the Benin Bronzes. The punitive 1897 Benin Expedition to what is now southern Nigeria culminated in a violent mass looting, in which British soldiers seized more than 2,000 artworks and artefacts, including the Benin Bronzes, some of which were hundreds of years old, and sent them back to Britain, where about 800 objects were accessioned to the British Museum – and where many remain today.  In recent years, the Nigerian government has put pressure on European institutions that hold in their collections items illegally seized during the expedition to repatriate the objects.

Procter maintains a distant relationship with the national galleries where she leads tours, but makes clear when we speak that she has never been asked to stop her work. In fact, museum workers and front-of-house staff regularly tell her they have listened to and learned from her tours. She has even had curators join her for tours, “because they know I’m bringing something different to this than they can.” 

When I ask Procter whether she thinks British museums are slowly becoming more progressive, she points to individual members of museum staff who are “more open to learning than they have ever been before.” But she’s aware that museum authorities are not the same people working in the gallery every day. “Some are more willing than others. There are plenty of institutions I can think of that have been asked to address these issues and have really been dragged kicking and screaming into this debate because it’s not going away.”

Above all, Procter wants museums to acknowledge issues of repatriation: “I want them to say, ‘This is how we were created, this is what we have, this is what we’re working with, and this is what we’re doing with it to try and confront the power dynamics that we’ve held in place for so long'”, she says. She adds that museums need to examine these historical acts of cruelty to “ensure that they’re not being repeated and re-enacted in the present day.”

Shaheen Kasmani is a Birmingham-based artist, curator and creative producer, specialising in pattern and textile design. Kasmani was one of a group of curators invited to set up an exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery that intended to use the museum’s collection to confront history: “The Past Is Now”. She also took part in Art Against the Grain, a female collective of artists who held an event during Birmingham’s Black History Month in 2016, titled “Decolonise Not Diversify”.

The one-day festival aimed to challenge and unpack dominant narratives in the art world through public workshops, panel discussions and an open exhibition. Its title is borrowed from a movement that sees attempts at “diversification” as meek and often tokenistic, and argues that confronting racism through decolonisation is a better way of tackling white supremacy. 

Though Kasmani sees repatriation as a means of decolonisation, she stresses that the process is complicated. Even if individual museum curators support the repatriation of a particular object, they have to seek approval from the board of directors, and eventually a sign-off from the prime minister would be required for items of national significance.

“So it’s the law of the country that would need challenging and changing”, she says, “which tells us a lot about the UK's image of itself; that it has the right to resources from other parts of the world, that it can look after objects better than the people who made them. Also, that it is happy to send back people, for example those seeking asylum or even the Windrush generation, but not so much objects.” 

Though the repatriation debate has gained public attention, it’s not the only means of decolonising museums. Kasmani also works to challenge museums that, by their very nature, can be intimidating and threatening to people of colour.

“As a visible Muslim woman, I'm often looked at like I'm the exhibit when in museum and gallery spaces”, she tells me. “Often just walking through a building can be laborious. You know how it came about, through violence directed at your ancestors and ancestors of other people of colour, and it was established to glorify and celebrate that.”

Other programmes that attempt to “diversify” museum spaces encounter just as many problems as repatriation. Both Kasmani and Procter point to the exploitative practices of some British museums, including hiring people of colour as workshop leaders or exhibition curators on a volunteer basis. What does 'inviting local communities' mean?” asks Kasmani. “They ask Black and Brown people to come and work in the museum without sufficient credit or remuneration for their time and their intellectual and emotional labour, resulting in tokenistic gestures.”

Will museums ever be fully decolonised? Ultimately, Procter thinks, the imperial origins of these buildings cannot be ignored. “For me, museums will never fully be decolonised because as institutions and as systems of power, they come so strongly from the period of imperialism and from a colonial mindset.

“The whole idea of a museum is a way to catalogue your objects of power”.

Kasmani also looks at other aspects of the museum system that are inevitably bound up in colonial power relations when considering whether it is possible to fully decolonise galleries. “If the structures and underlying narratives and decision-making remain the way they are, then no,” she says.

For her, it is about museums being honest about the origins of their collections, and ensuring that gallery staff are trained on how to treat all members of the public with respect. “Displays, exhibitions, staff positions and events need to be permanent features instead of meaningless tokenistic gestures. It is possible, but it needs to be genuine.” 

Update: After this article was published a British Museum spokesperson said:

"The Museum has always been open and transparent in sharing information about how objects came into the collection. Curators are constantly researching our collection histories and we look to share that information as widely as possible, online, through publication and lectures, through tours of the collection. We have recently launched a pilot trail of 15 objects in the Museum which provides more details as to how they came into the collection and what the British colonial involvement was in those areas. Objects have entered the collection in many ways, through trade, conquest, diplomatic exchange and so on. A current exhibition in Room 3 in the Museum looks at five objects from the Solomon Islands which shows examples of this diversity of collecting histories.

"We believe 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, 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 the collection should be maintained."

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.