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Tug of War: The Political Debate of Colonial Artefacts

Where should the once-stolen treasures from the colonial period be kept? The answer depends on who you ask.


For museum conglomerates such as the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the British Museum, the artefacts and objects acquired under colonial times represent symbols of historical exploration, which should remain in their existing spots. The artefacts, comprising an assortment of masks, ornaments and statuettes, are aimed to be put on display at world exhibitions for a bigger public.


The retention of artefacts entails a bigger audience for the multicultural treasure coupled with a testimony of the colonial legacy and raised awareness of ethnographic history. The purpose of amassing multicultural objects, artefacts and remains came with the philosophical invention of Encyclopaedic museums. Stemming from the Enlightenment movement, Encyclopaedic museums must gather several multicultural collections from all corners of the world - a celebration of talent and culture - all under one institution. That narrative swayed European curators and collectors in the 17th and 18th centuries, as each sought to reach the quintessential title of an encyclopaedic museum.


Nevertheless, throughout the decades, museums have been accused of dimming the cultural heritage as a result of poor conservation, but also fundamental historical shifts in socio-economic realms which colonial artefacts are not sheltered from. Alpha Oumar Konaré, former head of the Historical and Ethnological Heritage division of Mali, explains how the ethnographic museum is doomed in light of shifting collective sentiment towards the latter. He states;[The traditional museum] has ossified our culture, deadened many of our cultural objects, and allowed their essence, imbued with the spirit of a people, to be lost.” Konaré accounts this down turn to modernization, religious intolerance and shift of social structures are accumulating factors that reshaped the structure of ethnographic museums in Western societies.


The unavoidable clash between theory and practice does not live up to the Enlightenment-era ideology as previously occupied states increasingly request the return of their belongings. The topic of ethnographic holdings started a debate conveying a symbolic proxy conflict between ex-colonie countries and ex-imperial states.


As the home countries of those artefacts have achieved their independence, the debate of decolonizing Western museums arose too. Konaré, who also previously served as Minister of Culture in Mali, explores the intricate connotative meaning of ethnographic objects and how their location alters their value. He argues; “The new owners of the cultural objects in question deprived them of their original function and projected their own vision”, hence, “...reducing them to the level of commonplace consumer goods.”. Konaré emphasises that foreign values should not be the leading voices in colonial heritage as too often, their stories are misleading. “Their aim was to charm the population in the home country with the ‘exoticism’ and ‘folklore’ of African countries, and in doing so, justify their presence there.”, he adds.


The restitution of their cultural heritage conveys an empowering reunion to national history, a symbolic gesture of repentance from the colonial state who took away their wealth. While the return of goods does not amend the inflicted ramifications, it signifies a wish to revise the colonial past and strengthen sovereignty. The recovery of stolen treasure ensures national states retell their history on their terms rather than through the colonial lens.


Amongst all ex-imperial dynasties, Britain has the tightest grip on its amassed ethnographic treasures. Recent headlines raised controversy about the British Museum’s handling of taken antiques, weakening its justification of custody. In September 2023, the British Museum revealed that about two thousand 19th-century antiquity objects have gone missing over a decade. Worse, the investigation uncovered that said antiques were sold on digital platforms, deepening the scandal and leading to the resignation of Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum. The latter dismantled a leading argument in the debate over colonial-acquired, often looted, artefacts - that an established Encyclopaedic museum will preserve better than the country of origin can.


Despite being notorious for disagreement with restitution, the British Museum possesses an estimated eight million stolen cultural artefacts, from which merely one per cent is out for display. Close to half of those objects have yet to be officially documented online.

Britain’s persistent stance on the matter diverges from the general European consensus. France and Germany increasingly agreed to return ownership to the origin countries; even the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has planned to restitute a dozen sculptures in Greece. Britain, however, maintains its grounds through treaties and agreements of the past; For instance, all objects taken from Asia and Africa before Britain signed a treaty banning looting are technically, legally and rightfully acquired. Some treaties go back to the 1800s, when Britain signed an agreement to remove marbles from the Acropolis in Athens, which was then controlled by the Ottoman Empire.


This sentiment is not limited to the British Museum and its objects; it touches upon British history as a whole. Just last May 2022, Ethiopia placed its second demand to return the remains of Prince Alemayehu to its royal descendants - a request Buckingham Palace declined once in 2007. Taken back to Britain with his mother as well as thousands of artefacts in 1868, the Ethiopian Prince struggled in English society and died prematurely at eighteen years old in 1879. Prince Alemayehu’s restitution to Ethiopia embodied an opportunity to relieve the tension of Britain’s imperial past and enter a forward-thinking era for Britain.


Still, like the artefacts or Ethiopia’s late Prince’s remains, Britain refuses to let go of its colonial legacy despite other European powers leading the way towards restitution. Intuitively, that discrepancy in thought suggests to be on account of Britain’s monarchy system that, in the 19th century, played a role in colonialism.


The passing of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022 marked a potential turning point and entailed an opportunity to break from the British imperial past. With a seventy-year-long reign, Queen Elizabeth II was a vector between modern-day England and the British Empire. Her death, therefore, delineates an unavoidable cultural and historical shift, debuting a new era for Britain, where the monarchy holds an uncertain future. Thus, as Europe implored to separate itself from its imperial past, Noblesse Oblige that Britain embrace its own.

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Tags: colonialism restitution cultural heritage British Museum


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