The repatriation discussion is one which fitfully reoccurs whenever a high profile case will reach the mainstream media. In May 2018, the V&A considered returning Ethiopian treasures to the city of Maqdala. Very little has been heard about this since. More recently, however, the debate has been gaining important ground. Museum after museum have been caught up in it: the V&A, the British Museum, and recently Oxford’s own Pitt Rivers. But why now? Such artefacts have been in Britain for centuries, so why, given the more pressing political questions, are we discussing repatriation?
Author Rhiannon Lucy Cosset argues Brexit has had a major influence on the repatriation debate; it “chisels away any right Britain had to the Parthenon Marbles,” which were taken in the 19th Century, among other artefacts. Since we are jettisoning ourselves from the EU, she argues, our claims to items belonging to other EU countries seem increasingly tenuous. However, the British Museum, whilst a contentious case, got away unscathed. Resistance against repatriation continues – perhaps because the debate itself is a colossal misnomer. Referring to our beloved national museum as “The British Museum” seems comical given much of its contents are not British at all.
When talk of repatriation come up, Brits will get defensive. Objects that have been in your country for your entire lifetime can feel British. However, prior to our own lives, these objects had a history that was pre-British; and pre-colonial. This is a fact we fail to engage with time and time again.
As it stands legally, there are no laws requiring nations to return items back to their country of origin. In 2007 the UN commissioned the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). UNDRIP seeks to facilitate repatriation, but only applies only to human remains, and ceremonial objects. Moreover, UNDRIP is non-binding. In some instances, museums have seen fit to return objects – the University of Birmingham returned Aboriginal remains and objects of spiritual significance to Australia. But this was their choice, and what British museums will do is ultimately a British decision.
But who are we to even declare our decision is ‘final’? Shockingly, over 40% of the UK have deemed the Empire a good thing. Presumably former colonies would disagree, but we still see it as our call. It is no wonder so many are comfortable with their colonial history given how much we refuse to engage with it. Words like ‘acquisition’ ‘exchange’ and ‘donate’ do not tell the whole story as much as ‘stealing’ might.
The Pitt Rivers houses over 300,000 objects, one of which is a bracelet, an orkatar, sacred to the Maasai tribe who recently visited the museum. According to the database, [the orkatar] was “donated” to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1904 by Alfred Claud Hollis, a colonial administrator in British East Africa, but there is no information about how it came into his hands. How can a stolen object be “donated”? Historian David Olusoga has said the same of the Benin bronzes (which currently are held in the British Museum), and declared that if Britain want to keep and display stolen objects, they need to be clear about their history and where they come from.
Many have noted that a primary purpose of museums is to teach history. Lying about the history of objects, then, seems counterproductive. Moreover, the Pitt Rivers has encountered major problems in contextualising its possessions, and the Maasai tribe’s visit was partly to help rectify this. The Pitt Rivers’ database was allegedly full of errors and gaps: one object marked as a Maasai bracelet was revealed to actually be an anklet.
All of this aside, there are, of course, many valid reasons not to return items to the countries where they are from. Dr Jharna Gourlay responded to arguments made by Olusoga noting the practicalities of repatriation: “More people come to Britain to see these artefacts. How many of them will go to Pakistan or Afganistan?”
A more compelling argument is that were these items to be returned, there is no guarantee they would be safe there. Some ex-colonies suffer the threat of fundamentalism. Gourlay cites what “happened to the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and Babri Masjid in India, and what Isis did in Syria,” as an argument against repatriation. However, he argues overall, and most compellingly, that ex-colonies who “claim restitution in the form of returns of goodies encourages cheap sentimentalism.”
Perhaps this “cheap sentimentalism” is the problem. Repatriation ought to be more than a simple shipping of objects and a begrudging rearrangement of museum displays; it should involve understanding and apology, as part of the more important process of decolonising. We imagine colonialism happened in the past, and are affronted at the idea of apologising in 2018 for atrocities committed hundreds of years ago. But to pretend what was done in the past has little to no bearing on the present would be foolish. The ramifications of Britain’s colonial past still have bearing on the present day, and one need only look around Oxford to see this.
Whilst other nations like France have recently began negotiations to send colonial-era objects back to Africa, Britain has yet to do the same. Oxford, which claims to be a centre of learning should surely have some motivation to help. If museums such as the Pitt Rivers are for learning, they need to take a hands on approach to decolonisation in a way that isn’t tokenistic but actually engaged.
Some may argue repatriation is not the way to engage with British history, and perhaps it is not. But how can we continue to prioritise our own curiosity over the needs of those from whom we have robbed? The contents of the Pitt Rivers for the Maasai tribe to whom they belong are not “historical curiosities” – they are part of a living culture. It may be too much to ask people to engage in a past that they weren’t directly involved in, and to make up for thefts committed before their time. But a certain level of compassion for these existing cultures wouldn’t go amiss.
Olusoga, in a talk in Oxford, described seeing a British Ship in a museum in Holland. He explained the strange feeling of seeing something from your own culture, albeit your culture’s past, in a foreign museum, making it not too difficult to imagine how the ‘acquired’ contents of our own museums would make others feel. Whether repatriation is the way forwards, it seems difficult to conceive of an educated future when we will not fully engage with the past.