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Can museums be decolonised? The restitution question

How should museums reconcile their collections with legacies of empire? Annabelle Grigg explores the complex space that museums inhabit.

The first step of reckoning with our colonial past is recognising its remaining presence. Every aspect of modern life is informed by the spoils of imperialism from the architecture that surrounds us to the languages spoken across the globe. The next step of decolonisation is much trickier: what are we to do with cultural institutions that embody the most aggressive and destructive parts of Europe’s history? Museums fall into this category. Their formation and proliferation in the eighteenth century paralleled the building of empires and the rise of nationalism. They are stocked with looted objects from colonial and ethnographic missions. Is it enough to just acknowledge that imperialism was (and still is) imperative to the museum, or should we be more proactive, following a policy of restitution?

Some progress has been made. Arts Council England recently published government-backed guidance for museums on repatriation; Macron commissioned a report pushing for the permanent return of looted items during French colonial occupation of sub-Saharan Africa; and curators are becoming more sensitive to the past of museums as pressure has mounted from protest movements like #RhodesMustFall. But I would argue it is not just what fills museums that make them problematic – rather, the function and concept of the museum are still rooted in a colonial way of seeing the world.

Museums decontextualize objects from their original conditions and reframe them on their own terms, which are often bound to colonial ideologies. This is simply unavoidable in the process of curation. Objects must be ordered and, if done chronologically, they risk perpetuating the pervasive myth of a nation’s teleological progress forward. Items looted by Napoleon like the Horse of Saint Mark went from a triumphal public procession straight into the Louvre, and the museum became a trophy box for war spoils. If categorised by function rather than geography, distinct cultural objects are collapsed into one – Portuguese pots are equated with Malaysian crockery, incorrectly portraying their original intention. Museums give cultural objects an aesthetic and artistic function, and lived social practices, beliefs, and identities infused in them are changed to foreign peculiarities for Western eyes. In Oxford’s own Pitt Rivers Museum, items are given blanket labels such as ‘animal forms in art’ that completely distort their makers’ intention. Essentially, there is always some kind of destruction in the act of collecting itself, and new meaning is inevitably created.

These issues are amplified when considering cultural value assigned to museums. Most public museums are in capital cities at the heart of town, with dominating architectural features. Consider the National Gallery’s huge pillars, lions, and dramatic steps – all of this signifies to the public that museums are places to be venerated rather than critically analysed. Most public museums mimic Greek and Roman temples, from the Glyptothek in Munich to the National Gallery in Sydney. Chosen for their beauty and glory, Carol Duncan has also noted that this rational form is also an expression of Enlightenment values, of secular truths being the basis of knowledge. Museums are seen then as places of objective knowledge and glory; however, they will always present information in a subjective and skewed way.

Is it enough, then, to simply return looted objects when the museum space remains problematic? For obvious reasons, I am not advocating for the wholesale dismantling of museums. The power of the museum space has resulted in it also becoming a crucial space for the creation of national collective memory and even definitions of citizenships, often positively: for example, recent efforts to include more representations of members of the BAME community in the Tate Collection. If the museum has such power to represent, I wonder if emptying museums of colonial goods could result in the end of discussions of imperialism and prevent proper reckoning with our past.

Wherever and whenever possible, it is crucial for museums to repatriate stolen goods, and to continue to find new ways to do so. Manchester Museum’s livestreams of ‘handover’ ceremonies of looted goods shows how museums can transcend geographical boundaries and improve current dialogues with those who suffered at the hands of the empire. However, this should not be seen as the end of museum decolonisation when it is clear Europe’s past is so ingrained in the museum’s history, function, and structure.

Rather, museums should also try to utilise their cultural value to begin new dialogues about colonialism. Some have already started this – the Victoria and Albert museum’s 2001 exhibition “Mixed Messages” engaged with the role of the museum in the British Empire and attempted to present the contradictions of colonialism by juxtaposing the perspective of the colonised and coloniser. This could be taken further by revamping the arrangement of museums. Elizabeth Edward notes that museums privilege sight over other senses and that this in itself reflects a ‘Western hierarchy of senses’ imposed on cultural objects. When objects cannot be returned, using more interactive and multi-sensual display methods is a creative way for museums to try and address their ethnocentricity. I suspect that arguments about art restitution will continue and rightly so. What both sides of the debate seem to miss, however, is that repatriation is only the start of decolonising museums and that the entire museum space must be critically considered.

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