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Tristram Hunt: the Politics of Repatriation

If you came here for a vicious takedown or a strident defence of Tristram Hunt’s position on “colonialism and collecting”, you might be slightly disappointed. Now, it’s clear that  the important conversation over decolonisation has continued to ring out across this university’s faculty and student body – reverberating strongly throughout the city’s own museum institutions too. The recent history of movements like ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ stirred many Oxford students to action. This is all to say that an account of the talk recently delivered by Tristram Hunt at Magdalen College might be of special interest to a community which continues to be so actively engaged in the same conversation. In good faith, I can relay my own account of what was discussed (with some inevitable editorialisation I’m afraid) so those unable to attend can share the privilege to make their own mind.

The talk, titled “Colonialism and Collecting: ‘Decolonisation’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum”, covered extensive ground ranging from tiger-shaped organs to Turkish culture ministers, however, one point was abundantly clear. Hunt was firm in his conviction that, when it came to discussing lingering colonial heritage in museum institutions, history should come first. Needless to say, this appears a blindingly obvious approach to take; after all none of these discussions can be had without historical grounding. Even so, the guiding thread of Hunt’s presentation remained the overwhelming imperative to place the individual histories of disputed objects at the forefront. This necessarily meant not shying away from the often-intimate relationship between the provenance of museum objects with colonial violence, all in the interest of building common ground on which to start conversations over the present place of disputed objects and form the basis of cultural exchange. For the very sake of reckoning with a deep-rooted colonial legacy – Hunt’s point was – it’s simply not enough to treat the collections of institutions like the V&A as monolithic piles of plundered loot.

Of course, loot there was (and continues to be). Most of the objects highlighted by Hunt in his survey of some of the disputed heritage in stores of the V&A were, in fact, looted by agents of the British Empire overseas. A prime example is “Tippoo’s Tiger”, the popular automaton recreating a tiger mauling a British officer lying prostrate on the ground, commissioned by Tipu Sultan of Mysore in the 18th century. This exceptional work was looted from Seringapatam in 1799 by troops of the East India Company and soon after exhibited in the company’s museum in London – subverting its distinct anti-colonial symbolism into an overt display of imperial might.

Another protagonist set of objects, several pieces of fine hand-crafted goldwork from Kumasi, the former capital of the Asante Kingdom, illustrated the institutionalisation of looting in the colonial past and possible paths of return for looted objects. The V&A came to acquire their Kumasi collection after a punitive expedition in 1874 stripped the royal palace of the Asantehene of its vast treasures. This was not an episode of frenzied theft, but a rather calculated affair which involved prize agents gathering the most valuable loot to be later auctioned in London and profit distributed among the troops involved in the expedition. A similar punitive expedition to Magdala, modern-day Ethiopia, in 1872, even enlisted a curator from the British Museum, a man called Richard Holmes, in its ranks! Abyssinian regalia looted during this very expedition also entered the collections of the V&A through subsequent sales in Britain.

The systematic taking of objects following military interventions “was codified by the War Office and, in a sense, understood as entirely legal.” Even if this means of collection was abetted by the practice and standards of the time: Hunt asserted that “with both Magdala and Asante collections, in mind, from where I stand there’s a strong case for returning to the countries of origin”. The point seemed to be that a series of convergent factors – the particular and immense cultural significance of the objects for their societies of origin, explicitly articulated restitution requests, coupled with the direct association between colonial violence and their history of circulation – sustained the case for their return. 

At present, however, permanent restitution is all but impossible. As was repeatedly emphasised throughout, the National Heritage Act of 1983 wholly prevents the ‘de-accession’ of any objects, bar some strict exceptions, from the collections of national museums. In spite of this considerable statutory obstacle, the V&A’s share of the Asante court regalia is set to return to Ghana later this year in time for the 150th anniversary of the storming of Kumasi.

“Our policy at the V&A, given our legal inability to de-accession items, is to build – what we call – renewable cultural partnerships. These involve long term loans of artefacts to source nations and building around them: programmes of conservation, curatorial exchange, knowledge sharing.”

One such partnership was recently established between the museum and the current Asantehene (ruler) of Kumasi, allowing the regalia to be finally reunited in Ghana. Although it’s important to note that this agreement is separate to official restitution requests put forward by the Ghanaian state which would see the objects returned unconditionally.

Hunt remarked that at the V&A “we focus on provenance rather than solely on notions of historical justice”, and later, affirmed that “museums are trusted because we do not define ourselves as agents of transitional justice relitigating the crimes of history”. In this light, renewable cultural partnerships appear not as redress for colonial injustices or even as vain attempts at institutional activism, but rather as seeking to establish an equitable exchange between societies at opposite poles of a former colonial relationship; an ideal that would have been an impossibility in the past and remains fraught to this day. This concern was certainly recognized by Hunt in his imperative to foster “a frank understanding of the museum’s own history, both its place within Enlightenment or colonial practices – with their implicit racial assumptions – and the manner in which its collections were acquired and displayed.” Still, the success of these partnerships’ rests on the fulfilment of promised reciprocity between former parties in a steeply unequal colonial relationship more so than with gestures of recognition.

Before the floor was opened for a round of Q&A, Hunt concluded his address by outlining the ways in which his institution has sought to “stand up to the narrowing of political discourse” around decolonisation through “displays of serendipity and beauty”. This was prefaced by a defence of the value of encyclopaedic museums and global collections, quoting Kwame Anthony Appiah; Hunt warned that critics risk “conflating universality with imperialism”, in effect, potentially making museum institutions “more parochial, less human, less expansive, less diverse and in all the name of an incoherent concept of cultural property.” A focus on provenance, and the ambition to follow the individual histories of objects, is intended to create an “intellectually rigorous and truly accessible museum” that can continue to host a global collection without neglecting a colonial legacy that cannot be separated from itself.  

These aforementioned “displays of serendipity and beauty” were suitably varied and thoughtful. Consider, for example, initiatives to patronise the production of new objects engaging with the myriad decorative art traditions represented in the V&A’s collection. Opportunities were seized to commission new pieces by contemporary artists conversant with ‘de-accessioned’ objects when permanent restitution has been legally possible. As is the case of an Anatolian golden ewer, returned to Turkey in 2021, which prompted the production of a new object by contemporary artist and metalworker Adi Toch. More recently, the “Africa Fashion” exhibition spotlighted a vibrant contemporary fashion scene spanning an entire continent, hosting artists and designers from Morocco to South Africa. Although not exclusively, it explored a legacy of exploitation alongside dynamic possibilities for cultural expression brought about by colonial encounters across the continent. At present, the V&A is fully embracing the pursuit of global partnerships rather than wide-reaching campaigns of restitution to address the elephant of ‘decolonisation’ still standing in the midst of its galleries. These initiatives seem to be self-consciously veering away from token gestures and attempting to establish substantive dialogue, even if they will likely do little to appease more radical voices in the current decolonisation conversation.

Following the address, the director of the V&A sat down to engage an eager audience over a brief, but insightful, round of Q&A. For one, the questions raised allowed Hunt to further elaborate his position on restitution and his vision for the future development of “renewable cultural partnerships”. When questioned over the position he would wish the Labour Party take – as a former Labour MP – with regard to the repatriation of colonial-era objects, Hunt responded: “I would change the 1963 and 1983 acts and give museum trustees autonomy over their collections.” Hunt specified that this change would not be meant to then allow the large-scale “de-accession” of colonial-era artefacts, instead give the custodians of national collections the necessary latitude to deal with disputed objects on an item-by-item basis.

Later, when pushed on the contingency and reversibility of long-term loans, Hunt explained that: “the Arts Council rules by which we operate are scoped. The initial loan is three years and a loan can be renewed three times. So, the full length of a long-term loan is nine years.” The loan solution is not meant be a conditional repatriation with strings-attached, Hunt elaborated: “it’s not just about lending the royal palace in Kumasi the gold that was taken in 1874 – but why not other jewellery, why not other material from the collection made at the same time with which those objects can have a conversation.” “We fail if it’s just a transactional exchange predicated on a balance sheet of the colonial past.” The V&A’s “renewable cultural partnerships”, predicated on long-term loans, were further indicated to be predominantly about exchange and not solely about colonial redress. There was a strong implication that they are subject to failure precisely when they do not stimulate any sort of novel conversation.

Finally, an incisive participant from the audience took Hunt to task on the generally ambiguous nature of most collecting practices, which are often not directly related to military intervention, and therefore not so plainly laden with violence. So far, Hunt’s examples had mostly involved high-profile objects, with individual histories directly relating to distinct episodes of documented violence (note Asante and Magdala regalia, “Tippoo’s Tiger”, and even Meissen porcelains that had circulated as Nazi loot.)  Thus, the audience question pointed to the ambivalent nature of collecting practices – where the unjust and the immoral is not as clear-cut as with plundered loot. Hunt responded: “I think that the truth throughout history is that power creates wealth, creating demand for the acquisition of art.”

There is a component of inequality intrinsic to the production, acquisition, and accumulation of art in any institution be it national or private. To his credit, Hunt appeared to refuse to shy away from this fact. Unless museums are done away with altogether, these fundamental tensions will continue to persist. In spite of this, institutions which aspire to englobe the staggering diversity of humanity – in its material dimensions at least – are commendable if, frankly, still flawed.

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