Generational shift

Alistair Brown, 05.06.2018
Are we heading for a #MeToo moment for repatriation?
Repatriation is in the news again. As ever, arguments over the fate of a few big-name objects take centre stage. Jeremy Corbyn wants to send the Elgin/Parthenon marbles back to Greece. David Olusoga argued at the Hay festival that colonial artefacts in British museums should be sent back to their countries of origin. The V&A is considering sending the Maqdala treasures back to Ethiopia – but only on loan.

This is a debate that is conducted in the full glare of the media – for whom there are essentially only two possible settings: if you’re a progressive then our museums are apologists for empire and the items should go back. If you’re a traditionalist then you want the objects to stay. The repatriation debate becomes just another Punch & Judy show, one more act in the country’s culture war.

It can all seem like part of a familiar pattern. For a week or two, the cultural commentators have their say, and then – as the media circus moves on – we go back to the status quo.

But maybe it’s wrong to dismiss the latest flare-up of this debate as just another episode in a never-ending story.

The most recent spate of interventions could be a sign of underlying social changes which may force the issue and result in major changes to our museum collections. Consider the recent BBC poll on identity, which found a huge generational divide in the sense of national pride felt in the UK.

In England young people are far less likely to be proud of their nationality than the older generation – indeed a sizable minority are embarrassed by it (interestingly, different patterns have emerged in Scotland and Wales). The survey also reflects a growing confidence amongst young Brits in being a diverse and progressive country, even while the older generation tends to believe that the best of Britain is in the past.

This new generation is alive to issues of fairness and justice and wants to engage with ideas of cultural appropriation and ownership. For them, the idea of taking ‘national pride’ in colonial collections will be increasingly archaic and repatriation of colonial collections may well have an irresistible logic.

And now there’s a model to follow in affecting that change. The #MeToo campaign – though dealing with a different issue – has demonstrated how a huge social media campaign can catch old institutions on the hop. It’s easy to see how repatriation could become one of a cluster of similar cultural issues on which younger people expect radical change in the near future.

Decolonising activists now sense that they are on the front foot. Canny politicians get this – already, the youthful Emmanuel Macron has led the way on this issue in France, and Jeremy Corbyn will know that he is risking little with his younger base when he talks about returning the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Cultural change is quickly becoming political change.

And if museums are to face a bumpy ride on repatriation in the years to come, their efforts to deal with the issue to date – employing arguments about being ‘world museums’, and discussing loans to Ethiopia, Nigeria and elsewhere – are unlikely to pass muster as the terms of debate change. The new generation wants more than gestures of goodwill – it wants a real break with the old ways and a reckoning with our past.