Historian calls for repatriation of objects to former colonies

Jonathan Knott, 30.05.2018
Olusoga joins growing debate over decolonisation of collections
The historian David Olusoga has called on UK museums to give serious consideration to repatriating objects in their collections, saying that this could support positive post-Brexit relations with Commonwealth nations.

“If the world is pivoting to Asia, if our relationship with the Commonwealth after Brexit [is] ... going to be more important, they remember what happened, and they remember the things that were taken,” Olusoga said at the Hay literary festival last week, according to a report in the Guardian. “There are real senses of loss in those countries – it’s beneficial to us as a nation to listen to those appeals.”

Olusoga, a presenter on the BBC’s recent Civilisations series, told the Hay audience that a friend of his had come up with a potential solution: “He said we should have a special version of Supermarket Sweep where every country is given a huge shopping trolley and two minutes in the British Museum. Maybe he’s right, maybe that’s the way forward.”

Olusoga said that there was a particularly strong case to return the Benin bronzes that are held by the British Museum and other European museums.

“I think it’s a very, very clear case of appropriation and theft,” Olusoga said. “They were taken in 1897 during the raid on the Palace of Benin. The palace was destroyed; they were taken and then sold to pay for the cost of the military adventure. Everyone was open about this – steal this stuff, send it to pay for the cost of the bullets. It’s just such a stark case of theft.”

The issue of object repatriation is becoming discussed with increasing urgency in the museum sector. One high profile case involves objects looted by the British from Ethiopia during the battle of Maqdala in 1868, and which are now held by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London.

The museum’s director, Tristram Hunt, suggested in April that the objects could be returned to Ethiopia on a long-term loan, which he told the Guardian “would be the easiest way to manage it”.

At the time, the Ethiopian embassy called the move “a step in the right direction and a springboard for further collaborations around conservation, research and curatorial exchange”.

But last month, the country’s ambassador in London told the Art Newspaper: “My government is not interested in loans, it is interested in having those objects returned.”

The French president, Emmanuel Macron said last year that the repatriation of African objects by French museums would become a “top priority” for his country over the next five years. “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums,” Macron said.

And Unesco will be holding a conference responding to the debate on displaced cultural artefacts on 1 June.


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Jonathan Gammond
Access , Wrexham County Borough Museum
01.06.2018, 23:56
When Macmillan made his 'winds of change' speech to the South African parliament in 1960, people thought the wind would only blow through the continent of Africa. Winds don't respect borders and the 'imperial blowback' is heading our way. Either we take the initiative and be proactive or we'll be playing catch-up, out-manoeuvred and out of touch. Much as our great museums are international beacons of culture, we can't claim to be 'Global Britain' when our museum stores are full of other people's heritage. Instead we will have to team up with the countries involved and work out how to share the common wealth of heritage we possess for the benefit of all. We don't need supermarket sweeps, rather some real strategic thought and forward thinking.

Government could help by creating the legislative, curatorial and financial framework and conditions for this to be a big success story for the UK, or it could carry on with its current policy of treating the heritage sector as a loss leader for our tourist industry.