Repatriation is changing but colonial dynamics remain - Museums Association

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Repatriation is changing but colonial dynamics remain

Two winners of the 2022 Dan David Prize reflect on repatriation and the unequal relationship between the West and countries in the Global South
Repatriation
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Nana Oforiatta Ayim

Last year, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) announced that it would be giving back Asante gold regalia that was taken from the Asante kingdom under violent circumstances in 1874. 

In 1974, on the centenary of the looting, the Asante King Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II asked for the items taken to be returned, an act that was met with ridicule when it was presented to British Parliament. 

Jennie Lee, a former minister of arts, said: “When it comes to returning booty from this country we should tread warily because it may turn into a striptease.”

And Lord Gisborough, referring to the Asante Golden Stool that had not been taken and which is said to contain the soul of the Asante people, asked: “Would it be possible to keep the booty and return the soul?” 

Western voices are still the most dominant in the discourse around restitution, whether they are directors, academics or curators. The voices of those from whom the objects were taken are rarely heard. When they are present, it is as a background chorus to that of their western colleagues. As a result, the restitution efforts that should be the foundation for undoing harmful hierarchies, end up enforcing the colonial dynamics they are purporting to undo.

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And yet these voices have been present for decades, whether it is our leaders, such as the Asante King, or our academics, such as the historian Adu Boahen, whose appeals accompanied those of the King in the 1970s. There are also our creatives, such as Nii Kwate Owoo, whose film 1970 film You Hide Me critiqued the presence of these items in the British Museum and demanded their return.

I have been working with the current Asante King Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II on restitution and was there when the director of the V&A, Tristram Hunt, visited him at his palace. The King spoke of seeing Asante items at Windsor Castle on a visit to the British Queen Elizabeth II, recalling his pain at seeing items there, and at the curator’s lack of understanding of them.

My own direct involvement began when I joined Action for Restitution to Africa, part of the Open Society Foundation’s $15m programme on restitution, as a principal investigator. The programme had been ostensibly set up to centre African agency, but my presence on the programme as the only black African meant my position became untenable. 

Restitution is not only about the return of the objects, but about equality, respect and exchange. If the same centring of agency that happened in 1874 and in 1974 was still happening unchecked 150 or 50 years later, then the act of restitution itself seemed to me almost an empty one.

I was sent the contract of the Renewable Cultural Partnership under which the return of the Asante items from the V&A are to take place. Again, the terms were shockingly skewed, and littered with colonial terms and conditions. The test of how restitution can move things forward is in the back and forth, as we negotiate and redefine the terms with which we face each other.

With the first year of grant money for Action for Restitution to Africa, I set up a Committee on Museums and Cultural Heritage to investigate not just restitution, but how museums might look for our context. After leaving the programme two years ago, I have now received another grant to continue the work of creating an online inventory that details which museums hold our objects, and what their absence means to the communities that they were taken from.

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I am also working on creating the structures that can serve as homes for our cultural narratives, spaces that are born of and made for our cultural contexts, including foremost, with the Asante King creating a new museum next to the palace, which will house the returned items. 

Its chief curator Justice Brobbey says of their return: “It will be joy and sadness to have them back: joy as they showed how we lived our lives, and our community will be happy to welcome them back, sadness as they will have been away for several years and communities were brutalised.

“We lost men and women, we lost our identity. It is a blessing that these things that are part of us are coming back, and there must also be an aspect of pacification, where those who suffered, those who lost their dear ones, are compensated for the harm that was caused”. 

Restitution is only a first step on a long journey of repair and of shifting the hierarchy of domination and oppression that led to people, items, and resources being forcibly taken. The conversations and dynamics I have with colleagues across the continent who are doing work on restitution, colleagues such as Chao Tayiana, Njoki Ngumi and Molemo Moiloa, expand the lexicon and layers of future possibilities and I hope the rest of the world hears more. 

Nana Oforiatta Ayim is an art historian and curator and founder of the ANO Institute in Ghana. In 2022, she received the Dan David Prize, which recognises outstanding scholars who anchor public discourse in a deeper understanding of history

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Mirjam Sarah Brusius

Last year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in the US transferred ownership of 29 Benin Bronzes to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. The bronzes were stolen during the 1897 British raid on Benin City. 

"Today, we do something very different, but very important," said Lonnie Bunch, the secretary of the Smithsonian. "Today, we right a wrong." 

The Smithsonian followed the decisions of other institutions in Europe, in particular in Germany and the UK. Yet there is suspicion of the motives for this work, with critical voices from the Global South wondering if repatriation is happening because it gives not only museums, but also Western nations as a whole, a convenient route to colonial absolution. Whom does repatriation primarily serve?

In my research, I have visited many storerooms of Western museums filled with countless objects from the colonial era. Many were never shown, but lived an unremarkable existence in not always adequate conditions, turning them into “contaminated” or “cursed” objects for their original owners – not least due to the colonial violence they endured. 

Conversations with collaborators in the Global South, including Torres Strait Islander historian and curator Leah Lui-Chivizhe, revealed that not all communities of origin may want those objects returned. Their original functions might also be obsolete for today’s generations. 

In other words, even if many museums are all of a sudden eager to return objects now that they are "done" with them, at a time when preservation and storage costs are skyrocketing in places such as London, Paris, and Berlin, it does not always mean that this is the right time for the other side.

Who will set the terms, in particular if minority groups question their own governments as to who the rightful owners actually are? Borders in Middle Eastern and African multiethnic nation states are often artificial and in themselves legacies of colonialism.

Meanwhile, Western museums and universities have arranged an abundance of conferences and permanent positions for provenance researchers, thereby maintaining primarily white institutional structures while relying only on short-term partnerships with people from source communities. 

The commodification of repatriation has yielded entire funding streams, along with bestselling monographs for those already in the system. At the same time, surveys reveal that institutional barriers at museums and universities remain high for people of colour. 

This could be a unique opportunity to involve diasporic communities in the West as permanent interlocutors between the Global South and the North. Equipped with intercultural expertise, they could help museums radically rethink how stories are being told. 

In the project 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object (designed to be the antipode of Neil McGregor’s famous History of the World in 100 Objects radio series), we, as a collective of voices from the Global South and its diaspora, show that one single object does not have a universal story. A traditional drum in a museum can contain 100 histories of 100 worlds – and it might be a living object today. 

Yet in the press conference on the opening of Berlin’s Humboldtforum in 2021, one of its founding directors admitted that those staff members with roots in the Global South are not curatorial decision makers but the cleaners, technical and cloakroom assistants who keep the place running.

In an act that can be described as the ultimate appropriation of even institutional critique, the same museum issued a call for papers asking activists to submit their criticism as essays – without any mention of an adequate honorarium for this free consulting. 

There are countless examples illustrating the ironies of apparent attempts to decolonise the museum, yet perhaps the starkest example relates to mobility itself.

Last year, after the Humboldt Forum finally agreed to return the statue of Ngonnso to Cameroon due to pressure by the activist Sylvie Njobati, the visas of two Cameroonian researchers from the University of Dschang were rejected by the German state, which cited “reasonable doubts” about their “intention to leave the territory of the [EU] member states before the visa expires”.

As Egyptian artist Nasser and historian Heba Abd El Gawad have provocatively asked, why does it still seem easier for a mummy to travel to Europe than a modern Egyptian?

While repatriation may be meaningful for some groups, a research project I was involved in in West Africa confirmed that it is only a small step towards historical repair, reparations for lost lives and land, and coequal economic trade partnerships – it can even be a hindrance.

When the German ambassador to Ghana visited the Akpini Traditional Area last year to reinstate traditional Akpini regalia looted by the Germans, their Paramount Chief highlighted that the community is seeking restorative justice in the form of support for socioeconomic activities. 

This highlights what repatriation is really about for those who are supposed to benefit – and what discussion it sidelines and distracts from. It is noteworthy, for instance, that Germany’s recent self-congratulatory focus has been on the return of the Benin Bronzes looted by the British – yet its own urgent colonial responsibility would demand finding a pathway to financial compensation and reconciliation in relation to the Herero and Nama genocide carried out between 1904 and 1908 under colonial rule in today’s Namibia.

The debate lays bare the blindness of Western institutions and governments with respect to colonial continuities even as they are supposedly rectifying them.

For repatriation to be a serious step towards repair, we need new models beyond the colonial gaze. This will only be possible with a transfer of power and decision-making processes, and the redistribution of resources to those who have previously missed out.

Mirjam Sarah Brusius is an historian of colonial and global history currently working on books on the Politics of Museum Storage and Middle Eastern artefacts in European Museums. In 2022, she received the Dan David Prize, which recognises outstanding scholars who anchor public discourse in a deeper understanding of history

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