The Wheels of History: Museums, Restitution and the Caribbean – Part 1


This is the first of a two-part post on the restitution debate and its significance to the Caribbean. This first part explores the general context and the second part  specifically looks at the Caribbean.

It is a time of reckoning for museums: museums are increasingly pressured to come to terms with their historical origins, their past and present ideological foundations, the manner in which they have acquired their collections, and the cultural and social politics in which they are embedded. There has been intensified debate recently about the association between museums and colonialism, and about the manner in which they are governed and funded. Such challenges have come at the state-political level, such as the high-profile, country-to-country restitution negotiations that have captured the attention of the international media recently, and from activist groups such as Decolonize This Place. My earlier post about the renovation of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, Belgium, also speaks to some of these issues.

Over the last few months, I have posted a significant number of recent articles and essays on the restitution, decolonization, and museums debate to a Facebook site I manage, the Critical.Caribbean.Art page, using the #restitution hashtag. I will not seek to retrace the entire argument here – you can read more about that via the Facebook site, if you have not already done so — but I do want to focus on a few issues that have, at least in my view, received insufficient attention with regards to the restitution requests between the former colonizing states and their former colonies. Passionate debates, and the manner in which these are reported in the media, along with the instant “call-out” culture that prevails on social media, do not always leave much room for nuance or for the careful consideration of contrary positions, even though this is a necessary part of the conversation on issues such as restitution.

The current media frenzy may create the impression that the restitution debate is new and that it is being fiercely and universally resisted by North American and European museums (although this latter perception has not been helped by the ill-conceived public pronouncements of certain high profile museum professionals such as the British Museum Director who recently defended Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon sculptures from Greece, which took place in the early 19th century, as a creative act).

The restitution debate in actuality emerged in the period after World War II and there were two major triggers.  One was the end of European colonialism and the emergence of postcolonial cultural nationalism, which resulted in postcolonial nation-states seeking greater control of their cultural heritage. The other was the Nazi looting of European museums (and Jewish-owned private collections) during the war. Curtailing the illicit trade in cultural property, which was and still is a problem, became a major preoccupation of UNESCO, which was established in 1945, and its various treaties and conventions on the subject have provided a regulatory framework and offer legal and ethical guidance in such matters (although these are not universally signed and adopted by member states).

Much of the media attention currently given to the restitution debate stems from the 2018 report on the subject that was commissioned by the French president Emanuel Macron, which has been a major game-changer as it recommended the return of colonial looted items to Africa. It has already resulted in a presidential directive that 26 sculptures that were looted from the city of Abomey are to be returned to what is now the Republic of Benin, which had been refused by previous French governments. A recent article by Siddhartha Mitter in Art in America documented that it was in fact the second such report to be produced in France, with the first one dating from 1982, although that one remained without any concrete outcome. The article also quotes the former Director-General of UNESCO Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, who in 1978 stated that Western museums should return to Africa, “at least [those] art treasures which best represent their culture, which they feel are the most vital and whose absence causes them the greatest anguish.”

The restitution debate is, as the Elgin Marbles and Nazi looted art cases also illustrate, furthermore not exclusively a matter between Africa and Europe but a global discussion. The governor of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) last year requested the return of one of its Moai statues from the British Museum and, most recently, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was one of several museums in the Netherlands to announce that it would return some of the artworks it obtained during the colonial period, in the Rijksmuseum’s case to Indonesia and Sri Lanka. It also takes place within certain nation-states, for instance the return of Native American objects to the First Nations that produced them in the USA and Canada.

Most museums that have collections that were looted or otherwise improperly acquired, during the colonial period or in other contexts, are in fact involved in collegial conversations, collaborations and exchanges with those museums, state authorities and other stakeholders that lay claim to these items as their rightful cultural property. There are quite a few instances whereby inappropriately acquired artifacts have already been returned to the rightful owners of such cultural property. In 2002, when I was a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, for instance, the Carlos Museum, which has impressive Egyptian holdings, volunteered the return to Egypt of a royal mummy believed to be the pharaoh Ramesses I, the founder of the 19th dynasty. The mummy was part of a collection the Carlos Museum had acquired in 1999 from the Niagara Falls Museum, which had itself acquired the mummy in the 1860s through an Egyptian art broker.

But while smaller museums, especially those that are attached to the academy, have been receptive to the idea of restitution, the same cannot be said about some of the larger, canonical museums such as the British Museum, especially when it comes to collection items that are popular visitor attractions, such as the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and the Benin Bronzes, and around which the identity of the museum has been constructed. And most of the recent debate, and the media attention given to it, has naturally focused on these big contentions. The British Museum has been steadfast in its refusal to return to Parthenon sculptures to Greece and the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, but it is now willing to consider the loan, but not the permanent return, of its Benin Bronzes to the new museum Nigeria is establishing in Benin City. The refusal to return these famous bronzes permanently is particularly egregious, and has caused significant outrage, since they came to the British Museum collection (and those of other museums in Europe and North America) as a result of the punitive sacking of Benin City by British colonial forces in 1897, in one of the most notorious instances of colonial cultural looting.

One of the arguments used by the major museums of the Metropolitan West is that they hold such cultural treasures on behalf of humankind, as part of the shared cultural heritage of humanity. The footfall at such museums is much larger than at most museums in postcolonial societies (some 6 million per year in the case of the Louvre), which results in more significant and diverse access to their collections (an issue which cannot be discounted entirely and which I will return to in the second blog post on this subject). The subtext is, however, that such museums believe that they are the only ones equipped to take on this universal responsibility. In all fairness, museums in postcolonial societies are not always well-managed or adequately funded, but that is rapidly changing, as new, state-of-the-art museums are, for instance, being erected in various parts of Africa. And it needs to be recognized that museums in Europe and North America are themselves not immune to the vagaries of war and uprising: European museums were, after all, looted by the Nazis, and the first, and thankfully contained, incident of terrorism affecting a museum was a machete attack at the Louvre in Paris in 2017 (museums, because of their symbolic value and high footfall, are in fact at risk for such attacks).

The restitution question may have a longer history and greater complexity than what is now commonly assumed but the question arises why it has gained so much traction recently, with major restitutions being actively negotiated. The answer is quite simple: the wheels of history are turning and major realignments of power are in progress, within various world areas and globally, with Africa as a major example. The Museum of Black Civilization in Dakar, Senegal, which perhaps not coincidentally opened on the same weekend as a renovated AfricaMuseum in Belgium late last year, is a pointed example of how postcolonial societies are assertively reclaiming their cultural heritage in the present moment and how they are arguing back against how they have been represented in the Euro-American museums. It occurs in the context of what some have, to use a loaded word, dubbed as the economic and cultural “renaissance” of Africa, which is being led by countries such as Ghana, Senegal and Ethiopia. But it is surely no coincidence that the construction of the Museum of Black Civilization was supported by China, and that that the already partially opened Grand Egyptian Museum in Gizeh is bankrolled by Japan, while the new art museum in Kinshasa is being constructed with Korean assistance.

These alliances are not just a matter of generous cultural aid; they are also part of the political and economic influence-peddling (and the creation of debt obligations) that is taking place all over Africa right now, mainly by China but also by some of its rivals and neighbors. Once again, Africa’s resources and strategic value are at play, be it in a neocolonial context that is significantly less brutal and directly exploitative than the European colonial ventures of the previous centuries, but that is not necessarily driven by any concern for historical justice either and has its own, potentially nefarious consequences. And while it may well be that Mr Macron had his “road to Damascus” moment with regards to the African art in French museums, it is entirely reasonable to speculate that France’s sudden willingness to engage in major acts of restitution stems from the same general dynamics that motivate the African ventures of China and its East Asian neighbors: the creation of goodwill to preserve France’s influence and economic interests in its former African colonies, against the tide of those changing geopolitical power dynamics. Given the ideological role of museums, this context is not to be taken lightly.

The fact that most major restitution negotiations take place on a state-to-state basis is also of some concern, as it is not obvious that cultural property rights involved always align productively with the interests of those states. For argument’s sake, it would be problematic if China would be negotiating the return of Tibetan artifacts and then house these in a museum in Beijing, furthermore one that glorifies Chinese imperialism. The vexed question of who ultimately holds cultural property rights, and who can act on behalf of whom, is a bigger subject than can be covered here, but it does not always lead to clear-cut answers.

Museums have historically emerged as the product of geopolitics, and they continue to be subject to its power dynamics, but there is no doubt that the museum infrastructure of world areas such as Africa is improving dramatically. Major museums are emerging there that are already changing the global ecology of museums and that challenge the assumptions of major Euro-American museums that they are the rightful arbiters and keepers of the shared cultural heritage of humankind.

But it is also troubling that, in balancing the scales of history, there appears to be a lack of new ideas about museums and their role in society. If the large new museum projects that are being developed are anything to go by, the view seems to be that the only possible way to respond to the grand “universal survey” museums of Europe and North America is to create new grand “universal survey” museums that place other world areas at their center but uncritically adapt the genealogical, socially intimidating “temple of culture” model of these colonial-era museums. And it appears, at least from a distance, that far more attention is being paid to the symbolic value of these institutions, and their political and ideological role as instruments of the state, than to how such museums are to intervene into the communities they are supposed to serve. I can only hope that I am wrong on that count. If not, it is a major opportunity lost for the postcolonial world to demonstrate innovative leadership in the development of museums, and the ideologies that support them, and it does no justice to the critical rethinking of museums that has already taken place in recent decades.

There have been panicky responses that established European museums, such as the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, which holds most of the 80,000 objects reviewed in the Macron report, will be emptied out. Most restitution requests are, as its authors the economist Felwine Sarr and art historian Bénédicte Savoy have pointed out, not wholesale but pertain to specific art works that are deemed particularly important and, given their own worth and the manner in which they were taken, of high symbolic value. Most of those should be unconditionally returned but there are some interesting alternatives that could also be explored, including negotiated payment in compensation for items that were inappropriately taken, long term  leases, touring exhibitions, and even exchanges for European and North American art works of equal importance.

Egypt, for instance, owns all the objects that came from the fabled tomb of Tutankhamen and, while this treasure will now find a permanent home in the new Grand Egyptian Museum, its museum authorities in recent years organized a very successful traveling exhibition with selections from the treasures, the second of its kind, and this has involved significant loan fees. The last exhibition of this tour will open in 2021 at the Australian Museum in Sydney. And if the British Museum wants to keep some of the Benin Bronzes, it could offer to pay for them, instead of perversely offering them as a loan to Nigeria. If properly thought through and administered such arrangements could contribute greatly to the funding and sustainability of the new museums that are now being established in the postcolonial world, and to the conservation and safeguarding of their original and returned collections.

Part two of this post can be found here.

[Updated on March 21, 2019 with new information about the Tutankhamen exhibition itinerary]

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