Repatriation Discourse: Where are these artifacts destined?

A shortlisted piece in the Non-Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2021

It is the number one destination on any itinerary list. You enter as an ant in a sea of tourists heralding from all four corners of the globe. You look up, your eyes travelling higher and higher as you are astounded by the white palace and geometrically patterned glass ceiling. Lost, you connect with a pair of friendly eyes, who rush over to you like you are in dying need. She smiles with a rehearsed expression, and enthusiastically hands you a map. Unfolding it crease after crease, it expands like a colour-splashed parachute, pulled taut by your grip. 

To where do you wish to be transported?, she asks.

Every square draws you in, as your eyes dart between the exotic destinations. Will you land in Benin City, or coast by Somalian waters? Will the guide ship you all the way to Indigenous Australia?

You wonder how lucky you are to be present in this microcosmic snowglobe of the world.

A major tourist attraction beckoning over six million globetrotters a year, the British Museum boasts the largest and comprehensive collection of artifacts, and with it, a longstanding history of imperialism and thievery. Each exhibit conceals a sinister past, the artifacts propped up on a foundation of power and colonial subjugation. Detaining many significant and spiritual pieces from their home country, the Museum applies a paternalistic justification eerily identical to colonialist attitudes. This institution kept alive by the kleptomania of settlers claims it is best equipped to preserve these displaced objects. Where the Museum is quick to condemn and take action against the acquisition of Afghani antiquities looted by the Taliban through illicit trade, they are much more hesitant to return their own stolen goods.

On its website, the Museum sheds light onto the history of its exhibits. When detailing the acquisition of the Benin Bronzes, it is initially parsimonious with description, and deliberately vague.  

It is in the context of emerging colonial power that the Benin Bronzes came to the British Museum.

This clinical history is almost unashamed in its reference to colonisation, and erases the culpability of settlers, suggesting the artifacts washed up on British waters on their own accord. Only later detailing the brutal aspects of occupation, viewers never truly comprehend the act for what it is – thievery. Recently, the Museum has engaged in cordial negotiations with the Benin Royal Court regarding the repatriation of these objects – in the form of a loan, notably – contravening British government directive. This, however, has only struck decades after continual persistence from the Court, their various statements framed and decorating a Museum wall. Where some adulate the transparency, many find it to be tokenistic and tone deaf. A far cry from Emmanuel Macron’s endorsement of swift repatriation of stolen artifacts, many view that the British government takes a “retain and explain” stance on the colonial vestiges they house. Although some commend the open denouncement of colonialism as a first step, this is not a step towards the tangible improvement of post-colonial states. 

The fact that there is confusion and conflation of two separate historical issues in Britain does not aid civil public discourse. Although the British Government do remain largely antagonistic towards the notion of absolute repatriation, with the Department of Digital Media, Culture and Sport claiming Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden fights to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists”, a large portion of source material that fuels the left and rights’ arguments actually pertains to the existence of controversial statues. There are definitely points of convergence between the two issues, but the government’s stance on the former is often misconstrued and misapplied to restitution of artifacts. Not only has this added fuel to the conservative fire, where screams of cancel culture are applied to the notion of repatriation, it has largely slowed the process and disincentivised museums from taking action. 

British reluctance regarding repatriation can be boiled down to fear of a fall from grace. Former curator of the Museum’s Africa galleries, Chris Spring, laments a future of a British Museum void of African artifacts. “If Africa is not represented, that is a disaster; the [British Museum] is a museum of the world for the world”, he claims. Though one can understand the appeal of a department store of international artifacts, this disregards the detriment caused to the other side of the equation. It is facetiously of the world as the items are looted. If the museum is for the world, it should gratify the wishes of global citizens. The British Museum and other Western equivalents can discover novel means to represent international art and history without relying upon stolen objects. 

Ultimately, in the context of reconciliation and reparations, Britain should not focus on itself as the sole significant actor. The realm of artifacts and their transfer is not a zero-sum game in that Britain loses by boosting the prestige of another nation, and rightfully restoring their objects. It could be argued that by dissolving its current sophistry, the Museum improves, the tourist experience more genuine, despite a collection less vast. 

This world of international knowledge also does not lend itself to the culturally competent education one would expect. Curator Iheyani Onwuegbucha imparts that many tour guides are illiterate regarding the spiritual history of these objects, often opting for buzzwords that capitalise on pre-colonial African stereotypes for touristic appeal, such as “juju” or “black magic”. This leaves paternalistic arguments that Britain has the greatest capacity to care for the objects largely unfounded. 

Australian Alice Procter has bred up a storm with surreptitious tours at famous museums that greatly contrast her competitor’s subtle indications to colonialism. Emblazoned with the motto, Display it like you stole it, she leads small groups on informal tours that overtly probe into the horrendous colonial history of looted objects. Her service, for many, encapsulates for what activists have fought for decades – not merely an understanding of the need for restitution, but an exploration into how their continued displacement reflects upon Britain. Regarding repatriation, Procter argues that a museum’s admission of fault through the act is almost as transformative and significant as the act itself; “I want them to say”, she urges, “This is how we were created, this is what we have, this is what we’re working with, and this is what we’re doing with it to try and confront the power dynamics we’ve held in place for so long.” An acknowledgement as such would only elevate British prestige, not undermine it, and ensure its continued progression towards fairness.

It is undoubtable that the process of decolonising museums is fraught with obstacles; but this is not sufficient reason to delay action. Some argue the institution of a museum itself is inherently a bastion of glorified imperialism, or that museums need to be purged of colonialist sentiments in more ways than one. British and Muslim curator Shaheen Kasmani reports feeling uncomfortable in museum spaces, as such ‘high-brow’ institutions are historically associated with white creators and white audiences. 

Considering this, the repatriation of objects is crucial, but it is not crossing the finish line. It is merely a step closer to the destination.