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The Spoils of Colonial Oppression

On June 7, in the English city of Bristol, protesters removed a statue of the local slave trader Edward Colston. In the days that followed, the city became the center of a debate on the ethics of public objects, as local governments up and down the country came under pressure to follow suit and renounce Britain’s colonial history.

The Spoils of Colonial Oppression
The 'Elgin Marbles', which were stripped from the Parthenon in the early 19th century,
on display at the British Museum [Credit: The Progressive]
Rightwing factions were eager to decry the move as political correctness gone mad. But far from signaling the end point of our collective awakening to the crimes of colonialism, it seems to be just the beginning.

Slowly but surely, many more people are becoming aware of the deeply depraved foundations on which many other artifacts and indeed, entire organizations, were founded. The pressure on museums, galleries, and public institutions—not just in the United Kingdom, but in France, the United States, and throughout the world—has never been so great.

But while statues of slave traders might constitute the most obvious and egregious symbols of Britain’s imperial legacy, what about the objects obtained through colonial oppression?

There are the famous cases of the Maqdala treasures (seized from Ethiopia in 1868) held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Parthenon Marbles (shipped from Athens in 1803) at the British Museum. But they are just the tip of the iceberg.

And though not all artifacts found in British institutions—or, say, the Louvre in Paris—were obtained from looting, the majority were nevertheless swindled under less extreme forms of violence, such as coercion or deeply unequal trade agreements.

The downfall of the Colston statue has thrown a spotlight on Britain’s historical misdeeds and revived public interest in the question of restitution.

Janet Suzman, chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, is determined to ride the momentum. “We need to ask the British Museum,” she declared in a statement during a silent protest at the British Museum on June 20, “whether they would have the decency to provide visitors with the full story: How did these incomparable pieces of sculpture, torn from the greatest building in the western world, get to sit—out of context—in the grey grandeur of Room 18?”

This question raises several key points: One is the fundamental injustice of a ruling culture having looted, and continuing to profit from, the relics of another sovereign culture. But Suzman has also highlighted how museums, in a less apparent but far more insidious way, will often present items so that they appear without any wider historical context.

In some sense, just as colonial powers reduced whole communities and cultures to mere subjects, some museums are often guilty of flattening their collections into a cabinet of curiosities.

Tristram Hunt, a former Labour Party politician now serving director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, has argued that museum collections are first and foremost about education. But museums do not exist as neutral entities simply showcasing objects of historic significance. They are in and of themselves deeply political objects.

From their very conception, to their programming and hiring policies, museums serve to entrench and preserve a very specific set of values and beliefs. In the case of some of the most well-known museums, that belief was firmly rooted in a commitment to the spectacle of imperial accomplishment—and today, they remain overwhelmingly staffed by an army of affluent white people.

It is not just a question, then, of whether museums should remove or return certain objects, but whether the institution as we know it needs to change. Removing symbols of the slave trade might go someway to addressing the biases of history, but this effort will not be completed until we address the underlying assumptions of the four walls in which they are housed.

One of the main contentions made against restitution is the difficulty of tracing the lineage of a given artifact to one community or moment in time. Several artifacts looted through colonialism belong to territories that no longer exist, such as Turkey’s claim on the plundered goods of the Ottoman Empire.

Denying the necessity of returning these objects on the grounds of complexity is an excuse. Restitution is achieved through careful research and consideration of the diplomatic benefits taken on a case by case basis.

There can be no blanket approach. Every object must be given the same specificity of care and nuanced treatment that we would any other matter of diplomatic consideration and international relations. As cultural institutions continue to wring their hands over how to respond to the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protesters, they would do well to start here.

Nathalie Olah is a cultural theorist and critic. Her debut book, Steal As Much As You Can (2019) is published by Repeater. She lives and works in London.

Author: Nathalie Olah | Source: The Progressive [July 27, 2020]


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