Dog collar or slave collar? A Dutch museum questions a brutal past.
“These guidelines have really helped educate curators, curators and museum directors,” says Larissa Förster of the German Lost Art Foundation, which provides funds for museums to research the origin of their collections. Studying the provenance of the artefacts forces institutions to “realize how they have become complicit in the colonialism project,” she says.
But colonial-era documents detailing the history of acquisitions can be difficult to find, especially after the two world wars of the 20th century. Where records exist, they have often been written by the people who made the objects their own, leaving out the perspectives of those who originally owned, created or used them.
Added to this work in progress are longstanding battles for the restitution or return of works of art or artefacts to the countries from which they were taken. The most famous example is the Parthenon Marbles (also known as the Elgin Marbles) in the British Museum, which were taken from Athens’ most famous monument by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, between 1801 and 1805. Greece wants them back, but the British Museum refused, claiming the marbles were acquired legally. Another is the bust of Nefertiti at the Neues Museum in Berlin, the object of a repatriation campaign by experts in Egyptian antiquities.
Many museums reject repatriation requests based on the concept of “universal museums”, a declaration signed in 2002 by major museums in Europe and the United States, which asserts that objects have global values and that museums that currently holding them can save them for all mankind. (The statement was originally made to defend the British Museum’s position on the Parthenon Marbles). Critics argue that only people who visit these museums in Western cities like London or New York have access.
Most efforts by countries to recover their treasures have been hampered, but there have been some successes for those promoting repatriation. In May, Germany announced its intention to return hundreds of stolen pieces to Nigeria, becoming the first country to agree to return to Benin the bronzes looted by British soldiers at the end of the 19th century. Soon after, the National Museum of Ireland pledged to do the same.
(Benin’s bronze statues revive the debate on museum ownership.)
Restitution “is a way to right the injustices of the past, to right what can be repaired,” says Förster. Museums around the world are “waking up to awareness of colonialism and its legacies.”
The public is increasingly aware that these institutions are not always neutral temples of knowledge. But visitors can often feel overwhelmed by the stories presented, explains art historian and author Alice Procter. “You enter a museum and these spaces are arranged to give the impression that everything is inevitable: it is the unique story; it’s the truth, ”she said.
Before the pandemic, Procter organized independent tours to museums in London, such as the British Museum, during which she spoke about the colonial roots of Western art collections and taught visitors how to examine the labels of an exhibition. . “Think about the language used to describe places,” she says. “Are we talking about places with their colonial names? “
The text that accompanies art and artifacts in museums sometimes mentions who donated the objects, but rarely how they were acquired. “What was going on behind the scenes… what was the power dynamic that enabled this person to collect,” says Procter. “How did this British man travel to India in the 1700s?” “
Smeulders adds that in order to make museums inclusive, visitors from all walks of life should be able to see them as their own heritage organizations and not hesitate to share their contribution. “Their stories should be part of it,” she says.