Are museums ethical… or can they be?

This post was inspired, in its entirety by Marc Fennell and Stuff the British Stole.

Stuff the British Stole podcasts

By the way, if you read this Marc, I am available to be interviewed on… pretty much anything. I’ll just make up my knowledge.

What brought this on?

Like the opening of the podcast – have you ever wondered where the exhibits in a museum come from?

The recently opened WA Museum Boola Bardip focuses heavily on West Australian history, although it does have a loan display about Ancient Greece from the British Museum.

The British Museum has been accused of holding a significant amount of looted treasure from around the world. It appears to be a point of soreness for Britain.

In the United States, museums have been forced to return many artifacts that have been illegally acquired over the decades. At the end of October, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York said it has begun reviewing dozens of allegedly looted Khmer Empire artifacts in its collection, responding to pressure from the government of Cambodia. In the same week, the Victoria & Albert Museum director Tristram Hunt was in Istanbul to celebrate the return of a 4,250 year-old Anatolian ewer to Turkey.

The fact that these artifacts are being returned suggests that they should not have been in those museums to start with. It made me wonder.

Returning cultural artifacts

I did some research into museums returning cultural objects and there were… a LOT… of articles – over thirty thousand news articles.

There is, however, a much better moment that clarifies the point – the first half really makes it clear.

The following year brought another notable intervention, this time from supervillain Erik Killmonger in the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther. Surveying the African collection at the “Museum of Great Britain”, Killmonger corrects the exhibition’s patronising white curator about the provenance of an axe: “It was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it’s from Wakanda. Don’t trip – I’m gonna take it off your hands for you.” When the woman replies that the items are not for sale, Killmonger says: “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?” As the poisoned curator collapses, Killmonger deaccessions the artefact. Black Panther took just 26 days to reach $1bn (£784,000) in worldwide box office sales and, in one compelling scene, highlighted all the current controversies over museum collections and colonial injustice.

Should museums return their colonial artefacts? Tristram Hunt, The Observer, 29 June 2019

The Benin bronzes are a great example of this sort of artifact, as outlined in the Economist. Institutions such as the British Museum find themselves at an impasse, struggling to come to terms with their colonial legacy, taking some steps to return artefacts but not wanting to lose their prized collections.

France is preparing to return 26 looted colonial-era artifacts home to Benin, while some are concerned that this will set a precedent for the emptying of French museums of their African cultural objects. Ukraine will soon be receiving some cultural objects back from the Netherlands after Crimea was annexed by Russia. A private collector is returning a Mayan relic to Guatemala, and Cambridge University is returning cultural relics to Uganda.

Why not give it back?

When we look at this part of the topic, we are primarily looking at the British and the French. Both of them have significant histories of colonialism, with Britain having the most complicated view of its colonial past. When you look at how much colonialism infused the current Conservative party and the discussions around Brexit, the ideas of the British empire is still important to their idea of what it means to be British.

When you look at the French response above, they are clearly worried about what happens to their cultural identity. They have a significant portion of their history in Africa, which was a great joke for Trevor Noah – not so appreciated by the French Government.

Whatever you think of his content, it does link back to their history. Does it mean they should be able to keep all these artifacts and cultural objects in their own museums? Do the Parthenon Marbles need to return to Greece?

I would argue that there needs to be a progression of cultural artifacts back to their home countries, along with the proper support of museums across the world. Over time, there will be a vast improvement in the quality of museums around the world – all of which will be capable of handling loans to other museums.

It is doable, albeit in the medium to long term. I hope that support for history and culture will continue to improve without the interference of politics and government ideology.

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