We asked the experts why museums can’t just give stolen artworks back
“The memory still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth,” said Abebe Alenayehu. He was just a teenager when he saw Mussolini's fascist troops haul away a 24 metre tall granite monument, the Obelisk of Axum. “All the adults in the town were under curfew,” he remembered. “But we played with the soldiers who gave us sweets and sugar. We didn’t realise what was happening, but our parents were hiding their faces and crying.” Then, in 2005, when Alenayehu was 81-years-old, he got to see this important symbol of Ethiopian sovereignty returned. The Italian government had agreed in a 1947 UN treaty to return this 4th-century relic to the city of Axum in Ethiopia which finally happened many years later due to the logistic problems of moving it.
The return of artworks and artefacts to their countries of origin is a complex issue. This obelisk was an example of artworks that were seized by twentieth-century fascists, with many more paintings, sculptures, and other cultural artefacts seized in and around World War II. There has been a significant amount of momentum around the return of these objects as a way of repairing wounds from these troubled times. But what’s to be done with objects taken during the height of Britain’s empire and other situations much further away? Last week, calls for the British Museum to return Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes heated up, spurred on by the opening of an exhibition at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London of objects taken by the British Army during the 1868 Abyssinian Expedition in Ethiopia. The launch of which prompted the Ethiopia government to repeat demands for these objects to be returned.
“I do think they should give them back. It should be returned on a permanent basis, as opposed to a long-term loan,” I was told by Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, selected by the Guardian as one of the ten best contemporary African books. She was responding to the comments from the V&A director, Tristram Hunt, who said that, “these items have never been on a long-term loan in Ethiopia, but as we look to the future I think what we’re interested in are partnerships around conservation, interpretation, heritage management, and these need to be supported by government assistance so that institutions like the V&A can support sister institutions in Ethiopia.”
“We have to ask what the role of a museum is if it is also taking part in this erasure of memory, and of a people’s history” – Maaza Mengiste
The Ethiopian government has rejected this offer. During a Skype conversation with me, Mengiste says, “The V&A’s position seems to be that we have these items with a complicated history, and we have a responsibility to display them, and to teach you this history. There’s an implied generosity, an implied benevolence behind those words, but actually what they are saying is we’re not going to give this back.” It’s an issue that’s important to her, as she explains, “When I’m looking at this as an Ethiopian, as someone who cares very deeply about the significance of art objects, of artefacts and the history that they contain – as well as the religious importance for people – what I’m hearing is a very nicely worded no. I think it’s the responsibility of all those who care about the erasures that continue to happen in history and historical memory, to fight back against that no; no matter how well coded it is in gentle language. We have to consider this an ongoing erasure of historical memory. We have to ask what the role of a museum is if it is also taking part in this erasure of memory, and of a people’s history.”
The process of how objects get curated is deeply political too. The Brooklyn Museum recently faced widespread criticism for appointing two white curators, one which was hired specifically to oversee African art. Does the curator of this display of Ethiopian objects at the V&A have a connection to the country? “No. I don’t at all. It’s something I’m obviously very aware of,” Alex Jones, the Assistant Curator of Metalwork at the V&A, explains. “That’s why I’ve been so keen to hear from people who do have a personal connection, or that these objects mean something to them as part of their personal heritage. I’ve learned so much over the course of curating this display about Ethiopia and about these objects.” In this display, the V&A has tried to balance the institutional voice with the perspective of people with a direct link to Ethiopia. “Within the cases, we have the traditional museum object labels, but then side by side with those we have these additional labels that were written by a variety of people (with a personal connection to Ethiopia) we had worked with during the display.” She adds, “We really hope that this is the start of something.”
But what does this debate look like outside of the UK? France has seen a major shift in policy in recent years. The previous president Nicolas Sarkozy drew much criticism in a speech in 2007, saying “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history ... They have never really launched themselves into the future.” The Sud Quotidien newspaper described the speech the next day as “an insult”. The chairman of the African Union Commission, Alpha Oumar Konare, called Sarkozy’s speech as “declarations of a bygone era”. This was a provocative echoing of France’s colonial past, which the current president Emmanuel Macron has signalled a change from. “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,” he said. “African heritage must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou.” His promise was to repatriate and loan a significant amount of artefacts over the next five years.
“When museums fall into games of politics, whether it is nationalism or identity politics – which has happened throughout time, but has intensified in the last 30 years – and then they’re used for political reasons” – Tiffany Jenkins
But there are practical problems, risks, and other issues to consider that go along with returning artefacts. Dr. Rachel King, lecturer in cultural heritage studies at University College London, told the New York Times in 2017 that, “the question of whether his updated priorities for restitution will entail supporting infrastructure for object storage and curation in African museums, and if so how French heritage experts will go about offering this support.” While many welcomed this change in tone, how exactly would it be implemented?
The question about what to do with collections quickly becomes a discussion about what museums are for. The argument that collections should be returned to source countries reflects a loss of faith in museums, argues Tiffany Jenkins, author of Keeping Their Marbles. “If anything, there is this uncertainty projected from museums generally that they’re no longer that convinced by what they do.” Jenkins explained, “I go the V&A a lot, it is a tremendous museum. One of the reasons that it is so interesting is that it has objects from all over the world – in a way, it’s like a time machine where you can travel the world and see and peak into different cultures at different times, different moments.” Seeing different cultures together teaches us something unique, she argued, “There is also something to be said for seeing different cultures together. You can see the similarities, where they depart, how they’ve influenced each other, where they’ve moved away from each other.”
Disputes between politicians, activists, and museums about the artefacts distract from opening up culture and fostering greater appreciation and understanding, Jenkins argues. “When museums fall into games of politics, whether it is nationalism or identity politics – which has happened throughout time, but has intensified in the last 30 years – and then they’re used for political reasons.” While the repatriation of artefacts is often argued on moral grounds, as they were taken during imperialism and war, Tiffany said, “I don’t think that many of the things that people say the objects will achieve, whether it’s repairing past wrongs or some sort of therapeutic impact – particularly in making apologies for colonisation – I don’t think that museum objects can do that. The past cannot be repaired in that way, it can’t be undone, it can only be understood. I think it turns objects into policy documents or objects of apology, rather than objects of enlightenment.”
“It’s reparative; reparations piece by piece” – Aliyah Hasinah
Others disagree, seeing the very idea of a museum as a deeply political structure. “Basically, museums are a colonial construct. They’re created to hoard the stolen spoils of colonialism,” I was told by Aliyah Hasinah, co-curator of The Past is Now, a project detailing Birmingham Museum’s relationship to the British Empire. “For myself, as a writer, and curator, it’s always been a matter of survival. The fact that I am a black, working-class, Muslim woman means that I face all those things on a day to day basis.” And what would be the benefit of returning the artefacts? “It’s reparative; reparations piece by piece. We recently found out from the Bank of England that people’s taxes have been paying for the reparations of slave masters up until 2015. So there’s a whole Windrush generation who are now being threatened with going back, who have paid for their historical trauma and oppression. We haven’t been able to deal with this historic trauma.” And in response to the recent demands from Ethiopia on the V&A, Hasinah argued, “A claim has been made to take them to where they’re originally from, to enrich the culture, the heritage, and the pride of that nations – 100 per cent they should be returned. The British have no legitimacy to have them in their institutions.”
The question of where these cultural objects belong has been a slowly evolving discussion. This resulting international consensus has had a number of real world impacts already; communities from the countries of origin are more likely to be consulted about exhibitions, conservation, and research, with greater sensitivity shown in exhibitions and more attention paid to providing a fuller context. While there has been a growing momentum behind museums recognising the murky past of how their collections came to be, this often falls short of full repatriation. The momentum has been building steadily in this direction, but perhaps, for now at least, museums are not ready to return the objects permanently.