Initiatives such as this counter this hyper-visibility and bring to the forefront forgotten histories and stories. So why aren’t museums doing the same? Recently the ‘Benin Bronzes’ were returned – on loan – by the British Museum to Nigeria. Nigeria had been requesting their return since the country gained independence in 1960. As it stands many museum objects and art pieces are being returned to their country of origin, but only at said country’s request. So whilst European countries appear willing to address their colonial past and return objects acquired through colonialism, they are not actively doing so.
Previously there has been international pressure on European nations to issue public apologies or statements of regret to their ex-colonies, but the sincerity of these apologies is somewhat lost when objects stolen and looted from ex-colonies remain estranged from their countries of origin. European nations act as if colonialism is part of the past, something that should be forgotten and that both the coloniser and colonised should move on from. However, it is impossible for previously colonised nations to overcome their traumatic past when they are physically separated from their heritage. In order to facilitate better future relations, it is imperative that European nations not just wait for the requested return of an object in their possession, but rather proactively go about returning objects they know do not belong to them.
The NMVW (The Netherlands’ National Museum for World Cultures), has vowed to return art and museum objects procured during the colonial period, much of which is displayed in Amsterdam’s Tropenmusuem. In total there are over 375,000 objects dating back to the period, thus undoubtedly this will be a lengthy process, nevertheless, this is a positive example as it shows a European nation acting off its own initiative rather than only in reaction to an ex-colonies request.
“it is impossible for previously colonised nations to overcome their traumatic past when they are physically separated from their heritage.”
In addition, the previously mentioned Pitts River Museum in Oxford is also actively countering the aforementioned hyper-visibility. They are instigating a program where they engage ‘originating communities’, in order to ensure that the objects on display in their museum are understood and described correctly, therefore better representing the originating communities. These are examples of positive action challenging the structures which have for so long denied ex-colonies their agency and served as an obstacle to nations trying to move on from the colonial past.
First published Print edition May 2019. Volume 14, Issue 3. Image titled “Colston statue who’s face been painted white, Bristol UK” (Photo by Jon Kent)