In one iconic scene from the 1981 film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, adventurer Indiana Jones overcomes a booby-trapped temple in Peru to retrieve a golden idol, leaving a bag of sand in its place. In another scene, he must free an ancient Hebrew tabernacle from illegal Egyptian possession before the Nazis find it first. Steven Spielberg’s portrayal of “Third World cultures” draws from a laundry list of colonial tropes. The Egyptian people, for example, are just as oblivious to the historical treasures right under their noses as they are to the colonial presence that dominates their lives. Only the archetypal American explorer is capable of grasping the significance of ancient archeological objects that must be “salvaged” from the chaos of non-European landscapes.
Dr. Jones may trample across precious archeological sites across the globe to snatch up artifacts that don’t belong to him, but at the end of the day his signature phrase—“That belongs in a museum!”—redeems his profession as one of preservation, knowledge-production, and above all, rescue. At the end of the film, he turns over the spoils of his adventures to the fictionalized National Museum of Washington, D.C., where the violence of Western imperial adventure becomes even further removed from view—absorbed into curated displays or placed into warehouses for study by “top men.”
However, the concept of the museum as an extension of colonial endeavors goes beyond Hollywood storylines. What is a museum? For decades, anyone who was interested in an answer to that question could turn to the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Since the 1970s, ICOM—a Paris-based network that represents more than 20,000 museums—defined a museum as a “non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society” that “communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” The definition is broad enough to encompass natural history museums as well as museums of science and technology, fine arts, and ethnography.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? It was for a while, anyway. In 2016, ICOM set up a committee to examine whether its definition needed changing. After speaking with hundreds of ICOM members and reviewing nearly 300 suggested revisions, the committee settled on a new definition to bring to the wider membership. The proposed update defined museums as “democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures,” which could “work in active partnerships with and for diverse communities” in order to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”
As advocates saw it, the new definition presented a utopic framework for what museums could become, and didn’t require any immediate changes to museum protocol. Nevertheless, the proposal caused an eruption in the organization. Several ICOM members resigned in protest. At ICOM’s 2019 conference in Kyoto, after an intense four-hour debate, 70 percent of delegates voted to postpone the question indefinitely. Their critiques varied. Many of the strongest voices expressed deep concerns, condemning the definition as a “statement of fashionable values” and objecting to its “political tone.”
In those latter denunciations, there was an unmistakable note of fear. As increasing numbers of protest movements against imperialism, racism, and colonialism have landed at museum doors, many top museum officials have been reluctant to take explicitly progressive stances on political and social issues out of a concern that such positions would expose their institutions to further examinations of their legacies of violence. In hopes of preserving their authority and avoiding scrutiny altogether, officials abiding by this view of cultural institutions have hoped to keep their heads down and stick with the supposedly passive tasks of collecting, conserving, and exhibiting. As of this writing, ICOM has still not resolved its definition debate. Regardless of the outcome, it’s fair to say that proponents of a timid, defensive vision of the museum, free of conflict and controversy, have already lost. Why? Because that vision has never reflected reality.
History shows us that museums have always been simultaneously beloved and contested spaces—“both the hand that feeds and the citadel to be stormed,” as art critic Lucy Lippard put it. Contemporary protest movements like the #J20 Art Strike and Strike MoMA are just the latest chapter in a long and rich story of grassroots activism that has activated the museum as a site of struggle. In the 60s and 70s, groups like the Art Workers Coalition and the Guerrilla Art Action Group mobilized against the Vietnam War. Beginning in the late 1980s, A Day Without Art/Visual AIDS spotlighted the AIDS crisis. And for decades, groups including the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee, and the Guerrilla Girls have protested racist and gendered exclusionary practices in the art world.
This story goes back centuries and spans continents. In 1792, for instance, revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace, the home of Louis XVI. Under the newly established republic, the royal collection was transferred to a new, public museum—the Louvre—designed to represent the identity of the newly transformed state. During the 1917 Russian Revolution, Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, declaring it to be part of the public Hermitage Museum.
That museums are today seen by many as “neutral” is a testament to the extent that the histories of museum spaces have been buried by their modern operators. To examine those histories is to know that museums are really crime scenes–to use a metaphor proposed by Wandile Kasibe of IZIKO Museums of South Africa—spaces that house the memories of atrocities committed during the colonial period, including theft, murder, and genocide. The Louvre may have revolutionary roots, but its Egyptian antiquities collection is composed of artifacts taken by the French during Napoleon’s conquests in the Middle East. Likewise, the British Museum owes much of its collection to Sir Hans Sloane, a collector who financed his expeditions from his wife’s earnings as the owner of a slave plantation in Jamaica.
Today, it is impossible to find a Western museum that doesn’t hold some amount of cultural material from Africa, Asia, Oceania, or Native America—an enduring sign of the devastating afterlives of colonial rule. Wall texts often tell neutral, authoritative narratives of the objects displayed, but that passivity fails to reckon with the extractive nature of colonialism by which most of the Global South was robbed of culture, resources, and people in plain sight. This violence is not over for Indigenous and Black people who continue to suffer under regimes of economic and political inequality, and experience macro- and microaggressions on a daily basis. The museum, with its white walls and white lights, aids in historical amnesia, tricking visitors into believing that this violence only exists in the past.
One thing is clear: the museum as it’s been traditionally defined—that is, the museum rooted in colonialism—can’t hold much longer. In the past few years, some museum workers have begun to re-evaluate their relationship to their collections and the communities they claim to serve. But what exactly does it mean to decolonize a museum? For some institutions, decolonization has meant simply expanding the perspectives they portray beyond those of white colonizers. For others, the word has meant working with local Indigenous communities in efforts to conserve, exhibit, or repatriate human remains and objects.
These efforts have not been without their critics. For Simone Zeefuik, founder of the hashtag #DecolonizeTheMuseum, the museum’s current urge to change is partially rooted in the fear of becoming “less and less relevant, which will ultimately result in selling less and less tickets.” Others have pointed out that the word “decolonization” has become somewhat of an overused buzzword.
But decolonization can—and should—be unsettling for institutions. Reckoning with Indigenous land claims, legacies of slaveries, and ongoing forms of dispossession and erasure isn’t easy, feel-good work. But, done correctly, it can also be a creative form of knowledge-production that leads towards collective liberation. By highlighting intersections between global and historical struggles without collapsing them, the work of decolonizing museums can generate new forms of solidarity benefitting museums, visitors, and decolonized people alike. But it can’t be undertaken lightly—or quickly. If, as historian Patrick Wolfe declared, settler colonialism is “a structure, not an event,” then the work of decolonization can never really be over.
The 2018 film Black Panther may be best known as the first Black superhero blockbuster, but it offers plenty of lessons for students of decolonization. Early in the film, the villain Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (played by Michael B. Jordan) stands in front of a glass museum display, examining a selection of African artifacts inside. He is approached by a white curator, who condescendingly offers to tell him about the display. As she explains that the exhibited war hammer was made in the seventh century by the Fula tribe in Benin, he quickly contradicts her: “Nah.”
“I beg your pardon?” she inquires.
“It was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it’s from Wakanda,” he says, referencing the fictional sub-Saharan African country. “I’m gonna take it off your hands for you.”
When the curator tells him the items aren’t for sale, Killmonger confronts her: “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?”
Just then the curator, poisoned by her coffee, collapses on the floor. Killmonger and his team smash the glass display case and take off with the hammer. While this is fiction, it's representative of the very real issues in museums today. Killmonger’s very presence in the museum as a visitor of color is noteworthy, given that just over six percent of visitors to U.S. museums are Black. As Lisa Ragbir points out in Hyperallergic, Killmonger’s co-conspirator, disguised as a museum cafe worker, points to the hierarchical divisions between a museum’s “diverse” service workers and a predominantly white curatorial staff. The scene also raises questions about the retelling of colonial narratives, and who gets to tell these stories. Above all, it brings up the issue of unethical acquisition practices, which fits into a long history of colonists robbing African artifacts to put on display for European consumption.
The scene is set at the “Museum of Great Britain,” a thinly veiled reference to London’s British Museum, which has long been embroiled in its own debates over acquisition and repatriation. The institution currently faces calls from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments to return the Benin Bronzes, which British soldiers looted in an 1897 raid.Recently, a real-life episode reminded me of this scene from Black Panther. On June 13, 2020, Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza wrested a
nineteenth century wooden funerary post from its fixings in Paris’ Musée du Quai Branly while declaring to a livestream audience on Facebook: “No one has the right to take what belongs to the African people because it is our heritage.” Together with four other activists, Diyabanza triumphantly carried the post through the museum shouting, “We’re bringing it home!” Museum guards eventually stopped them, but their point had been made. Even before he went on trial, Diyabanza sued the French state for the same crime he allegedly committed: theft.
Some museum conservators viewed Diyabanza’s act as a reckless incident of vandalism. Others, however, viewed his act as a demonstration of radical visual protest, a reclaiming of African cultural heritage that had been forcibly taken during the colonial period. The tension between these two views is emblematic of the clashes between museums and formerly colonized people when it comes to questions of repatriation—that is, the return of stolen cultural materials to their countries of origin.
Why was Diyabanza driven to rip the post from the museum with his own hands instead of pursuing legal means? To begin to understand the answer requires rewinding a few years—specifically to November 28, 2017. Speaking to a group of students at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged that within five years, France would begin the “temporary or permanent [return] of African heritage to Africa.” As a first step in this process, Macron commissioned a study to determine the amount of African art in French museums. The 2018 report, co-authored by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, found that over 90 percent of the material and cultural legacy of sub-Saharan Africa remains housed outside of the African continent. Diyabanza’s funerary post, originally from a region that now comprises Chad or Sudan, is one of an estimated 90,000 objects seized from Sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial period and held in French collections. More than a third of these objects are at the Musée du Quai Branly.
Elsewhere in Europe, countries had slowly begun to acknowledge their own bloody histories. It took Germany over 100 years to apologize to the Hereros, the people of present-day Namibia who suffered genocide under German Colonial Law. In 2008, Italy apologized for the “deep wounds'' inflicted on Libya during its colonial rule between 1911-1943. After a long juridical battle, the United Kingdom formerly apologized for the bloody repression and torture it inflicted upon the Mau-Mau of Kenya throughout the 1950s. On June 30, 2020, King Philippe of Belgium wrote a letter to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo to express his “deepest regrets” for his country’s past. (The letter did not include an apology.)
Macron’s statement, like those of his contemporaries across the continent, can be read as a rather radical departure from the decades of denial, whitewashing, and even nostalgia that characterizes Europe’s relationship with its imperial history.
And yet, as of 2019, two years after Macron made that bombshell announcement, France has taken little concrete action. The Benin treasures, robbed by French missionaries in 1892–93 from the Kingdom of Dahomey (now known as the Kingdom of Benin), had not been returned. In fact, as I write, only one object—a nineteenth century sword returned to Senegal—has been loaned to Dakar’s Museum of Black Civilizations. Under French law, national collections are protected with “inalienable and imprescriptible” rights, prohibiting museums from permanently handing over accessioned objects. But the situation is changing. On October 7, 2020, the National Assembly of France passed a bill that would bypass the current restrictions and allow authorities to return 26 looted artifacts to Benin within one year.
Other European countries have since followed Macron’s lead. In February 2021, the Dutch government approved a plan to unconditionally return objects looted from former colonies—a policy that has put the Netherlands at the forefront of European repatriation efforts. A month later, Germany entered into historic talks to restitute its holdings of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Pressure for European nations to restitute their colonial holdings continues to mount. Even as I write these words, the domino cascade of breaking news persists—most recently with repatriation announcements from Scotland’s University of Aberdeen and the National Museum of Ireland. These pledges by countries across Europe— have been praised by some as important “first steps” in the repatriation process.
But for some, the progress has, understandably, not been swift enough. It certainly wasn’t swift enough for Diyabanza and his associates, who decried France’s years of feet dragging and silence. The activists instead chose to take matters into their own hands, addressing the public directly through militant Black Panther-style action, while declaring to their livestream audience: “This belongs to us. It deserves to be taken home.”
How did vast amounts of African cultural heritage end up in Europe? The looting of cultural heritage began before the colonial period and continued after the independence of most colonized nations. But I begin this story with the Berlin Conference of 1884. It was here that European leaders set the stage for the so-called “scramble for Africa.” Although the invasion, division, and colonization of African territory was already well underway, the Berlin Conference established the rules for its conquest and partition. By setting up the continent as an amusement park for Europeans, the Conference opened the door for Africa’s cultural and natural heritage to be plundered and transferred to Europe.
Today, few museums lack some material trace of European conquest. Consider the Africa Yoruba masquerade costume taken from a shrine in Nigeria in 1948, now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. Or the Gweagal Shield, seized from Aboriginal Australians by Captain James Cook and his men, now on display at the British Museum’s “Enlightenment Gallery” with no mention of its violent acquisition. Or Tippu’s Tiger, an eighteenth-century wooden instrument forcefully taken from the Kingdom of Mysore by the British East India Company to be displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum. (You can purchase miniatures of the piece at the museum gift shop for £17.50!)
One of the best-known cases of colonial plunder is that of the “Benin Bronzes”—a group of more than a thousand metal plaques and sculptures that once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria. In 1897, the ruler of the kingdom, the Oba, imposed an embargo on exporting palm-oil products into British-controlled territory. In response, the British sent in a mission to depose the Oba and bring Benin under British control. The Benin army decimated the expedition, leaving only two British survivors. A few weeks later, the British sent in what they called a “punitive expedition” to avenge the dead and carry out the conquest. After three days of fighting, the forces had burnt down Benin’s capital city.
Here is a photograph of the Oba in shackles, just before he was sent into exile. The Oba’s flowing velvet robes are perhaps a last-ditch effort to maintain dignity in the face of a humiliating defeat. The soldiers behind him, trained members of the Niger Coast Protectorate Force, are a stark reminder of those Africans who played the “game of collaboration” with colonial forces, as Fanon put it. Then there’s the man behind the camera—West African photographer J.A. Green—whose work for British colonial officers was used in the process of empire building. The image, a hand-painted, colored collotype, circulated as a postcard at the time. Other postcards from the expedition depict triumphant British soldiers kneeling next to piles of ivory and artwork looted from the Oba’s palace.
If “empire follows art,” as William Blake wrote at the turn of the nineteenth century, postcards like these staged the colonial space as one ripe for plunder. Indeed, following the expedition, the British confiscated all of the Oba’s royal treasures. Two hundred of the pieces were taken to the British Museum, while others were purchased in auctions by other European museums and private collectors. Such theft was justified and explained as a “right of conquest” under the terms of the Berlin Conference. Yet even after 24 European nation-states signed the 1899 Convention with “Respect to the laws and Customs of War on Land,” which made the “pillaging and plundering of cultural artifacts during military campaigns” an illicit act, the looting of African objects by European powers continued. The colonial desecration of Africa needed no legal justification.
The sheer scale of the Benin punitive expedition remains incomprehensible. The number of Africans killed is unknown, as is the number of sacred objects looted from the Oba’s palace. It was a chaotic act of vandalism, in which sailors, soldiers, and colonial officials grabbed whatever they could hold.
Yet this method of “every (white) man for himself” didn’t characterize all forms of colonial theft. Archeological looting in Iraq, for example, was carried out through the legal oversight of the Antiquities Law of 1924. This was the legislative baby of Gertrude Bell, the British adventurer, archeologist, and mountaineer who has been described as the female Lawrence of Arabia. Bell’s law, drafted as an attempt to curb the looting of Iraq’s archeological ruins, granted the Director of Antiquities the power to closely monitor excavation sites and determine which objects would remain in Baghdad. It is no coincidence that throughout the 1920s, Bell herself occupied this position, serving as an intermediary between British officials and King Faisal. In this role, she threw herself into the creation of the National Museum of Iraq, which she variously referred to as the “Mini British Museum” and “my” museum. Likewise, she called the Antiquities Law “my law,” as it effectively gave her the authority to decide which Iraqi artifacts would make their way to Iraq’s National Museum, and which ones would be exported out of the country by Western archeologists.
Bell certainly played a significant role in building up Iraq’s national museums. Yet the Antiquities Law ultimately allowed for a significant amount of excavated material to leave the country. Today, Iraqi law requires that anything found in Iraq must stay in Iraq. Unfortunately, that has not always held up. In April 2003, in the midst of the Iraq War, Baghdad fell to coalition forces. As U.S. troops stood idly by, looters ransacked the Iraq Museum, stealing over 170,000 antiquities. At the time, The Associated Press reported that “[e]verything that could be carried out has disappeared from the museum.” It was pure chaos—a scene reminiscent of the pillaging of the royal palace in Benin over 100 years earlier.
Some attribute the destruction to built-up anti-government resentment on the part of the Iraqi public, which viewed the museum unfavorably as a government symbol. Most likely, however, those who stole items from the museum were driven by economic incentives, desperate to receive an illegal source of income—a small relief from the war-time inflation, sanctions, and high unemployment rates that were crippling the Iraqi economy.
A quick search for “Benin bronze” on the auction house Christie’s website becomes a case study in how to whitewash imperial crimes. A posting for a sixteenth century Benin Bronze plaque, which sold at $388,300, lists the formal qualities of the object, including its height, shape, and color. Its listed provenance traces its origins to Dorset, England, 1898—a year after the infamous raid on Benin. More recently, Christie’s July 2020 auction listed a Benin sculpture of a fish, originally crafted to symbolize the Oba’s qualities. In both cases, the website didn’t mention how these items ended up in a private collection. Instead, the sculpture was absorbed in the sanitized language of the art market—a “neutrality” that erases the ugly history of colonial plunder.
Such reframing not only hides an object’s violent acquisition; it also denies it a pre-imperial existence. Ariella Azoulay references the example of a sculpture that the Pende people of Congo made to commemorate a revolt against Belgian colonial rule in 1931. The piece, which depicts a Belgian tax collector whose murder sparked the rebellion, might have been used by the Pende as a symbol of resistance to the colonial system. In the 1970s, members of the community sold the statue to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to raise funds for sending village children to school.
In the catalogue accompanying the sculpture’s display in the museum, curator Richard Woodward points out that the statue could be sold out of the community because the Pende do not believe that their objects should last forever. For this reason too, they avoid making statues out of permanent materials. So what happens when this statue—created to be deliberately ephemeral and inaccessible—enters a Western museum where it is conserved and displayed as a piece of fine art?
First, there is a process of forgetting. The Pende statue becomes a unique art object when the museum erases its pre-imperial function as well as the story of its violent acquisition. Second, there is an element of disrespect at work when curatorial or scholarly “experts” scrutinize communal codes, values, and practices that are not meant for outside audiences. Finally, a process of aestheticization repositions the statue as “art” and allows it to be both decontextualized and commodified.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts acquired the Pende statue in the 1970s, at a time when “primitivism” was uncritically celebrated as an aesthetic form capable of introducing new visual vocabularies into Western art. But Western romanticism of African art goes back decades earlier.
There’s something to be said for Picasso’s own philosophy that “good artists copy, great ones steal.” Artists are always recontextualizing, remixing, and mashing up existing work to create something new. Yet even as Picasso developed an intimate relationship with African objects, he had no interest in African people as producers of culture. His first encounter with Black people had been with colonial Africans on display at the Parisian Universal Exhibition of 1900—an experience that did not make a strong impression on Picasso’s consciousness because it didn’t directly serve his aesthetic interests.
While colonialism deprived people like the Pende of their cultural objects and the means to produce them, their works were being integrated into the repertoire of Western art by individual artists like Picasso who were hailed as “geniuses.”
In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York held an exhibition called Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. The show displayed 200 tribal objects alongside modern art from Paul Gauguin, Paul Klee, and other artists who were influenced by tribal forms previously thought of as crude and inferior. Here, another separation takes place, in which abstract modernism appropriates the visual language of primitivism, while severing tribal works from their original sources. Artists like Picasso could therefore turn towards Africa for its “magic and art” while avoiding the problems of its colonized people.
Perhaps one of the most frequent arguments against repatriation made by Western museums and collections is that many objects, at the time of their acquisition, were legally obtained. But it’s really not so clear-cut. As Chip Colwell argues, many purchasing agreements were procured with “the threat of violence, without consent and in ways that violated cultural traditions.” Transactions often resembled forced and erratic purchases. Under these conditions, it’s largely impossible to determine a sense of legitimate consent among the targeted population, let alone the actual amount of money paid during transactions. Often, the amounts paid were laughable. For example, in 1931, a zoomorphic mask was purchased by a French exhibition in Dakar-Djibouti for 7 francs (“the equivalent price for a dozen eggs at that time”) at a time when it could easily sell at an auction for 200 francs.
Sometimes, colonial powers insist, the removal of a piece of cultural property wasn’t a financial transaction or a clear-cut case of theft, but instead an instance of collecting. British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer, for example, once described the taking of the Parthenon Marbles as a “creative act.” These feats of linguistic gymnastics served to reframe looting as a simple act of accumulation. In his account of an 1896 British expedition in Kumasi, Major Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (who also happens to be the founder of the Boy Scouts) describes the raiding of the African king’s palace like this:
"Here was a man with an armful of gold-hilted swords, there one with a box full of gold trinkets and rings, another with a spirit-case full of bottles of brandy, yet in no instance was there any attempt at looting."
When faced with demands by the people of Benin to repatriate the Benin bronzes from the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, the German government has historically argued that these items were acquired through purchases and gifts from Britain—the nation directly responsible for criminal practices of looting. Opoku writes that such assertions of “indirect” responsibility are preposterous, noting that it was German enthusiasm for Benin bronzes that “prompted British institutions to increase their own stock.”
Christie’s uses the same language of “indirect” or “legal” acquisition to auction off morally questionable items. In addition to the Benin bronzes, the auction house is selling off a number of sacred sculptures removed from Nigeria in the late 1960s in the midst of the Biafran war. They point out that the sculptures were legally acquired by French collector Jacques Kerchache between 1968–69, and then “properly exported” to Christie’s through a Belgian dealer, Phillipe Guimiot with the help of Nigerian locals.
Art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu writes that the expropriation of these objects from his homeland is incredibly painful. He calls these objects “blood art,” because like “blood diamonds,” nobody should be selling them. In an Instagram post, Okeke-Agulu took aim at Christie’s, stating that “these artworks are stained with the blood of Biafra’s children.” A petition to stop their sale uses the hashtag #BlackArtsMatter to remind the public that “it is not just the black body, but also black culture, identity and especially art that is being misappropriated.” The commercial art market—a surging colonizing force driven by money and cultural capital— adds an additional layer of complication to the already fraught field of repatriation.
Many proponents of repatriation claim that certain objects qualify as “cultural patrimony”— the property and product of a culture. The tight link between cultural patrimony and cultural identity, they argue, renders such property inalienable, or non-transferrable.
Opponents of repatriation fundamentally reject this idea. Ghanaian-American scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah, for example, rejects the notion of cultural patrimony on the grounds that such claims are the product of a relatively new phenomenon: nationalism. Much of what is considered cultural patrimony was made by members of societies that no longer exist. These objects, Appiah argues, should not be considered the property of modern nation-states, but rather that of humankind. He urges poor countries to drop repatriation claims and instead allow Western museums to be the guardians of what he calls the “cosmopolitan enterprise of cross-cultural understanding.” Like the Sistine Chapel and the Great Wall of China, he insists, the Benin Bronzes should belong to the world.
This is an oft-cited defense against the return of looted objects. Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, has claimed that the Parthenon sculptures are a part of the heritage of all mankind, rather than the cultural property of Greece. He described the British Museum as a “museum of the world, for the world,” a sentiment repeated by the Museum’s current director Hartwig Fischer, who described the institution as one of the few so-called “encyclopedic museums.” The museum’s job, Fischer says, is “to take the long view, to observe the whole of human history.” Therefore, returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece is, in his view, out of the question.
For Tristram Hunt, director of Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the acquisition of objects by Western museums serves to communicate a “nuanced understanding of empire”—one that emphasizes the “cosmopolitanism and hybridity” brought by the mixing of cultures. In a 2019 article for The Guardian, he argued against the return of the collection’s Maqdala crown to its original home in Ethiopia because “to decolonize is to decontextualize.”
This view of the museum is widespread. In 2002, 18 major museums, including the Met, the Getty, and the British Museum, signed onto a “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums.” The text declares that knowledge should be prized above nationalism, and that “museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.” (Never mind that all of the museum signatories were located in the Northern Hemisphere, with almost all holding onto material from the sacking of Benin City.)
As soon as the Declaration was issued, it faced a barrage of criticism. Kwame Opoku described it as a pitiful attempt by Western powers to proclaim immunity from repatriation claims. Geoffrey Lewis, then Chairman of the ICOM Ethics Committee called it “a statement of self-interest, made by a group representing some of the world’s richest museums.” And philosophers Tapuwa R. Mubaya and Munyaradzi Mawere identified it as a tool for “naked diplomacy” used to evade the topic of repatriation altogether and legitimize the continued exploitation of African cultural property. Considering that “universal” museums are based exclusively in Europe and America, they argue, the majority of the world’s people (especially those in the Global South who have been alienated from their cultural property) don’t actually benefit.
In defending the British Museum’s unwillingness to return the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, Chris Spring, the former curator of the museum’s Africa galleries, went so far as to argue that “London is a global African city, arguably the biggest African city in the world.” While it may be true that London is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world—and home to many African immigrants—the museum’s board of trustees is overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and male. Museum audiences are also largely white. In the UK, in 2018, 51.1 percent of white people had visited a museum or gallery, compared with only 33.5 percent of Black people and 43.7 percent of Asian people.
Alongside arguments for “universal” institutions is the idea that Western institutions are best equipped to preserve the world’s heritage. Appiah, for example, urges poor countries to drop repatriation requests in order to ensure the survival of ritual objects for later generations. Under this assumption, certain communities lack the resources or the will to properly care for their own cultural property.
In the case of the Parthenon Marbles, Lord Elgin (who plundered the Acropolis) believed that he was rescuing the treasures from further damage. The Turks, he claimed, had been grinding down the statues to make mortar. Today, the British still argue that giving the marbles back would irreparably destroy them. But, as anthropologist Sally Price succinctly explains, “‘Give it back and it’ll only be stolen’ is the universal motto of the thief.”
Anthropologists in the nineteenth century furthered imperial projects by “salvaging” artifacts as a means to preserve cultures before they went extinct. Today, these cultures continue to exist, but Western governments and museum officials deny their ability to “salvage” their own heritage. Artist and activist Bayryam Mustafa Bayryamali has called these conservationist concerns “orientalist,” as they are based on the assumption that objects taken out of colonized communities can be best taken care of in the “hands of the colonizer.”
They also contain echoes of the fascist logic of Kunstschutz—the German principle of preserving cultural heritage to keep it safe. Consider the Nazis’ Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race, built to house confiscated Jewish artifacts and art from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, as well as the storage of Jewish “degenerate” art by the Nazis in Paris’s Musée du Jeu de Paume. The latter contained more than 22,000 confiscated works of modern art from the collections of notable French Jewish families. Although the artworks were banned in Nazi Germany and condemned as an “insult to German feeling” by Hitler himself, the Nazi second-in-command, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, took a great interest in the Jeu de Paume warehouse, personally selecting hundreds of artworks for his own collection.
Perhaps this entire debate—about the desirability of so-called “universal museums” that are equipped to care for so-called “universal heritage”—is a distraction. To truly decolonize the museum, as Lewis argues, we must center the “ability of a people to present their cultural heritage in their own territory.” To wit, there are more than 500 museums in sub-Saharan Africa that await the return of artifacts. Some, like the Museum of Black Civilizations (MBC) in Dakar, contain state-of-the-art facilities equipped with climate and humidity controls. Many of its galleries are empty rooms, awaiting the return of African artifacts currently held in European institutions. “[W]e can no longer say that Africans are not ready to receive new works,” said Abdoulaye Camara, researcher at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar to Smithsonian Magazine. “We now have all the cards in hand if works from Senegal, for example, were to be returned.”
In March 2021, the Nairobi National Museum launched an exhibition series titled “Invisible Inventories” which included ten empty display cabinets meant to represent objects that Kenya wants back. The exhibition is accompanied by an ongoing research project carried out by the International Inventories Program (IIP) to build a digital database of Kenyan cultural objects located in Western collections. The National Museums of Kenya—an institution that manages Kenya’s museums, historical sites, and monuments—is overseeing the project, which they see as a crucial step in the reclamation process. There are 32,000 objects in the database to date.
The continued insistence on “preserving” objects in European institutions not only ignores contemporary institutions that are ready to house such treasures; it also looks past a rich history of conservation in Black and Indigenous communities. In most instances, colonial incursion destroyed Indigenous systems of preservation and care. Dynastic treasures were held in protected spaces within the Oba’s Palace in Benin City before the site was looted by British officials. The Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II (1818–1868) created and tended to what could be considered a collection of “modern libraries.” And European explorers were shocked to “discover” the massive libraries of Timbuktu that safekept precious manuscripts and sacred objects for centuries. These objects were cared for long before Europeans deemed non-Western communities incapable of preserving them. Those communities could—and should—preserve them once more.
Calls for a more expansive notion of repatriation arose in talks surrounding the 2023 opening of a new Royal Museum in Benin City, which is expected to house at least 300 Benin Bronzes. The initiative is organized by the Benin Dialogue Group, a group comprised of Nigerian representatives and European museum officials. Through its Benin Plan of Action, the group has agreed that as part of a repatriation plan, European museums must assist with funding, expertise, and training for curatorial education at the new museum. However, despite its collaborative framework, many have criticized the Benin Dialogue Group for skirting the issue of permanent return; instead, the museum is designed as a rotating display of some of Benin’s most iconic pieces, which will be loaned on a temporary basis from European institutions. Opoku has called it a “ridiculous and insulting proposal.” The situation might be changing soon, with Germany now negotiating the full repatriation of over 500 Benin objects.
In a letter to President Macron, Malian cultural theorist Manthia Diawara cuts past these complications of restitution to demand a so-called “fourth R”: reparations. Forget the restoration of African heritage, he argues. The more urgent problem is a neoliberal economic structure that continues to reward inhabitants of the U.S. and Europe, while relegating Africans to a state of poverty and endless debt. The urgent need for reparations before repatriation is reflected in the Q&A segment that followed Macron’s speech at the University of Ouagadougou. One after the next, college students in attendance raised concerns not about the meaning of repatriation, but about the lack of electricity and air conditioning in their classrooms. A flustered Macron, unprepared for these questions, lashed out at a student: “It is like you are speaking to me as if I was still your colonial master. But, I do not want to be dealing with electricity supply in Burkinabè universities! That’s your President’s job!”
Or is it? Certainly, Macron is at least partially responsible for the crumbling infrastructure in Burkina Faso. After all, his country has benefited from the extraction of Africa’s material natural resources for centuries. Reparations, many have argued, are in order. Diawara, for one, has proposed a hypothetical “Macron Plan for Reparations,” essentially an economic support package for the African continent funded by European and American taxpayers. Such a plan would not be “charity, paternalism, nor band-aids,” but rather the bare minimum necessary to “reconcile Africa with itself” and the West.
Recently, the conversation about repatriation in the United States has expanded to consider the human remains of enslaved Africans. The Smithsonian, for example, holds the bones of roughly 1,700 African Americans in its storerooms, while Harvard University holds the human remains of 15 individuals of African descent. In the past two years, groups of students discovered that 53 skulls in the Penn Museum’s Morton Collection came from enslaved Africans in Cuba, and 14 others came from Black Philadelphians.
In April 2021, the museum announced a repatriation plan to return the crania “to their ancestral communities, whenever possible.” However, despite these strides to confront the ghosts of the Morton Collection, the Penn Museum has yet to acknowledge its holdings of human remains from the 1985 MOVE bombing—a more recent manifestation of racialized state violence, in which the Philadelphia Police Department bombed a residential home, killing 11 people and destroying an entire city block. The family of the bombing victim whose remains are still housed at the museum has demanded that Penn make a public apology and commit to “some kind of restitution.”
Restitution struggles continue. Some result in the return of heritage, others in dead ends. But crucially, these struggles call into question the concept of stewardship. Today, museums are beginning to recognize that it is inconceivable to display Indigenous culture without the participation and expertise of Indigenous communities. And, as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to expand an urgent, nation-wide conversation surrounding racial justice, institutions like the Penn Museum are forced to address the historical exploitation of people of color in their collecting practices. The concept of the “universal museum” seems old-fashioned, as a new generation continues to push major museums to see themselves less as central repositories of knowledge and more as sites of transit and cross-cultural dialogue. Healing is far from complete, but in the words of Bénédicte Savoy, “we must allow ourselves to dream.”
Shimrit Lee is an interdisciplinary scholar working at the intersection of visual culture, performance, and critical security studies. Her research interests relate to the cultural production of security narratives in Israel and the U.S. She teaches at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. The Decolonize series is edited by the founder and editor of Warscapes magazine, Bhakti Shringarpure.