Culture Wars (part I): museums in a post-colonial era

By Mehar Chohan

Figure 1: The British expeditionary force moving artillery across the Ethiopian highlands, 1868, image sourced from <;

Over the past few decades cases involving Nazi looted art and the illicit trade of looted antiquities have triggered debate surrounding the stewardship and ownership of cultural property, which has extended to that acquired during the colonial-era. The tradition of plunder during war and during the colonial-era enabled museums to build and display their collections symbolizing power and empire. This has now been replaced with a mindset to protect and repatriate cultural property. As producers and preservers of heritage, museums are under particular scrutiny regarding their relation between former colonial powers and the means by which they acquired their artefacts. As has become particularly evident in recent weeks there is a rising demand for repatriation and for an improved representation of these objects, as well as for museums to become sites for decolonisation.

The Culture Wars three-part series, which will be published every Friday at 5:30pm GMT+1 starting today, will examine how Britain, France and Germany are dealing with their colonial-era objects and collections, the steps that they are taking to decolonise their institutes and the obstacles and legal ambiguities that are making the process challenging. The series will analyse whether repatriation is the way forwards and how it can be a part of the process for decolonizing a museum in order for it to achieve the concept of ‘universality’.

Part I will explore the topic of museums in a post-colonial era by describing the looting of the Maqdala treasures during the 1867 British expedition of Abyssinia, as an example of how colonial objects were typically acquired. We will further examine how the building of museums in Britain, France and Germany was a product of the colonial-era and how that shaped the western ideology of nationhood and cultural hierarchy, and how each country is facing their own challenges with their colonial collections and the circumstances under which they were acquired.

The Maqdala treasures

In 1867 a British expedition led by Sir Robert Napier was launched into Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia), which was at the time ruled by the Emperor Tewdros II. The background of the expedition was that in wanting to modernise his kingdom, Tewdros II had extended multiple invitations by letter to Britain in order to build diplomatic relations, which had been repeatedly ignored. The Emperor, in response to the continuous rejection, decided to hold hostage British officials and missionaries residing in his kingdom, leading to a British expedition being sent ostensibly as a rescue mission. What ensued was the battle of Maqdala where the British defeated the Abyssinians with a decisive victory, and the Emperor Tewdros II committed suicide rather than be taken as their prisoner.

Figure 2: Map from “Coomassie and Magdala: the story of two British Campaigns in Africa … With numerous illustrations, etc”, image souced from <;

In the aftermath of battle, the British expedition turned from a rescue mission into a looting spree; fortunately for them they had bought along a vast army of “scientific staff” who were assigned to bring back treasures. The acting director of the British Museum Richard Holmes was also a part of the expedition, who was to return with valuable manuscripts and artefacts for his collections. The extent of the plunder in the aftermath of the battle included priceless manuscripts, paintings, jewellery, Christian plaques (known as Tabots) representing the sacred Ark of the Covenant, and various other artefacts. It reportedly took two hundred mules and fifteen elephants to carry back the looted treasures. The loot was then auctioned off before setting sail for Britain, in order to cover the costs of the expedition.

The loot from Maqdala is found today in museums all over Britain and continental Europe. The British Museum alone was able to acquire 350 manuscripts from the auction, ‘The British Museum had in its possession 350 beautifully illuminated Ethiopian manuscripts, which have since been transferred to the British Library. Six other ‘exceptionally beautiful’ manuscripts remain at the Royal Library of Windsor Castle. Manuscripts from the loot were sent to the Royal Library in Vienna, the German Kaiser, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Cambridge University Library, the John Rylands Library in Manchester, and several smaller British Libraries.’[1]

Figure 3: Sentry gate above Koket-Bir gate at the Fortress of Magdala in April 1868, image sourced from <,_(47),_Magdala,_sentry_post_over_gate,_(Custom).jpg>

As things stand today, the Ethiopian Government have made continuous requests for repatriation of their national heritage and treasures, such as the Tabots, especially since they are and have been in the British Museum storeroom and not on display for the public to see or study. The same treatment of the Maqdala treasures is reflected at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There the artefacts had been kept in a storeroom and surfaced only in 2018 for an exhibition ‘Maqdala 1868’.

The experience of Ethiopia’s artefacts in Europe is interesting – not because it is unique but because it tells a story that has repeated itself over and over again. The expedition to Abyssinia and the looting of the Maqdala treasures is one of many examples that represent the process by which many museums acquired most objects for their collections.

Museums and empire building: Britain, France and Germany

To understand why claims for repatriation have come about, it would be helpful to explore further how colonialism and the ideology of empire building contributed to the existence of western European public museums. The acquisition of museum objects was typically accompanied by the acts of imperial violence and brutality that illustrate the nature of museum building during the colonial era. In the fifteenth century, the Age of Discovery, European nations were in search of new overseas lands in the hopes of discovering new routes, goods and trading partners, which eventually paved the way for ‘conquering and exploiting large areas of the world’[2], commonly known as colonization. Britain, France and Germany were the key players in the race to expand.

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the colonizers had amassed artefacts from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Oceania and the Americas, creating a collection of curiosities and “exotica” in public museums. This resulted in the museum collections having long-standing histories of being linked to colonization and imperial rule. Robert Aldrich[3] quite aptly writes, ‘Colonialists made great efforts to mark cities with signs of empire, the monuments that commemorated battles lost and won, the ministries from which imperial power reached to the moving frontiers of the known world, churches enshrining the relics of martyrs to the faith, the remains of colonial exhibitions. Particularly potent among these imperial creations were museums that exhibited Empire.’

The museums were powerful tools for visual sponsorship, showcasing the benefits and achievements of colonial expansion on behalf of the colonizing governments and thus creating a sense of what a nation is. Free public access to the museums fuelled the overriding perception amongst citizens that the artefacts were not only for leisurely viewing and education but were a part of their country’s national assets. Through their collections and exhibitions, museums contributed to the idea of a cultural hierarchy by representing the non-European cultures as inferior, hence shaping the way the public perceive these “other” countries. Frederick Cooper suggests ‘imagined communities that emerged in process of modern nation-state formation [influenced] both the way the leaders of empire states thought and the forms in which political contestation took place to reflect ‘thinking like an empire’’[4].

For example, the British Museum, the world’s first free national public museum, has foundations that are deeply entrenched in the colonial era. The initial collection, funded by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1730), was composed of 80,000 artefacts that were amassed from his time in Jamaica. Many of the artefacts were sponsored from the earnings of his wife’s slave plantations. Sloane’s collection was, in William Stukeley’s[5] opinion, ‘the greatest that ever was [in] a private man’s possession’.

The colonial nature of the British Museum’s collections is also exemplified in the infamous Parthenon Sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles. The Parthenon Sculptures are a collection of frieze sculptures and relief carvings that were removed from Athens and brought to the UK in the early 19th century by the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, apparently with permission from Ottoman authorities. They have been an integral part of the British Museum’s collection since 1816. The Greeks have been petitioning the return of the Marbles since 1832 – to no avail. The British Museum claims that as ‘stewards of culture’ they have a duty to preserve the artefacts for future generations, maintaining that they are a ‘Universal museum’[6]. Moreover there is the issue of current laws having to be re-written for their return. Most recently the new Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has requested the Marbles to be loaned to them for the upcoming celebration marking 200 years of Greek independence from the Ottoman empire.

A similar history and pattern of empire and museum building echoes throughout western European countries such as France and Germany, whose legacy of colonialism is also embedded in their museums. Similar to the museums in Britain these museums are also filled with artefacts from faraway lands in the forms of gifts or plunder. In France, for example, the Musée de Quai Branly (MQB) has struggled with its colonial history in a post-colonial era.  This is evident from the number of times the name of the museum has been changed, having been structured and restructured in order to remain socially relevant in the backdrop of its imperialist and racist history. The MQB was initially called the Musée Permanent des Colonies and was opened for the colonial exposition in 1931 to showcase, celebrate and spread national pride by parading all the possessions the French had collected from their colonies. At the end of the colonial period, the museum changed its name several times before settling on the Musée National des Arts Africains et Oceaniens, only to be changed again in 2003 to Cité Nationale de L’Histoire de l’Immigration (CNHL). They are now void of a collection since being transferred to the Musée de Quai Branly (MQB), which was to house all non-western and “primitive” art.

An article in France 24 explains how the French acquired most of the artefacts. Some, they claim, may have been legally procured, but since the prices were unfairly low, the acquisition is still morally questionable. ‘…Many objects were taken by military, administrative or scientific personnel during the colonial period between 1885 and 1960. Others were obtained during armed conflict, and still, others were “bought” for well below their real value. In one example cited in the report, a mask from the Ségou region in present-day Mali, now displayed at the Quai Branly, was bought in 1932 for 7 francs, ‘the equivalent of a dozen eggs’, when the masks were selling in France for an average of 200 francs at the time.’[7]

Currently, French law considers the collections of national museums as “inalienable” which prohibits the removal of such collections. However, in 2017 the French President Emmanuel Macron announced on his visit to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, ‘I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France. There is no valid, lasting and unconditional justification. African heritage cannot be only in private collections and European museums — it must be showcased in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou. This will be one of my priorities.’  This speech was followed by a report commissioned to deal with the restitution issues faced by France, a task that was given to French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr. The response within the museum community has been divided, which will be examined in part III of this Culture Wars series. 

Image 5: Map of the world in 1822, after the Napoleonic Wars, image sourced from <;

Germany too is dealing with repatriation claims. Although a latecomer to the colonial race, Germany gained entry after the Berlin conference of 1884. The conference, led by Otto Von Bismarck, the chancellor of the newly united Germany, demarcated how trade and colonization of Africa would be divided amongst the European nations. While the duration of colonisation by Germany was short-lived (1884-1918) due to the loss of World War I and the terms of the treaty of Versailles, it had still managed to colonize parts of Africa such as Namibia, Ghana, Cameroon and Rwanda.

This period in German history is strongly connected to violent practices. Similar to other European colonial powers, Germany had enforced her rule with brutality over the local populations, taking advantage of the imbalance of power, most notably exemplified by the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples between 1904 and 1908 in what is now Namibia. It is estimated that about 100,000 people died. During their short time in Africa, the Germans had managed to amass many artefacts, most notably the remains of indigenous peoples and African skulls, to further their study of scientific racism and theories for racial differences. Professor Zimmerer[8] in the New York Times points out that ‘…Colonial officers developed ideas on racial purity, and the colonial expansion foreshadowed the Nazi push for land in Eastern Europe’. In the same article, the professor of art history at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Horst Bredekamp, states ‘[m]any of the objects in the Prussian heritage foundation’s massive collection were gathered in a spirit of scientific inquiry as explorers brought objects back from around the globe to preserve them and learn from them … But countless others, according to the critics, were seized by force, or given by people who had no choice’[9]. These acts of plunder, characterized by violence, echoed well into World War II.

For the past few decades, this aspect of history has immersed Germany in cases regarding restitution of artworks looted by the Nazis during World War II. Recently, Germany has followed France’s lead in wanting to take steps towards addressing its past and the claims for repatriation from source countries. This lean towards colonial-era repatriation research has also been accelerated due to the controversy surrounding the new Humboldt Forum Museum in Berlin, which will be housing Germany’s non-European collections focusing on colonial history. The controversy surrounding the Museum created a media uproar when, as reported in the newspapers, historian Bénédicte Savoy resigned from the advisory council catechizing ‘how much blood [was] dripping’ from the ethnographic artefacts in the German national collections’[10]. These developments have meant that museums now need to re-imagine and reflect on their roles.

To be continued … Please look out for part II of Culture Wars, to be published on the 26th of June. Next week we will explore the challenges museums face in redefining themselves in response to calls for decolonisation, in light of their use of objects and collections to construct knowledge, memory and collective identity.

About the author: Mehar Chohan is a freelance provenance researcher currently living and working in Pakistan. She earned her BA in the history of art and architecture from Kingston University (Surrey, England, U.K), her diploma in design from KLC (London, U.K) and her postgraduate certificate in art crime research from ARCA (Amelia, Italy). Mehar has worked at Christie’s Auction House U.K. and has been a freelance lecturer of art and society. As well as running her own design studio Mehar’s interests lie in the provenance research of artefacts and the repatriation of these objects, and has been doing freelance research and writing on the topic.

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.


[1] Pankhurst R (1986), ‘Restitution of Cultural Property: The Case of Ethiopia’, p. 58

[2] (“Western Colonialism | Definition, History, Examples, & Effects”)

[3] Aldrich R (2009), ‘Colonial museums in a postcolonial Europe’ in African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, vol. 2, pp. 137-156

[4] Cooper F (2005), Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History, Berkeley University of California Press, p. 154

[5] Swann M (2001), Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

[6] McGregor N, What Does it Mean to be a World Museum? Celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Public Opening of the British Museum, sourced from < ure.aspx>

[7] Mufson C (2018), Report calls for France to return art taken during colonialism to Africa, France 24, pub. 23 November 2018, sourced from <>

[8] Bowley G (2018), A New Museum Opens Old Wounds in Germany, pub. 10 December 2018, sourced from <;

[9] Bowley G (2018), A New Museum Opens Old Wounds in Germany, pub. 10 December 2018, sourced from <;

[10] Thomas N (2018), ‘Should colonial art be returned home?’ in Financial Times, pub. 7 December 2018, sourced from <;