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

By Mehar Chohan

The predicament for western European museums lies in how they can deal with their colonial history in a post-colonial era. Museums have become a central focus in demands for decolonisation and repatriation of cultural property. To emphasize the importance and urgency of the issue the International Council of Museums (ICOM), at its 25th annual conference in Kyoto, submitted a revised definition of museums as spaces of democracy, inclusivity and polyphony. ‘Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people’[1]. Museums now have to understand, represent and interpret the history of their collections, which are tied to a colonial past, especially those where the manner of acquisitions has been morally questionable.

Museums have played an integral role in silencing histories by emphasizing and keeping in the forefront the knowledge of proprietorship of collections rather than focusing on the history of acquisition. According to Louise Tyhacott and Kostas Arvantis in their book Museums and Restitution, museum professionals have regarded their relationship with source communities from their imperial past as “collaborative”. Source communities on the other hand have not seen it in the same way, instead feeling that the relationship has been one of exploitation based on disparities of power. As Robert Aldrich[2] observes, ‘Most European countries wanted to move on from the imperial age, pushing the ideas that had underpinned imperialism out of the way and sometimes wilfully forgetting the imperial past and neglecting its legacy’.

Figure 1: Altar to Zeus in the Pergamonmuseum, Berlin. Image sourced from: <;

This reinvention by museums by way of manipulating the context of their displays through time has also affected the meaning of the objects and artefacts, and for some time diluted the importance of their histories and ownership. Eileen Hooper-Greenhill[3], who talks of how museums use objects and collections to construct knowledge and how the meaning and context of objects change with time in a museum, notes ‘objects are used to construct identities, on both a personal and a national level. Objects can become invested with deeply held feelings and can symbolise powerful convictions through which life is led’. If we draw from Hooper-Greenhill’s theory, museums, through the act of silencing histories of objects, have on the one hand helped construct ideas of citizenship and identity for the western European peoples and on the other hand have fuelled the resentments of source countries from whom the objects were taken, who are wanting to fill the gaps in their historical memories.

Furthermore, we may also consider the theories of Pierre Nora, a French historian who coined the concept “Lieux de mémoire” or “site of memory”. Nora[4] explains the idea of a collective national historical memory, which finds ‘articulation in a wide array of sites – considered broadly to include not only monuments and museums but also novels, cities, personages, symbols’. Moreover, this lieux de memoire ‘forms part of the heritage of the societies that created the works, embodying particular artistic skills and codes, and the cultural, religious, social and political functions that objects performed. They represent the collective identity of cultural groups’[5]. All of this has led to the growing sentiment of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

These issues are further highlighted due to the current pluralistic make-up of society calling for museums to be decolonized and formerly colonized countries making claims for repatriation. There is a growing discourse on how the representation of the histories of these objects is illustrated in such a way that the violent and brutal aspect of the imperial past has been replaced with the idea that colonization was to impart benefits and civilization to people who needed it, nor is there any mention of the provenance of the cultural objects that were acquired. These grievances have led to many activist groups such as Decolonize This, curators, artists, scholars, and formerly colonized countries calling for museums to repatriate their cultural objects.

Debunking colonisation: museums in the face of criticism and opposition

Decolonisation varies in its definition. However, mostly it is agreed upon that the term should encapsulate changes such as a more transparent representation of the histories of the objects and collections, where source countries and communities are included in the decision making process. Also, a more diverse and racially balanced makeup of staffing, curators and board members of museums is required, as well as policies on how to deal with artefacts that are looted. Artist and curator Shaheen Kasmani argues that decolonisation of a museum is not the same as diversity and museums. She believes that often in trying to make token efforts to decolonize museums just replicate the colonial system, ‘if the structures and underlying narratives and decision-making remain the way they are [then a museum or gallery cannot fully decolonize]’ [6]. She further states that ‘displays, exhibitions, staff positions and events need to be permanent features instead of meaningless tokenistic gestures. It needs to be genuine’[7].

Sumaya Kassim, a writer, researcher and curator who actively writes about decolonizing museums and what it means to be a person of colour working in ‘the shadow of racist colonial structures’[8]. Recently she wrote an open letter ‘The Museum is the Master’s House’ to the current Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Tristram Hunt. In the letter she argued that ‘Hunt is intent on protecting this colonial estate; he is intent on protecting an idealised version of a colonial past, a white past, that is unsullied by the presence of undesirables. Like so many white people, he wants our art, our culture, our food. But he does not want us … They show little empathy for the descendants of peoples who may have lost their language, connection to their homeland through the greed and inhumanity of their ancestors’[9].

Figure 2: Victoria & Albert museum, Sackler Courtyard, designed by Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A). Image sourced from <;

Many museums have recently been facing opposition and criticism for their inability to take the right steps towards minimizing questionable representation of collections in exhibitions, and of their staff hiring choices. There have also been recent demonstrations protesting against unethical donors for museums. Some museums are starting to face these challenges in different ways, from the uncomfortable art tours by Alice Proctor at the British Museum, V&A and the National Portrait Gallery in London, where she discusses the provenance of the objects, how they were acquired and the possible repatriation of these objects with her audience. In 2019 the artist Nan Goldin staged a protest outside the National Portrait Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, threatening to withdraw her planned exhibition over the institutions receiving donations from the Sackler family, owners of the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma – the makers of Oxycontin. Brooklyn Museum in America has also had to face its share of protest and criticism with the hiring of a white curator for its African art sector. All of this leads to the fact that museums are having to reflect on what it means to be a museum, whom they intend to serve, and how they can remain relevant.

Existing legal and ethical frameworks

The recent increase in public awareness of high-profile cultural property disputes that challenge museums to have transparency for historical cases of acquisition has led to requests for the repatriation of such objects. There is also a clearer idea of what cultural property and/or cultural heritage is. Patty Gerstenblith[10] has defined it as ‘those objects that are the product of a particular group or community and embody some expression of that group’s identity, regardless of whether the object has achieved some universal recognition of its value beyond that group’. This change reflects a growing movement among formerly colonized states to reclaim ownership and control of iconic cultural heritage objects.

However, such requests are closely tied within moral and ethical debate; few legal precedents exist for mediation between governments and state museums. While there are a range of treaties, policies, and ethical standards that have been developed by international, national and professional organizations seeking to address critical issues such as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Conventions, these tools have not been able to address items acquired as a result of colonial expansion specifically.

Figure 3: The Triumph of Cicero, ca. 1520. Image sourced from <;

If we go back to the third-century B.C.E, the Roman orator and lawyer Cicero instituted a case against the Roman Governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, for illegally appropriating works of art for his personal use from Sicilian cities. Cicero’s speeches laid the framework for art being considered a part of cultural property and ideas of the proper ownership of cultural heritage. As Margaret M. Miles[11] says, ‘the speeches of Cicero published in the case of Gaius Verres (the Verrines) have especially influenced discussions about the acquisition and ownership of art.’ After the first two world wars in the twentieth century, due to the large scale of destruction of cultural property, The Hague Convention of 1954 (supplemented and concluded in 1999) came into being with the aim to protect cultural property in times of armed conflict. The treaty states ‘that any damage to cultural property, irrespective of the people it belongs to, is a damage to the cultural heritage of all humanity because every people contributes to the world’s culture.’[12] As of today, the convention has been ratified by 133 states; interestingly the United Kingdom ratified the convention in 2017.

Subsequently, the UNESCO 1970 Convention was established for Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property. The aim was to combat illegal trade of cultural items, it was signed on 14 November 1970, and came into effect on 24 April 1972. One of its many considerations is that ‘…cultural property constitutes one of the basic elements of civilization and national culture, and that its true value can be appreciated only in relation to the fullest possible information regarding its origin, history and traditional setting’[13]. The 1970 Convention highlighted museum ethics, declaring, ‘As cultural institutions, museums, libraries and archives should ensure that their collections are built up in accordance with universally recognized moral principles’ (UNESCO, 1970). Since 1970, domestic cultural heritage legislation in countries has been adopting the treaty. In addition, museum professionals subsequently adopted the year 1970 as the baseline of provenance research and began adopting the practice that acquisitions made after 1970 should prove legal provenance into their ethical codes.

The international treaty in 1995, UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, was a treaty that built upon the UNESCO 1970 Convention with the addition of establishing the restitution or claims of stolen or illegally exported cultural objects. The Convention also states, ‘…if a cultural property was stolen it must be returned. Any possessor deprived of his/her property will be compensated only if he/she can prove due diligence at the time of the purchase’[14]. However, the Convention has its limitations such as regulated and restricted time periods for claimants, especially in the case of colonial-era claims, which precede nearly every cultural heritage protection law. Both Conventions offer no remedy for looted colonial heritage. 

With the complicated (and at times irrelevant) laws and the inability of UNESCO to enforce legislation of colonial objects it seems more logical to go ‘beyond the legal arena into the realm of ethics [for] the repatriation of cultural property’[15]. For negotiations regarding colonial repatriation, the most obvious place to look for dialogue is museums. Georgios Papaioannou[16], professor of museum studies, has said that a ‘renewed emphasis on ethics is appropriate given that they are at the core of museums’ work, referring as they do to the values on which museums found their operations’.

In Article 6.1 of their 2015 Code of Ethics ICOM encourages that, ‘Museums should promote the sharing of knowledge, documentation and collections with museums and cultural organisations in the countries and communities of origin. The possibility of developing partnerships with museums in countries or areas that have lost a significant part of their heritage should be explored’[17]. Furthermore in Article 6.2, regarding the return of the cultural property, ‘Museums should be prepared to initiate dialogue for the return of cultural property to a country or people of origin. This should be undertaken in an impartial manner, based on scientific, professional and humanitarian principles as well as applicable local, national and international legislation, in preference to action at a governmental or political level’. Many other museums have followed suit in developing ethical codes, for example in the United Kingdom, Article 7.7 of The Code of Ethics for Museums (published by Britain’s Museums Association) requires museums to ‘Deal sensitively and promptly with requests for repatriation both within the UK and from abroad of items in the museum’s collection, taking into account: the law; current thinking on the subject; the interests of actual and cultural descendants; the strength of claimants’ relationship to the items; their scientific, educational, cultural and historical importance; their future treatment’[18]. However, in Article 6 it articulates this in favour of retention of items.

An additional step that has been taken is a formal mediation process for Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) by ICOM and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). They have developed a mediation process for art and cultural heritage disputes that states ‘in mediation, all the intricacies of an art or cultural heritage dispute may be addressed. The procedure takes into consideration issues of commercial, cultural, ethical, historical, moral, religious, or spiritual nature. Typical litigation hurdles, such as statutes of limitations, may be overcome in mediation. Mediation is also a forum in which customary laws and protocols can be considered to reach an agreement’[19]. This method of resolution, according to Maria Shehade and Kalliopi Fouseki[20], could be beneficial since ‘the fact that many cases do not fulfil all of the legal criteria, making a court outcome very uncertain, has led many scholars to turn to the examination of the possible benefits that alternative methods of dispute resolution have to offer’. A drawback to mediation is that it is not legally binding on the parties involved, as its success depends upon the parties reaching an agreement, which at times is not always possible. Therefore, Tristram Besterman[21] notes ‘adherence to professional, ethical codes is critical within the self-regulating museum sector. Because museums are the unique custodians of an intergenerational equity’.

Figure 4: German loot stored at Schlosskirche Ellingen, Germany. Image sourced from <>

To be continued … Please look out for part III of Culture Wars, to be published on the 3rd of July. As evidenced in this three-part series, the debate and discourse regarding the stewardship of cultural artefacts acquired during the colonial era, in conjunction with calls for repatriation from source countries, has been building up over millennia. ‘There are significant barriers and hurdles for the process to happen from questions of how objects were acquired to opposing views of what is ownership, and then there are the limitations legally and ethically’. The last article of the Cultural Wars series will unravel the very question of ownership of culture.

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] ICOM (2019), ICOM announces the alternative museum definition that will be subject to a vote, pub. July 25 2019, viewed 26 June 2020, sourced from <;

[2] Aldrich R (2009), ‘Colonial Museums in a Postcolonial Europe’ in African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal. Vol 2. no 2., pp. 137 – 156

[3] Hooper-Greenhill, E. (2000), Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, London: Routledge

[4] Nora P (1989), ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire’ in Representations, no. 26, 1989.

[5] Aldrich R (2005), ‘The Colonial Legacy of Non-Western Art in French Museums’, in Vestiges of the Colonial Empire in France, Palgrave Macmillan, London.

[6] Pierson-Hagger E (2019), Can we decolonise the British Museum?, New Statesman, pub. 20 July 2019, viewed 26 June 2020, sourced from <;

[7] Pierson-Hagger E (2019), Can we decolonise the British Museum?, New Statesman, pub. 20 July 2019, viewed 26 June 2020, sourced from <;

[8] Kassim S (2017), The museum will not be decolonised, Media Diversified.

[9] Kassim S (2019), ‘The Museum is the Master’s House: An Open Letter to Tristram Hunt’,, pub. 21 July 2019, viewed 26 June 2020, sourced from <;

[10] Gerstenblith P (1995), Identity and Cultural Property: The Protection of Cultural Property in the United States, 75 B.U. L. REV. 559, pp. 569 – 70.

[11] Miles M M (2008), Art as Plunder: The Ancient Origins of Debate about Cultural Property, Cambridge University Press.

[12] Text | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, sourced from <>

[13] Text of the Convention | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, sourced from <;

[14]  UNIDROIT Convention on stolen or illegally exported cultural objects. Chapter II, Art. 4.1, sourced from UNIDROIT official website.

[15] Lewis G (2004), Legal And Ethical Considerations In The Repatriation Of Stolen And Illegally Exported Cultural Property: Is There A Means To Settle Disputes? p. 6, viewed 26 June 2020, sourced from <;

[16] Papaioannou G A (2013), Guest Editorial on Museum Ethics in Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, vol. 11 (1): 2, pp. 1 – 4

[17] International Council of Museums (2017), ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. 6.1.

[18] Policy Statement on Repatriation of Cultural Property | Museums Association, viewed 20 October 2019, sourced from <;

[19] COM-WIPO Art and Cultural Heritage Mediation, viewed 20 October 2019, sourced from <;

[20] Shehade M, and Kalliopi F (2016), ‘The Politics of Culture and the Culture of Politics: Examining the Role of Politics and Diplomacy in Cultural Property Disputes’ in International Journal of Cultural Property, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 357 – 83

[21] Besterman T (2006), ‘Museum Ethics’ in S. Macdonald (ed.), A Companion to Museum Studies, Malden, MA: Blackwell.