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

By Mehar Chohan

Figure 1: Jan Davidsz van Heem’s Vanitas Still life with Books, a Globe, a Skull, a Violin and a Fan, 1650. (Stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1972; present whereabouts unknown). Image sourced from <,_Vanitasstilleven.jpg&gt;

Attempting to distinguish between who owns culture and who doesn’t is one way of trying to approach the complex issue of repatriation. Ownership of cultural property can be seen as divided between two prevailing philosophies, namely cultural internationalism and cultural nationalism, terms that were coined by the art and cultural law professor John Henry Merryman in his 1986 article Two Ways of Thinking About Cultural Property.

The internationalist approach to cultural property, according to Merryman[1], is one that emphasizes ‘components of a common human culture, whatever their places of origin or present location, independent of property rights or national jurisdiction’. This approach gives cultural property a universal value, which both the Hague Convention of 1954 and UNESCO 1972 World Heritage Convention support by using terminology like “outstanding universal value”. Merryman claims internationalists are usually from market countries like Germany, France and the U.K where the demand for cultural property exceeds that of the supply, whereas the Nationalist approach sees cultural property as the national heritage of a particular nation and imposes restrictions on its export. Nationalists are usually source nations such as India and China, where the supply of cultural property exceeds its demand. Verification of the nationalist approach can be seen in the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Museums depict themselves as internationalists who maintain ‘an ordered representation of the world in miniature’[2]; this idea was reinforced in December 2002, with the directors of eighteen museums including the Louvre, Berlin State Museum, and several major American art institutions, signing the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. The document was initiated and printed by the British Museum and is in line with an internationalist view that is sympathetic to the museums retaining cultural heritage. Furthermore, the document argues for their continued stewardship rather than ownership, mainly because ‘objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era’. It goes on further to say ‘over time, objects so acquired – whether by purchase, gift or partage – have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them’[3]. An interesting matter to note is that ICOM did not endorse this declaration nor does it have signatories from source nations who should be a part of the construction of a global museum in a post-colonial era, as noted by some scholars and critics.

There are many museum and cultural scholars who are proponents for this view. James Cuno, the current president of the J. Paul Getty Museum, has been particularly vocal in this regard in various newspaper articles and his book Who Owns Antiquity? In it he states, ‘antiquities and their history should not be used to stoke such narrow identities… Cultural property should be recognized for what it is: the legacy of humankind and not of the modern nation-state, subject to the political agenda of its current ruling elite’. Another notable internationalist who believes cultural heritage as universally valuable and transhistorical, and should not be geographically limited but should be retained for preservation, public access and scholarship is Tristram Hunt of the V&A Museum. He warns that calls for decolonization driven by ‘a highly emotional focus on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and nationhood’ could eventually lead to the deportation of human beings: ‘Some fear, first of all, the objects—and then the people’[4]. Stéphane Martin[5], director of the Quai Branly in Paris, recently said, ‘Museums should not be the hostages of the unhappy history of colonialism’.

Cultural nationalists, on the other hand, argue that these artefacts are important symbols to create the shared national identity and pride required to construct a new nation. The gesture of repatriation of heritage objects is also essential for source countries to right past wrongs, as well as encourage the countries to economically maintain themselves through tourism. ‘The connection people feel to cultural objects that are symbolically theirs, because they were produced from within a world of meaning created by their ancestors – the connection to art through identity – is powerful. It should be acknowledged’[6]. If we refer back to the Maqdala treasures for a moment (see part I of Culture Wars), the return of the Ethiopian collection was essential to the country rediscovering its history. According to Sydney-region Aboriginal elder Shayne Williams, another pertinent view to consider is that although most artefacts that were acquired are considered “national treasures” the return of these objects could spark disputes between families who feel they are the rightful owners. Therefore, he believes ‘cultural exchange and partnership may create greater space for the matter of repatriation’[7].

With these two contentious views of who owns culture, the second thing to decipher is how the object was acquired. This requires provenance research of the object or objects in order to establish if a claim can be made or not. To Jürgen Zimmerer, a history professor at the University of Hamburg who studies colonialism, the dilemma is a moral one. The question is, “do you keep objects which are stolen, or not?” If the answer is no, then there is nothing to do but return them, he says. ‘The idea that only Europe can keep objects safe is at the core of the colonial ideology, of the colonial gaze. We acquired these museums by looting, subjugating, even killing other people, and it requires a complete decolonization of our museum landscape or our knowledge landscape and people are refusing to do that’[8].

Although it is well established that museums were products of the colonial era, the history of the collections they have is complex. Sometimes it is easily forgotten that explorers, missionaries, travellers, traders and scientists acquired many of the objects legitimately. Some artefacts were received through barter, gifted or bought. These artefacts that were brought back and housed in museums were also used for scholarship, which has aided research over the years in subjects such as flora and fauna, and geographical mapping to name but a few. Moira Simpson[9], who writes extensively about museums and repatriation, suggests that ‘the debate surrounding the ownership and interpretation of material culture requires the development of new museological guidelines and international dialogue. It is this colonial legacy that museums must deal with today’.

Responses and actions from the museum sector: Britain, France and Germany

In November 2017 the French president Macron made his speech regarding the return of African artefacts. It was swiftly followed up with a report written by economist Felwine Sarr and art historian Bénédicte Savoy. The report titled The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward A New Relational Ethics recommended permanent repatriation of looted heritage from Africa during the colonial era. They refer to colonialism as crimes against humanity and restitution as a step toward ‘building bridges for future equitable relations’. The report’s aftermath has seen a wave of responses and reactions from European museums and scholars, both for and against the report. Within France itself the report has received harsh criticism, especially from the head of the Quai Branly, Stephane Martin, who is critical of the expertise of both Sarr and Savoy and the lack of consultation from the museum professionals in the report. He even states that ‘heritage will become the hostage of memory’[10].

A commonly felt sentiment from most museums is that if everything is repatriated, museums may be emptied. Furthermore, Martin emphasized that circulation of collections is the way forward rather than restitution especially since the laws of France cannot be overhauled due to the concept of inalienability, which is fundamental to France’s national museum collections. Another argument has been that Africa is not equipped to look after the restituted objects as was quoted in the La Tribune de l’Art ‘rather than just considering that the works [were] preserved by European museums and have been saved from destruction, it is coldly envisaged that their restitution will thus lead to [their] disappearance’[11].

Figure 2: Benin City, ca. 1668. Image sourced from <;

Backed by the controversial report France initially appeared to be the most active to make repatriation a part of its government’s agenda. However the Euro-African conference, scheduled for April 2019, was cancelled and in its stead a small-scale symposium was held to discuss the report, attended by archaeologists, art historians, curators and various representatives from the ministries of culture. Both Savoy and Sarr declined the invitation to attend. President Macron had also promised the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, which were looted during the British punitive expedition in 1892 from the kingdom of Benin (now Nigeria). The Bronzes are currently housed at the Quai Branly museum, the British Museum and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. No date has yet been set for their return, although the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG) is in talks for a permanent loan of the bronzes to Nigeria’s Benin City. So far, France and other European countries have agreed upon a loan. Hence it seems that the French president may not take into consideration all of the recommendations provided in the ambitious report by Savoy and Sarr, only time will tell how it all pans out.

The Savoy and Sarr report also mounted social pressure on its European counterparts. Germany has felt the pressure to evaluate its colonial past, especially with the controversial Humboldt museum not far from opening. Germany has been contending with its Nazi-era looting restitution cases for years now rather than its colonial past. Nicholas Thomas[12], director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) at Cambridge University has said ‘There has been much more discussion of empire in Britain, France and the Netherlands, where people in museums have thought much more about where collections have come from, and there is a deeper awareness of the sheer historical complexity’. But what Germany may lack in their colonial past they make up for with the work they have put in for Nazi-era looted works. In fact, Hunt[13] said that Herman Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, has requested for there to be ‘international guidelines akin to the Washington Principles which address the restitution of Nazi-confiscated art to descendants of dispossessed, predominantly Jewish families to help museums handle provenance research and repatriation of illegally acquired artworks in public collections’. Hunt goes on to explain that the Claims for Nazi-looted art has paved the way for the growing calls for repatriation and apologies for “various crimes of empire”.

Germany’s response to the Savoy and Sarr report has been to focus more on provenance research, first and foremost. In 2019, following suit to France, they constructed their own report, Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts, as well as returned a 15th Century stone cross to Namibia to help make amends for its genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples. Their response to the criticism of the building of the new Humboldt Forum museum has been to launch a provenance research project into the artefacts to decipher whether they were looted or legitimately acquired. The director of the institute of Humboldt Forum recently quoted ‘if we are going to present these objects, we must also tell the story of their provenance. The root of objects is an essential subject for the Humboldt Forum’[14]. However, this has been met with some criticism.

Wiebke Ahrndt, an ethnologist who took part in constructing the German report, has said that extensive funds are required to carry out the provenance research speedily and the research itself is troubled since not everything was documented comprehensively in the past, consequently some trails end up cold. Nevertheless, Ahrndt has also praised some of the strides the Humboldt is taking to deal with its colonial history, such as the new permanent exhibition Spurensuche-Geschichte eines Museums (“Searching for clues – the history of a museum”), which was due to open on the 26th October 2019. It has taken three years of research to work out how 4000 artefacts from Cameroon, Tanzania and Namibia ended up in Germany. Germany has approached calls for colonial-era repatriation with a fevered need to do more provenance research before approaching decisions to return, reflected in their allocation of 1.9 million Euros for provenance research.

On October 17 2019, Germany received criticism from academics in an open letter signed by over one hundred signatories that demanded transparency and ‘unchecked’ access to the African artefacts for independent provenance research to begin to take place. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation released a statement saying, ‘Anyone who deals with the work of museums in Germany without prejudice knows that they are making great efforts to disclose their holdings and create transparency’[15].

Figure 3: Easter Island Head, ca. 1400, basalt statue known as Hoa Hakananai’a from Easter Island, about 1400 at the British Museum

Britain is currently facing repatriation demands from Ethiopia for The Maqdala crown, Nigeria for the Benin Bronzes, Greece for their Parthenon Marbles, and the Easter Island for the Hoa Hakananai’a statue, to name but a few. However, unlike their European counterparts, Britain tends to decline requests of repatriation. The argument usually falls along the lines of how their hands are tied by the law, which forbids them to send valuable objects out of the country. Instead they have always suggested negotiations for loans and other forms of collaboration. They have often been quoted in newspapers saying they are committed to sharing objects from their collections and want to develop and build long-term equitable relationships but collections must be preserved as a whole. For instance they have shown a willingness to respond to Nigeria, whereby they have agreed so far to a permanent loan. Similarly, they have also agreed to talk with Easter Island and Ethiopia.

Another typical response is that museums are an “encyclopedic” institution where their collections are a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries. Tiffany Jenkins, author of Keeping their Marbles and an expert on museums and cultural property, is a firm believer of not returning cultural artefacts. Instead in her opinion she feels they would get a broader appreciation if they remain at the encyclopedic institutions. In her article in The Observer she says, ‘Ancient artefacts enlighten us about the world and about past peoples. That is the object of museums and their objects, which is too often forgotten in these present-day battles over the rights and wrongs of history’[16]. But if museums are considered places of learning, and the public relies on them for knowledge, their collections should represent these values. Therefore, as custodians of cultural objects ‘If museums are to demonstrate that they have shaken off the colonial mantle, they must address fully the issue of repatriation. To have a blanket, ‘no returns’ policy reflects a failure to recognize or acknowledge the relevance of the concepts of spiritual ownership, cultural patrimony and the cultural importance of certain objects to cultures that did not die out in the nineteenth century, as was expected’[17].

Roadmap and conclusion

There has been much debate regarding the stewardship of cultural artefacts acquired during the colonial era, in conjunction with calls for repatriation from source countries. There are significant barriers and hurdles for the process to happen, from questions of how objects were acquired to opposing views of what ownership is, and then there are the limitations legally and ethically. While being ambitious in its recommendations the release of the Savoy and Sarr report has added momentum to calls for repatriation and decolonisation. Bringing these issues to the forefront pushes museums to be proactive in their talks to grapple with the issue. Museums are having to evaluate how they can remain relevant by ‘assessing the legacy of the past and establishing its connection with contemporary post-colonial communities’[18]. The current political climate of awareness with activism is on the rise. People are demanding transparency with ethics and justice high on the agenda, illustrated by the #metoo movement, climate change, and objections to donations from ethically questionable companies. As Kanishk Kapoor[19] said, ‘National sovereignty is back in vogue’. This time, then, seems ripe for museums to make a collaborative effort.

But is the only remedy to return everything? The idea of museums being universal and global and encyclopedic may seem like symbols of power and idealism. However, cultural heritage should not be limited by boundaries based on the lines of a map. “Cultural heritage belongs to all mankind because each group of persons make cultural contributions to the culture of the world’[20]. The focus instead for continental museums should be on how to decolonise their institutes, to remain relevant and ethical with a focus on provenance research, and to keep the historical narrative untainted. Collaboration with source countries or peoples is essential to balance out the aforementioned Eurocentric views. Shaheen Kasmani[21] says ‘It is not just about inviting indigenous and other marginalized people into the museum to help the institution improve its exhibitions; it is an overhauling of the entire system. Otherwise, museums are merely replicating systems of colonialism, exploiting people of colour for their emotional and intellectual labour within their institutions’.

The legal framework for the return of colonial objects is another challenge since no conventional law can be referred to for the protection of cultural property before The Hague Convention II of 1899. Dialogue, mediation and collaborations between museums and source nations seem to be the way forward, encouraged by The International Council of Museums (ICOM). This, combined with the suggestion of Herman Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, to have guidelines drawn up similar to The Washington Principles for restitution of Nazi-era looted art can lead to a process that deals with repatriation claims of the colonial era, particularly for culturally sensitive objects. As Wiebke Ahrndt[22], ethnologist and director of the Overseas Museum, states, ‘Special objects [are] different, however: culturally sensitive objects including human remains, leadership insignia and special religious artefacts. Those are the things that we must talk about’.

Resources and funds are limited for public museums and taking a pragmatic approach may assist the museums in achieving these goals successfully. Achievable, standard guidelines should be drawn up and followed, such as a focus on provenance research and transparency of the historical narrative of the object or collections; mediate and discuss the return of culturally sensitive objects with assistance given to source countries for conservation and curation; agree to loans for exhibitions. Another exciting prospect would be to have western art on exhibitions and loans to non-western countries, to be able to create a true “global” sense of the encyclopedic museum, where art and culture of the world can be universally experienced.

Figure 4: Folders documenting lost, stolen and looted Italian cultural property at L’Arte Di Slavare L’Arte in Rome, June 5 2019.

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.


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