Colonialism and Systemic Racism in Museums

Restitution of Objects, Changing Interpretations, and Elevation of Oppressed Voices in European and North American Cultural Institutions

written by Peter Favret ’21 and Jenna Martin ’22, College of William and Mary

Published as part of European Horizons’ Winter 2020 policy priority series on Combatting Systemic Racism.

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Image by Elvert Barnes, Sourced from Creative Commons “38a.BLM.Murals.NBM.WDC.18September2020” .

The British Museum made headlines this year following its refusal to remove a bust of Museum founder Hans Sloane, an enslaver, from its Enlightenment Gallery. The refusal to remove the bust came after Cultural Secretary Oliver Dowden sent a letter to government-funded museums threatening to cut support and funding if they removed objects that were considered controversial. Dowden told museums that “As publicly funded bodies, you should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics,”[1] arguing that instead, displays should be recontextualized to educate the public. While statues and busts of enslavers have drawn international attention, especially with the recent Black Lives Matter protests, issues of racism and imperialism in museum interpretations and exhibits do not end with statues of white men. The reinterpretation and contextualization of the Sloane bust brings attention to another problem; the issue of display and ownership of stolen artifacts by imperialist countries, especially those looted from African nations by Western colonizers. Artifacts stolen during the colonial-era remain on display today without proper contextualization or restitution given to the cultures and countries from which they were taken. Arguments like Dowden’s completely ignore the fact that many items were stolen from their countries of origin, a crime that recontextualization cannot undo. Steps must be taken by the citizenry, governments, and museums throughout Europe and North America to decolonize cultural institutions and to listen to and uplift the voices of those to whom the objects belong. Thus, beginning a process of reparations for systemic racism inherent in many Western cultural institutions. Issues and debates regarding museum and cultural institutions’ reparations and restitutions of colonial-era artifacts are not limited to the UK. In North America and Europe, governments, institutions, and the public are currently entrenched in debate regarding museum interpretation and looted or stolen artifacts. As French art historian Benedict Savoy discusses, the public realization that the origins of the objects that are “war-related and colonialism-related,”[2] has created a shift in the way many people think about their country’s history and cultural institutions.

Across Europe, while some steps have been taken, it is clear that greater commitment is needed to interpret the issues of European colonial legacies in museums. In Germany, guidelines were created in 2019 through state cultural ministries that brought together its public museums and state governments in an effort to return artifacts to the countries or groups from which they were taken.[3] In the Netherlands, the Dutch Council of Culture published a report regarding exhibits and artifacts that were considered to be looted during the colonial-era. Museums like the Rijksmuseum supported the report and are hoping to serve as an example for restitutions by other EU cultural institutions.[4] In France, President Emmanuel Macron commissioned an investigation of colonial artifacts in French cultural institutions. The study found thousands of sub-Saharan African artifacts in French possession and called for repatriation of the artifacts that were taken under French colonial rule.[5] These investigations demonstrate that repatriation is wanted and needed, however, it still does not address the greater implications of colonial rule and greater inclusion of subjugated or marginalized persons in the curatorial and museum community.

The values of giving autonomy to marginalized groups in museums can be seen in newly curated Black Lives Matter displays in North America, specifically in US cultural institutions. The inclusion of protest signs, impactful photographs, and important symbolism can have a powerful impact. Salahu-Din, a museum specialist, postulates that art always reflects and responds to social movements.[6] If this is the case, the oppressed should be given the opportunity to share the art and artifacts they believe to be most reflective of their social movements. Further, with a news cycle known for moving quickly, museum displays can sometimes be a crucial manner in which to keep social justice movements like BLM in the national spotlight. Those plagued by social issues should have the ability to choose the way in which they would like to project their movement after the media cycle moves on. Through its continuation of public-funding to museums, the US government can support this work and narrative changing art.

Returning stolen artifacts taken from marginalized groups, most notably groups and nations within Africa, are extremely important first steps toward decolonizing society. A byproduct of the thievery discussed throughout this piece is the amplification of Western voices in historical narratives and interpretations. The main objective behind reparations, in the case of both reeducation and the returning of stolen goods, is to give more attention to the voices of such marginalized groups. Reparations must focus on giving ample time and space for marginalized voices and allow them to be the loudest in the historical and cultural space that is the museum. For this goal to be realized, governments in both Europe and North America need to give proper funding and support to museums to combat the legacy of systemic racism. In turn museums must be committed to giving ample time and control to groups affected by colonization.

References and Further Reading:

[1] “British Museum “won’t remove controversial objects” From Display,” BBC News, September 28, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-54325905.

[2] Suyin Haynes, “European Museums Keep Talking About Repatriating Colonial Objects. African Artists and Curators Have Ideas on How to Actually Make It Happen,” Time, October 20, 2020, https://time.com/5901806/african-artifacts-museums/.

[3] Christopher F. Schuetze, “Germany Sets Guidelines for Repatriating Colonial-Era Artifacts,” The New York Times, March 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/15/arts/design/germany-museums-restitution.html.

[4] Daniel Boffey, “Dutch Museums Vow to Return Art Looted by Colonists,” The Guardian, October 8, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/08/dutch-museums-vow-to-return-art-looted-by-colonialists.

[5] Haynes, “European Museums Keep Talking About Repatriating Colonial Objects.”

[6] Salahu-Din, Deborah Tulani. “Documenting the Black Lives Matter Movement Through Contemporary Collecting: An Initiative of the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” Collections: A Journal for Archives and Museum Professionals 15, no.2, 2019.

Peter Favret is a fourth-year student studying History and Government at the College of William and Mary. In addition to European Horizons, he is an intern for the 21st Century Democrats PAC. His academic interests include Modern-day Labor Politics and Voting Rights.

Jenna Martin is a third-year History and Spanish student in the William and Mary- University of St Andrews Joint Degree Programme. She serves as the President of European Horizons at William and Mary, as well as the Regional Coordinator of US Central Chapters. Her academic interests include the History of Education and Educational Reform.

TTP, formerly known as the IDEAS blog, is the official blog of European Horizons, created to give students a voice on transatlantic policy. Views are not EuH’s.

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