Features Editor


Museums as agents of colonial times.

In 2017, The Telegraph published what may have been one of their worst takes yet: “The Elgin Marbles don’t ‘belong’ to Greece - they belong to us all”. I’m fairly sure that this was also Lord Elgin’s thought process, as he chiseled them from the temple wall and abducted them back to Britain. It’s certainly been the argument upheld by the British Museum. 

The Parthenon Marbles are as much a site of beauty and art, as they are the hot topic of controversy surrounding ownership and colonial legacy. The debate sparked by these abducted attractions has erupted into a large discussion about the decolonisation of museums, and who does history really “belong” to?

The decolonisation of museums is a global issue, in Britain specifically, the calls to return stolen artefacts are by no means new, but they are getting louder. From a country who is responsible for the independence days of 65 other countries, our museums are largely famous for items stolen from the Empire’s heyday. Especially considering one particular exhibit that’s garnered harsher scrutiny during Brexit, the Parthenon Marbles. 

Controversially renamed as the Elgin Marbles and currently displayed in British Museum, the marbles were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon in Athens, and the museum has been resisting their return since 1833. The marbles were thrust back into the spotlight when, in February 2020, Greece demanded that the marbles be included as a condition in the new EU trade deal. 

Beyond the relics of our past, antique dinnerware, ornate exhibits and carefully preserved portraits, the embers of colonialism are kept burning by a backlog of colonial injustice, a process kindled by museums across the country, and the world. While there is an argument that the Marbles have been in British hands so long that they now belong in British museums, this is one slice of a much larger issue. Say the museums are allowed to withhold certain exhibits, should the answer to a call for decolonisation be a blanket “nope” on all accounts? What about displays that weren’t just illegally purchased, what about something even more personal? 

Picture this. I come to your hometown. I murder your family, colonise your back garden, plunder your property, and steal your grandad’s skull. Years from now I’ll display it all in my museum and no, actually, you can’t have it back. I am a museum and this is part of my history now, somehow.

In 2017, the Natural History Museum intended to perform genetic testing on some of the remains of Tasmanian Aboriginals. What followed was a drawn out human rights case that redefined ideas of museum ownership.

Almost their entire original tribe had been wiped out by the British during the Black Wars in the 1830s, and what remained had been looted by colonisers, with human skulls adorning the mantlepieces of Victorian homes like collectables. Aboriginal descendants launched a case against the tampering of the remains, and asked again for them to be returned, as in Aboriginal culture, the souls of the deceased are in torment until they are laid to rest in their own land. The museum argued that they merely wanted some genetic samples from the remains, “We are just going to cut the bones a bit!” but human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson argued back, “What they are going to do, is experiment with the bodies of victims of genocide.” 

This new angle didn’t look good for the museum, or the papers who had been following the case, and ultimately the remains were released to be buried in the land they were stolen from. The museum had made a rationalist case based on the pursuit of knowledge, but they’d failed to contextualise how the bones came to be in America, halfway around the world from where their owners were murdered, chopped up, and distributed like tourist souvenirs. 

The case opened up a larger argument about ownership. British colonists murdered natives, then took their corpses, their art and their culture, home to the UK to display in museums. To the British museums, they own the remains simply because they took them. But by that logic, if descendants broke into that same museum and stole them back, so they belong with their new owners now? The debate on decolonising museums raises questions about who actually owns history. 

The modern museum’s concept of ownership mirrors a colonial logic, with an idea of previous colonial powers crowning themselves the eternal custodians of pilfered cultural treasures. It’s the same logic that the British Museum shields itself with, under a flood of calls to return the Parthenon Marbles. Does misappropriated ownership equal actual ownership? Should the spoils go to the victor? 

The 2007 UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples entitles descendants to repatriated human remains, but it’s merely a convention, not a law, and therefore has no binding hold over museums to force the return of stolen goods. Granted, some countries have made a conscious effort to decolonise their collections by returning some goods, such as the German decision to return all Herero skeletons taken from the 1905 genocide back to Nambia to be buried. This sets a precedent, which is great for other nations or groups looking to reclaim what was taken from them, but not so great for museums brimming with colonial undercurrents, who still see themselves as the warden of someone else’s history. The unified amnesia of collective British museums leads them to lag behind other countries who have set upon the process of slowly decolonising their museums; France, and The Netherlands join Germany in the repatriation of colonial souvenirs. 

The journey of decolonising Britain’s museums is long. In 1997 Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum vehemently rejected requests from the King of Benin to return pilfered artefacts. The 22 pieces of bronze and ivory were a piece of African history, stolen from a culture who sculpted their past instead of writing them down. The refusal to return them was, literally, the theft of someone else’s history, of their connection to their own past. Then again, in 1999, descendants of the Lakota nation requested the return of the Lakota Dance Shirt to them, a request that was honoured by the museum, who were then gifted with a replica of the shirt from the Lakota people. The original shirt was covered in bullet holes and dried blood from its original owner, and was immensely significant to the ancestors who were able to recapture this slice of their heritage. Yet the Kelvingrove didn't lose an exhibit, rather it gained a new one, a testimony to the importance of culture, a slice of Lakota history that actually does belong to them.  


2 replies on “Stolen Histories”

Kirk L Walker says:

The narrator of this article expressed very clearly and precise the focal points of where the boundaries lie between current ownership and those desiring to reclaim something of value. I’ve never seen anyone laying claim to something that was valued at less than it’s original value at production, but most often towards things that are considered to be priceless. If the manner of allowing everyone to come to museums to claim articles that “belonged” to their ancestors then most museums would not have enough articles left to open it’s doors. I look forward to reading more literary works of Ms. Nairne Clark Hopkinson which are both informative and able to bring out intelligible thoughts and discussions for the readers. Thank you for sharing this with your supporting readers, and may you continue to allow the freedom speech in print for all who wish to do so.

Sincerely,

Kirk L. Walker SR
Published author

Trey says:

The clarity of this article is amazing and make it even more enganging.

In response to Walker saying:
allowing everyone to come to museums to claim articles that “belonged” to their ancestors then most museums would not have enough articles left to open it’s doors.’

Its interesting that you put the word belonging in quotation marks as if its social construct. If all the artifiacts in British Musuems that were stolen were returned and british museums have to clsoe their doors then it measn Britain has a lot of questions to answer. Certain countires and people are requesitng things that are part of their heritage and history. Ask Britain what its history is? What is its heritage and put that in its musuem. If their doors must close then the Britain needs to find its own histroy that does not include pillaging and genocide and colonislism. It is the same countries who are still realing from neo-colonial problems that Britain seems to be monetising and profiting off of.

its about time Britain reckoned with its past and present, so whilst they’re searching for birtish artifiacts im sure they’ll come to realise why their museums are empty and they can fill it with Shakespeare quotes.

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