Restitution (ctd.)

February 21 2019

Another day, another story in the British press that makes life uncomfortable for the British Museum. The latest, an article in The Guardian by an Australian art historian Alice Procter, has been widely circulated on social media. Alice organises Uncomfortable Art Tours of museums which focus on the legacy of colonialism, and takes as its starting point her belief that (as she says on her website):

The history of British art is also the history of empire and genocide, written by collectors who traded in landscapes and lives.

In her Guardian article, Alice carries on taking a swipe at British museums more widely, writing:

Museums are in crisis. In the past, their social role has been taken for granted – they’re spaces for preserving objects and educating the deferential public that comes to admire them. It’s a tidy, completist dream: wouldn’t it be nice to see the whole of human history, free and open to all?

Except that history is nasty and ugly. It’s full of violence: every moment, every event, takes place within a power dynamic – there’s always a hierarchy in play. The whole concept of The Museum is a colonialist, imperialist fantasy, born from the fallacy that somehow the whole world can be neatly catalogued, contained in a single building, mapped out for easy digestion. There’s no such thing as a free object, and every piece in a museum has been moved from its original context. 

I think this is slightly overstating things. How does it apply to, say, the National Coal Mining Museum? Furthermore, there's something about the determination to use historical events to mock museums, the people who work there, and those of us who visit them 'deferentially' - as Alice assumes we do - that I find rather grating, especially if it is wrapped up in language of eye-rolling insincerity. Should we cease to like, or admire, or even enjoy, looking upon some of the most beautiful and important objects ever made, because of the circumstances in which they may have been acquired or made? I don't think so, because I suspect most of us are able to make the distinction already. 

But I do admire Alice's chutzpah and the energy with which she presents her case. More importantly, I suspect it's an argument she's going to win, because we appear to be reaching something of a tipping point in the colonial restitution debate. Even an old stick-in-the-mud like me has changed their mind on the Elgin Parthenon Marbles. (I think the call for their return to Greece would meet my four tests for restitution). 

And not only have I noticed that there are fewer people willing to defend the British Museum, especially on other related objects like the Benin Bronzes, but the British Museum itself seems to have trouble mounting a defense. The old line that 'there is a public benefit in being able to see these objects in the context of a world collection' doesn't work anymore, not in a digital age, and especially not when it keeps 2m objects in storage at any one time. A recent attempt by the BM's director, Hartwig Fischer, to come up with a new defence - that removing the Marbles to London was a 'creative act' - has been met with some derision. 

I'm far from a 'let's send it all back' person. But I hope that soon we in Britain do take a hard look at our tradition of hording cultural objects which rightfully belong to the rest of the world. We are, after all, entering a period in our history when we'll be needing as many friends as we can get. I also hope that we don't just focus on museum collections. One item which I think should be a priority to return is Cleopatra's Needle, which currently sits unnoticed on the Thames embankment, rotting away in the traffic fumes, serving no purpose except to remind us of colonial glories past. Put a replica in its place, and send it back to Egypt.  

Update - a reader writes:

I agree with the idea of making excellent copies of certain museum 'possessions', like the Parthenon marbles and Cleopatra's needle, and handing back the originals.  Not on the grounds of colonial guilt, but because, in this day and age, it would be more interesting to see such things in their proper, original context. 

The ownership issue is irrelevant - whether modern Greeks are any more or less worthy of inheriting the objects of the ancient Greeks than Londoners, etc - the point is, Athens is the place where the ancients made the marbles, that is their proper context.  It would be perfectly possible to move Stonehenge to a park in central London, but that is not their proper context.

I also think the arguments about violence and art a bit of a red herring.  Throughout history, everywhere in the world where there has been competition between humans for land and resources, there has been violence.  In Britain and the rest of Europe, hardly a year passed for centuries without one feudal lord attacking another.  Really big battles seem to have cropped up about once a decade.  The same was true in the rest of the world, outside of Europe.  These were not, by and large, innocent, peaceful paradises subjected to violence by Europeans, who then stole all their valuables.  Where land and resources were at a premium, they had also had their own forms of feudal warfare, stretching back into pre-history.  Violence and bloodshed was a global, human phenomenon.

Art is one of the few worthy achievements to emerge from the context of global inter-human violence.  We should look at it with collective human pride, not with a sense of post-colonial shame.  You might as well look at buses and trains with shame, considering the raw materials we also 'stole' during the period of their development.

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