Has woke culture forced British museums to face up to their colonialism legacy?

The gold death mask of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun at the British Museum in London, the highlight of the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition, UK [Getty Images]
6 min read
19 August, 2021

Two hundred and fourteen years ago, British official James Phillips and a small group of men visited the Kingdom of Benin in modern-day Nigeria. Why? Historians still contest the facts. But one thing is certain – Phillips and his men never returned.

Britain’s retribution for their murder was in excess. It sent 1,200 soldiers to overrun and sack the city. Aside from the violence, the men also returned with over 10,000 looted items. These looted items included decorative brass plaques, engraved tusks, and wooden heads. We call them the Benin Bronzes (despite the lack of bronze.)

The Benin Bronzes were then brought to England where they were sold, donated to museums, or kept by the soldiers. Now they cling to the walls of Western museum gallery spaces or lie in the darkness of crates unopened for a hundred years.

Restitution by foreign governments and a renewed focus on colonial history are nudging British museums in a new direction

The Benin Bronzes are not only exquisite examples of pre-17th century West African art. They have come to represent the countless other items Western museums have obtained by controversial means. These include the golden treasures Britain seized from Ethiopia following the 1868 battle of Maqdala, the iconic items like the Egyptian Nefertiti bust kept in Berlin, and even the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum in London.

Restitution claims have most often met silence from Western museums. But that is changing. In April this year, Germany announced the return of 500 Benin Bronzes. France also showed interest when President Emmanuel Macron commissioned the Sarr-Savoy report to assess the status of its objects in 2018. But one of the biggest players is missing from this movement: Britain.

Dan Hicks, the author of The Brutish Museums and professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford, said, “The experience for us in the museum sector is that absolutely there's an evolution of how we catch up with the long-standing neglect. The African demand for returns have been, relatively, ignored over the years. England is looking isolated on this topic.”

Many objects are not even on display in Britain. And most are kept by smaller museums across the country in Oxford, Cambridge, Ipswich, Belfast, Manchester, and Edinburgh, among others.

The 1980 National Heritage Act makes restitution problematic; it was introduced with that intention. The artefacts are also reviewed on a case-by-case basis, which can take a long time.

But the actions of Germany, France, and other progressive countries may be prompting Britain to reconsider its approach.

Director of Manchester Museum Esme Ward said: “People working in and with UK museums are highly aware of international museums’ actions and constantly reflect on what it may mean in a UK context and how we can learn.”

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Recent cultural developments including the Black Lives Matter movement are also encouraging people to consider Britain’s past. This movement led to the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol last year. So if controversial statues in city squares can come down, can those in galleries go back?

Ward said: “More public engagement with museum collections and their histories is a very positive thing. Examining history and opening up debate is already a big part of what museums do.

“Questions around racial, ecological and social justice, in particular, have become more urgent and present through public movements and activism over the past year, and this means a change in museums just as it means a change in other institutions and structures.  Artefacts that were stolen through acts of colonial violence are very much part of that reckoning.”

"We're seeing a fundamental shift in the way in which institutions think about the objects they hold in their care"

Keeping Their Marbles author Tiffany Jenkins sees it from a different perspective.

“Those who would have the museum reoriented around less of a research and dissemination role and more of an advocacy role that turns objects and actions into apologies gain ground,” Jenkins said.

“What we are seeing at the moment is that debate spill out into wider society – as in the statues.”

The public discourse has, in turn, changed the nature of the debate within museums themselves.

Jenkins said: “Those within the museum who would commit to a research focus are on less of a sure footing. It’s a battle within the museum and they are losing.”

The Ashmolean Museum’s Jaleh Hearn curator for the Ancient Near East Paul Collins said museums often hold conferences to debate this subject. As a result, they’re repositioning themselves.

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He said: “I think there's been a big shift in way from museums being sort of collectors and presenters of things, to actually think about museums as part of the urban fabric of widespread communities.”

As part of this shift, Collins led the development of The Ashmolean Museum’s Ancient Middle East gallery’s recent refurbishment.

A major part of the refurbishment involved new information about the provenance of its artefacts. Collins and his team wanted to provide the audience with an opportunity to reflect on objects’ more recent histories. They set up a dedicated case to explain where the objects come from and contextualise them in the 20th-century British colonial occupation of the Middle East.

“The laws in the region written by the colonial officials allowed the dispersal of collections around the world,” he said. “It's an incredibly relevant story for the modern world.”

The Ashmolean also opened an exhibition called Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq (open until 22 August 2021) to further develop this link. The British Museum also introduced a Collecting and Empire trail to highlight 15 artefacts collected during the British empire. The trail includes a 19th-century military tunic from Sudan and a statue from Egypt.

Questions around racial, ecological and social justice in particular have become more urgent and present through public movements and activism over the past year, and this means change in museums just as it means change in other institutions and structures

While it may be many more years until we see the British Museum return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, restitution by foreign governments and a renewed focus on colonial history are nudging British museums in a new direction.

“I think it’s about transparency, openness, and it's about a willingness to not close down conversations on the basis that an institution is the best place to keep something safe,” Collins said.

“We're seeing a fundamental shift in the way in which institutions think about the objects they hold in their care.”

Charlie Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and former News Associates trainee. He is interested in Central Asian and Arab history, politics, and culture.

Follow him on Twitter: @cafmetcalfe