We are taught in history lessons that imperialist conquest is a thing of the past, something that happened once and is now over. What we are not taught are the real and lasting effects that European expansion has had on the countries of the South and the fact that imperialism is not really over. Though it’s more subtle now – at least in the West – the sense of cultural superiority and the right to conquer has never really gone away. How to do it, while they are still facilitated and institutionalized? Most people don’t think that when they visit these ancient and famous museums in Europe and America, the cultural artifacts they see are actually remnants of a time when cultures were punished because ‘they weren’t Western. Yet the grip that museums have on the relics of other countries is one of the most hidden examples of imperialism persisting today.
The story of exactly how Britain got its hands on these artifacts – religious idols, records or works of art – is sadly commonplace. The British Empire arrives at the destination it wishes to conquer. They launch a series of punitive raids, destroying monuments and palaces. They decimate a culture, force religion in their conquests and take back trophies – statues, sculptures or paintings – to prove their success. These artefacts that are in museums are not indicative of the “cultured” and “sophisticated” nature of Britain. They are the remnants of an empire that actively sought to strip any culture that was not their own.
Today, faced with countries demanding the return of their artefacts, the British Museum in London refuses.
Not all museums refrain from returning artifacts to the countries from which they were taken. Institutions in France, Amsterdam and a privileged few in England have already begun the process, responding to a growing demand for accountability vis-à-vis imperialism. The British Museum, however, keeps its grip on these artifacts. It makes sense that they don’t want to give them up. These artifacts attract tourists, and tourists bring in money. For a less superficial reason, the British Museum offers people the opportunity to learn about and see other cultures that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to do. The British Museum helps preserve cultural heritage, not destroy it, right?
Not exactly. First, many of these artifacts are actually kept in basements and archival collections, not visible to the public. Nigerian, Chinese, Indian and Iraqi properties – among others – remain in British possession, gathering dust in British archives. Then there is the problem that approximately 90% of all material cultural iconography of Africa is found in the West. It’s not preserving cultural heritage; it is depriving people of the right to celebrate their own culture. Then, when these countries demand the return of their artifacts, the British Museum becomes miserly.
One of the most controversial artifacts in British possession at present are the Nigerian Benin Bronzes, a collection of priceless bronze sculptures that were taken to the Kingdom of Benin by British soldiers in the late 19th century. Nigeria claimed them and Britain responded with a rotating loan system, in which they allow Nigeria to display the artifacts for a period of time with the caveat that they must return to Britain. In doing so, Britain established itself as the true owner of these artifacts, with Nigeria only allowing temporary custody.
It doesn’t preserve Nigeria’s cultural heritage, it takes their hands off them and puts them in British museums so they can appear culturally high and educate their visitors on stories they have already violently broken.
The controversy surrounding this cultural imperialism is not limited to the artifacts themselves. This is a long-term culture war waged against people of color, seen insofar as black culture is only acceptable when it is aesthetically appropriate. This is seen in how yoga and astrology were considered barbaric and hedonistic until white people decided it was the spiritual awakening they needed. Time and time again, we see those in power punishing the marginalized for their culture, only to take it from them and enhance it. African artifacts are placed in museums so that people can look at them and feel cultural and intellectual, not knowing that these artifacts are stolen property. These museums are clearly not promoting the acceptance and education of history and culture when in 2020 a quarter of the British population wants to bring back the British Empire.
Museums are just one facet of a larger conversation surrounding the lingering impacts of imperialism. Although far more understated than the actual conquest, placing museums in the context of the discrimination people of color still face today in the West paints a picture of the lasting damage faced by marginalized communities. However, this is not a hopeless cause. As mentioned earlier, some institutions have already started this process of repatriation. Conversations between the imperialist forces and the countries from which these artifacts come have begun. One day we may enter a time when cultures are truly celebrated instead of captive to systemic power dynamics, if only those in power allow themselves to be held accountable for past actions.