I have always been fascinated by museums. Even in Nigeria, where the existence of museums sometimes feels elitist, acultural and ‘foreign’, I would wander for hours, lost in thought, around any museum I could find. During my days at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, I would often drag my friends along to the Natural History Museum. From the moment I heard that such a thing existed, I would find any excuse to go into it and stare at the rocks, butterflies, leaves and the exceptionally tiny stuffed lion. (It was really tiny folks!) Being in a museum often feels like being given a short-term passport into a lost and forgotten fantasy world. This fantasy world is slightly fuzzy at its edges, kept apart from the harshness of reality. It is somewhat fitting, therefore, an emblem of a dying world, that the museum I knew in Ife no longer exists and has been replaced by a new-fangled shiny museum.
When I moved back to the UK and resumed my obsessive museum stalking, one of the starkest differences I noticed between the museums in the UK and museums on the African continent, was how much of the museum is dedicated to stuff from elsewhere. Most of the museums I visited in Nigeria dedicated about 90% of their collection to stuff indigenous to the place where the museum was. Not just the country the museum is, but the town/city. Many of the museums in the UK are filled with stuff from the ‘formerly’ colonised world. And mostly formerly colonised by the UK.
And the range of things kept in museums (as well as in private collections) in the Global North has always felt a bit unsettling. Nothing is more unsettling to me than the practice of keeping human remains in museums. In a different post, I discussed how Sara Bartmaan’s sexual organs were kept on display at Paris’s Museum of Man till 1974. The skulls of 37 anticolonial Algerian fighters from the 19th century were kept by French museums. France recently returned a large number of mummified Māori heads to New Zealand. The Bristol museum has the remains of an African woman in their collection. The American Natural Museum of History, has, in cardboard boxes, skulls of Herero people who were massacred in a 1904 genocide by the Germans in what is now Namibia. And it is not just museums who feel comfortable in keeping such plunder; Eliot Ross writes about coming across the skull of Mlozi bin Kazbadema, being used as a home ornament in an eastern county of England. Mlozi is recorded to have been executed in Malawi by British forces on 4 December 1895. What kind of worldview must you have to be comfortable with the skull of a human being, a human like you, on display?
The forgoing, among other things, has often led me to wonder and reflect on what the exact role of a museum is in society (local and international) and how variable that can depending on context. What exactly is a museum for? What is the future of the museum? If we are to imagine and speak into being, new worlds, not predicated on the logics of dehumanisation and dispossession, what part of these new worlds will the museum form?
Because I work very close to a museum, and my work focuses a lot on decolonisation, I often get invited to the museum to talk about decolonising the museum, either on a micro or macro level. A few years ago, I was asked to give a talk on the possible return of the Benin Bronzes held by the Bristol Museum. (The text of that talk is reproduced here.) In 2019, I was asked to chair a panel discussion during the launch of a project called Uncomfortable Truths. This is a project which describes itself as ‘seeking to uncover the truth behind objects on display’ in the museum. I am happy that museums around the world are thinking in terms of repatriation and return, but I am also aware that those who work is museums will most likely not want to decolonise the museum out of existence. Which brings me once again to the question of the future of the museum.
My experiences with decolonising the museum, and questions of repatriation of ill-gotten objects, have led me to reflect on the nature of truth and justice as well as how the museum itself is a cipher for the geopolitical order. This is because both the museum and the geopolitical order are produced by the same process of accumulation by dispossession. In his book, Who Owns History, Geoffrey Robertson QC calls the British museum the largest collection of stolen goods in the world. This particular statement struck me, and also made me reflect how the concept of decolonising the museum is synonymous with decolonisation of the world. All we see around us, that we very euphemistically refer to as cultural differences or clashes in opinion, are the largest confrontation ever between the past and the present and the uncovering of actual truths about the histories that created our present realities. We live in a moment of confrontation over an attempt to hold onto the largest accumulation of the proceeds of crime. Stolen land, stolen labour, stolen lives, stolen histories, stolen time, stolen knowledges. This confrontation can only be resolved by engaging unflinching with the truth. Mild accessions may mitigate its fervour. But the confrontation can only be contained and postponed for a while, as we continue to make and collect criminal histories even as we speak. This confrontation must be resolved, or it will bury us all. The ancestors do not sleep. Their blood cries out. Their afterlives are busy. History is active. The museum is not just those buildings. Repatriation is also about the return of intangible and unquantifiable things.
As Fanon says, decolonisation is also a violent process. It seems almost impossible that we will be able to advance softly-softly into visions of new and better worlds where the injuries of history are acknowledged, repaired and ceased. Decolonisation has always been resisted. No matter what stage empire is, those who have gained through the process of dispossession and dehumanisation will always, always, always, justify why this stolen loot should still remain in their hands. ‘Decolonization, as a splendid recent study by Quinn Slobodian shows, struck fear into the hearts of neoliberals because in their eyes it posed a grave threat to the global capitalist order.’ Decolonisation is feared.
This world order, I often suggest, is built not only on dispossession of things that can be quantified and touched, like land and museum artefacts, but also the dispossession of ideas and ways of knowing. And one of those ways of knowing is the knowledge that some things cannot and should not really be quantified, like land, and life and time. So even when universities in the Global North try to calculate what they have gained in financial terms, from (for example), the infernal trade in enslaved persons, they can never be able to quantify what we have lost through this. No bookkeeping can re-order and restore the catastrophe, the epistemicide, this hollowing out of the world and its spirit. The balance sheet is insufficient, in many ways the balance sheet itself is the problem. In trying to make the intangible quantifiable we lose the beauty of the intangible and cannot account for its loss.
And legal terms of reference are implicated in this process, As Nadine El-Enany explains here:
‘the border drawn around the spoils of British colonial conquest via immigration and nationality law amounts to an unredressed act of colonial theft. Due to mainstream understandings of property as being fixed and immovable in space and time, theft via the passing of immigration controls can be difficult to conceptualise. Along with the resources and labour stolen in the course of colonialism, the social and cultural networks and relationships that were annihilated or radically reformulated as a result of colonial conquest were also material losses. Colonial dispossession not only determined the contemporary distribution of material wealth, but also radically altered subjectivity in the sense of what people desire, consider themselves as entitled to and understand themselves to be. Theft of intangibles such as economic growth and prospects, opportunities, life chances, psyches and futures occur in all colonial contexts, settler or otherwise.’
Therefore, global questions about reparations/repatriations cannot be addressed solely as a continuation of global order of business with a tweak here and a return there. We must consider a situation in which the old order passes away. It has produced death, destruction, massive global inequality, mass extinction and may even result in the end of the planet. The terms of reference upon which the global order is built is not able to carry humanity any further – we have come thus far despite them, not because of them. By those terms of reference of accumulation and dispossession, too much of humanity has been cast into the zone of non-being, too much of humanity has been cast below the abyssal line. Cosmetic changes will not be enough to save us. Vasuki Nesiah speaks thus of a TWAIL-inspired approach to reparations:
A TWAIL-inspired approach to reparations is fundamentally political rather than ameliorative. It seeks to “interrupt” what is normalized and codified in racial capitalism, not just mitigate its adverse impacts. This approach draws attention to the unjust enrichment of those responsible for colonialism and slavery, who have benefited from exploitation and victimization (including nation-states such as Germany), to illuminate world systems and hold them accountable. This includes analyzing the work of international political economy, international institutions, military interventions, international law, as well as the cultural and epistemic violence of colonial histories. Concomitantly, it highlights the racial and regional patterns of unjust deprivation and the long-term structural legacies of that dispossession. A TWAIL approach does not see reparations as closure, but rather takes a vision of solidarity and social change to begin grappling with the history of exploitation. It is a call to change the world order, not just bookkeep a calculation of harm.
And so, I reiterate, we live in a moment of confrontation over an attempt to hold onto the largest accumulation of the proceeds of crime. Stolen land, stolen labour, stolen lives, stolen histories, stolen time, stolen knowledges. This confrontation can only be resolved by engaging unflinching with the truth. As Samuel Zubair, explains in the audio clip below, if you topple a row of dominoes, you don’t repair the damage by putting one domino back up. We need to re-frame and re-question the terms upon which we have built our world. The museum is not just the building, anywhere and anyone that wishes to hold on to things stolen (tangible or intangible) is the museum and will be decolonised… in time. Till then, we watch the abyssal line. Till then.
Chao, From Looted Lands to Restless Hands — Return Africa’s Stolen Artifacts. The Museum of British Colonialism, November 27, 2018
Daniel A. Gross, The Troubling Origins of the Skeletons in a New York Museum, The New Yorker, January 24, 2018
Nina Kravinsky, As African Art Thrives, Museums Grapple With Legacy of Colonialism
Smithsonian.com NOVEMBER 19, 2019
Vasuki Nesiah, “German colonialism, reparations and international law”, Völkerrechtsblog, 21 November 2019, doi: 10.17176/20191121-122114-0.
Geoffrey Robertson, Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure, 2019, Biteback Publishing
Elliot Ross, ‘Colonialism in the decor: we can’t keep sweeping the past under the leopard skin rug‘, The Correspondent, November 2019