Do Museums Preserve Culture or Display the Legacy of Colonial Power?

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The ethical dilemma of not being able to return the items of the national museums of the western colonial powers back to their countries of origin seems almost plausible. These objects need security, a specialist level of care, dedicated staff, buildings, and a nuanced understanding and appreciation of the cultures that they represent. This is also a part of the bigger discussion that is always touted about accessibility, and due to the museums (for the most part) in this country being free they allow everyone to be able to see these items where they usually would not be able to if they were abroad in their homeland. Whilst the above is rhetoric used all over the Western world as justification, this article will concentrate on Britain as a case study. There are three major issues with this line of argument.

What does ‘everyone’ mean?

When the narrative around the items being in nationally owned ‘free’ museums where ‘everyone’ can benefit from them. This does not include the people outside of London, and indeed from abroad that need to travel to England to view items of their cultural history of others. Moreover, tourism is then removed from those countries and placed directly within the remit of England, which includes benefits for the drinks and food sector, accommodation such as hotels and hostels, and even transport; both private and public that everyone needs to pay for. None of which are then attributed to the country of origin of these pieces, and also leaves those same countries economically worse off the longer that they miss out on these opportunities. To put it in context, if someone was to take Stonehenge and put it in the middle of Dakha in Bangladesh in a museum that was free, no matter how well it was kept – it would still be inaccessible to most of the British public, even in the ‘First World’.

The closest European example of this is that Greek people who want to see the Caryatid or other Pantheon marbles need to travel to London, pay the air-fare, and all of the other related costs and then visit the British Museum on a day that those galleries are open (they are subject to close due to security or staffing issues). Then there are the examples that mean that only the elite of those countries can see their cultural history, namely the Middle Eastern, African, and Asian collections that are stored in the museums in London. Suddenly ‘everyone’ is not the inclusive term that it once was.

Finally, even if you could get to London, and you could pay the hotel fees, or even if you are from here. Less than 20% is on public display for ‘everyone’ to benefit from. So not only does the tax-payer foot the bill for this display of the legacy of colonial power in a time when the price of living is at an all-time high, the items are not on display for almost anyone, and the presents of these items in England still negatively affects the former colonies that they are from.

They need a level of care that not everyone can give them

Conservation of ancient and medieval history is central to their survival and appreciation. But using such an argument for their presence in England implies that this is solely a skill that lives on this side of the world, that the former colonies from which said art and artefacts come are incapable of such levels of skill. It feeds into this idea of the paternalistic image of the British government ‘looking after’ these items which both ignore the level of skill and understanding that it took to create such items of heritage and underlines the point of protecting the ‘uncivilised’ from themselves. That decisions need to be made for them, without recognising that those same studies, and levels of security and assurance, and even insurance, are all readily doable with the right amount of revenue.

There is currently merchandise, special paid ticketed exhibitions in otherwise free museums, and a whole sector of jobs that align in this vein to allow these items to be kept the way that they are. The tourism trade in England generates more in taxes, income, and jobs, also all support this endeavour via taxes and expenditure. The only thing that really sets colonial powers apart in this regard, is the location of these items. Not a deeper layer of understanding and skill, which do exist, but are not a Western monopoly.

Whilst the skills to conserve and understand these objects are present in Britain – this can be over-estimated

It is true that the British Museum and other institutions like it that possess objects from colonial countries do invest in studying and understanding the items that they store. However, there seems to be certain hubris around this as possessing this superior understanding of these items is without proper consultation of the cultures and languages they come from.

A prime example is the relatively new al-Bukhari gallery that is in the British Museum which is supposed to be a revamped replacement for the previously Islamic galleries. When the gallery was opened it received raving reviews, however, it didn’t take long for anyone with a rudimentary understanding of Arabic to see that the Arabic signs that were on display were often misspelt. To put this into context, this gallery was being planned and made for years; the lack of consultation of those that could have been involved was clear to see. Moreover, the very fact that instead of deciding to keep in line with the rest of the museum and organise these artefacts in terms of geographical region, for some reason the Islamic galleries seemed to have an entirely different identity without recognising that Islam is not a place. Finally, the presence of East African and black Muslims is not recognised anywhere in the gallery, or if it is, they are starkly overshadowed by South Asian and Middle Eastern identity, which are important but not the only representations of Islamic culture and history.

All of this emphasises how important it is that the people from which these items originate are involved in the process of preserving and appreciating them. And again, this still falls into the remit of taking away revenue and opportunities of exposure for those same cultures because the Islamic galleries have been created in an aesthetic that feeds into ‘Instagram-culture’ in what one would imagine the Middle East would look like. It is very photogenic, and a tourist attraction in itself. However, this is not in any way benefiting the countries that these items came from and so again this argument of this being the best thing for the objects and for those who are able to see the objects here falls flat. Instead, the scholars of these countries are cut off from study opportunities due to the geographic location of the items.

What does this all mean then?

The simplest way to put it is there is still a lot of healing to do. Academically there are missed opportunities in the understanding of these objects due to the sheer lack of language held by those who possess the items to the degree that is needed for historical items. It also means that scholarship suffers, being able to take a nuanced and cross-cultural avenue in understanding these items would make great strides in understanding a lot of these items on a deeper level.

For the items that are not accessible to anyone without proper and sufficient reason (according to the holders of the items), there needs to be a serious conversation about why these are kept on this island and if tax-payers money should be used to preserve and hold them when they have willing holders and owners abroad. Especially in such trying times for the British public, and the most vulnerable amongst us.

Finally, the pandemic has meant that tourism worldwide has suffered without a doubt. Whilst developing countries are trying to boost their tourism, holding their items without displaying them at all, or even being accountable for what is being held here is poaching a valuable revenue source and an incorrigible act of colonialism that should be left in the past. But cannot be until at least some strides are made.

Toslima Khatun has just completed her PhD in the History of the Middle East at SOAS and is set to attend our graduation this July. She is currently a post-doc at King’s College London in Public Policy working in identifying how to protect vulnerable groups in society in the current political climate. Furthermore she has worked in Museums and their colonialities both in terms of education and presentation for the last 6 years, primarily with the British Museum and has even been a consultant for them in the past.

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