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Will Britain ever return its colonial loot?

13 Feb , 2017  

Tom Ana is a blogger and LGBT-rights campaigner for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

The Indian Express reported last week that a total of just 28 artefacts have been returned to India by foreign nations since the end of colonial rule. These 28 objects include ones looted during British rule that ended up in European and Western collections. Britain, however, was not one of the nations to return some of stolen objects back to India, despite holding countless historical objects in public institutes across the country.

Although the issue of repatriation may seem unimportant to most Brits it remains a significant focus of activism for many Indians. In 2015 Media Diversified wrote about the Koh-i-Noor, a spectacular colourless diamond plundered by the British during the invasion of the Punjab. The diamond, which now sits in the crown of the late Queen Mother, was mined some time in the 12th century, and passed through many South-Asian dynasties and families, making it an object of significant historical value for Indians.

Yet despite the importance of the Koh-i-Noor to India, Britain has not even entertained the idea of repatriation. Perhaps the symbolism of an object of plunder, used to further the opulence of our royal family, is hugely powerful. Returning the diamond is completely out of the question for a country so desperate to hold onto its colonial legacy.

India is, of course, far from the only victim of Britain’s approach to antiquities. The African wing of the British Museum (tucked away in the basement – perhaps more symbolism?) is the home of dozens of objects, collectively known as the Benin Bronzes.

Whereas there may be some room for debate over the historical significance of a shiny rock, there is no such nuance for the Benin Bronzes. Created in modern day Nigeria over hundreds of years, the bronze plaques and statues depict the history of the Benin Kingdom and the Edo people. Together they cover a vast timeline of African history that stretches back to before European contact.

The Benin Bronzes arrived in Europe following the sacking of Benin City, which was all but completely destroyed by British troops after a trade expedition was attacked for attempting to enter the holy city (entrance was forbidden for outsiders at the time).

Today hundreds of the bronzes remain in British collections, while hundreds more have been spread across Europe and North America. Despite the significance they hold for African history and the Edo people, British institutes still believe that they are right in hoarding these objects.  

And it is not just the “developing world” that is the victim of Britain’s questionable stance on loot. The Parthenon Marbles, known more commonly as the Elgin Marbles, are perhaps the most famous controversial objects held in the British Museum. Questions over the repatriation of these ancient Greek treasures are so common that visitors to the Greek wing of the museum can find handy pamphlets on the museum’s official stance.

Whereas objects from Africa and Asia are held without question the Parthenon Marbles are a rare example in which questions of repatriation have been entertained. In part this is thanks to the celebrity fanfare this particular repatriation effort has received, but also because of the excuses often presented by institutes like the British Museum.

When repatriation questions surface the primary excuse is always that these objects would be best used in a place like the British Museum. It is, after all, the world’s greatest collection of world heritage, one completely free to anybody (that happens to live in London or is rich enough to travel there).

When the idea that these objects would be equally, if not better suited, to their native cultures, historians often argue that Britain has the best experts, the best research and the best facilities. However, not only does this excuse ignore the fact that countless objects sit in archives and storage, most never touched by British researchers, it also reveals a deep-held racial bias within colonial institutes like the British Museum. In the case of Greece, a relatively affluent European nation, these racial biases are more difficult to uphold.

Foreigners of all varieties are depicted as lesser; Foreign experts and the cultures they come from are characterised as having no grasp or expertise in history. Britain, at the seat of European culture, is the gatekeeper of world heritage and the self-appointed pinnacle of a non-existent linear path from savage to civilisation portrayed through its museums.

Nevertheless, repatriation is not a complete impossibility. In 2016 the National Gallery of Australia returned a handful of objects to India after it was discovered they had been illegally smuggled out of the country for private collectors. A few months before this US authorities repatriated a 2nd century Buddhist statue to Pakistan after it had been illegally smuggled via Japan to black market collectors.

As a growing knowledge of decolonising practices is emerging in the cultural sector a slow move towards repatriation is beginning to grow. With more and more members of museums, universities and research groups understanding the importance of returning objects to their rightful homes, the museum sector is very slowly edging away from some of the attitudes of its past.

More and more often the idea of repatriation is also presented as a practical dilemma, and not just a moral one. Museums are a hugely important tool in education. In many ways they act as the guardians of cultural heritage. The current paradigm of objects across the world being held in a tiny concentration of sites is not only morally objectionable, but threatens the way in which all museums can safeguard cultural heritage too.

When people across the world are unable to fully connect with their heritage through the objects of their ancestors they find it difficult to engage with it. At the same time the heritage presented in objects like the Benin Bronzes or the Koh-i-noor is contextualised through white European notions, and not through the ideas and culture of those they should belong to.

While sites like the British Museum continue to shape how future generations understand their own heritage we will continue to live in a world where colonial-era notions and mentalities are still replicated through the cultural institutes of former-colonial powers.

Returning objects is more than just the moral duty of a nation like Britain; it is a necessity in keeping the history of the world diverse and alive. By reserving heritage and the narratives it creates to the realm of a select few we stand only to further enforce the false narratives that led to a time of colonisation. Instead those who these heritages belong to should have the chance to shape how these important objects impact on the future of all of humanity.

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