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Conservation and the Weight of History

photograph of statues in front of Philadelphia Art Museum

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In September of 2020, the National Trust, an organization that preserves more than two hundred historical sites scattered across the U.K., published a lengthy report on the material legacy of British colonialism. The report specifically identifies ninety-three sites under its purview that were built, occupied, or otherwise connected to the slave owners, bureaucrats, merchants, and politicians who drove the Atlantic slave trade. The vestiges of imperialism, the report implies, can be found not just in bombastic public monuments, but in the quaint country estates and manicured parkland. Blood money taints everything from private art collections (which contain curiosities pillaged from India and Africa) to luxury furniture (often made from tropical hardwoods like mahogany, which were invariably harvested by slaves).

Hilary McGrady, the director of the Trust, notes in a blog post accompanying the report that

history can also be challenging and contentious. It is surely a sign of confidence, integrity and pride that while we can celebrate and enjoy history we can also explore and acknowledge all aspects of it. The National Trust is at its best when we capture this complexity – when we present facts and material evidence in ways that inspire curiosity, inquiry, learning and sharing.

History has certainly proved to be contentious; Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, accuses the Trust of bowing to Black Lives Matter, which he refers to as a “semi-racist political movement with extraordinary doctrines who love, among other things, knocking down statues,” and laments “that our greatest conservation body should be, as it were, taking the knee to them.”

Others believe that the Trust isn’t going far enough. Their new programming acknowledges the impact of imperialism, but it isn’t clear whether or not they’ll take the next step of repatriating artifacts. In an article on the Trust for The New Yorker, Sam Knight interviews British historian William Dalrymple, who explains,

If you were to gather a group of National Trust supporters in a room and say to them, ‘We have some examples here of looted Jewish art treasures taken by the Nazis that have ended up in our properties. Should we hold on to them? Or should we give them back to their owners, who now live in L.A.?’ There would be a hundred-per-cent vote, of course. Most British people simply are not aware, or haven’t processed. . . that this is the same thing. That this is another conquered nation, whose art treasures now sit in British museums and in British country houses.

Most visitors to Trust sites find these historical parallels difficult to process, because, as Knight argues, the National Trust fulfills “at least two large and subtly conflicting roles, as a custodian of collective memory and as a purveyor of weekend leisure. The Trust aims for total inclusion. Its slogan is ‘For everyone, for ever’ . . . The Trust hates to disappoint people. It hates, like any great British institution, to cause offense.” But is the point of historical sites to provide comforting narratives that bolster patriotism, or to display the stark and often ugly realities of history, offensive as they may be? Many of us understand history as inert, a tranquil landscape that we gaze at appreciatively from a safe difference, but we come to that landscape with baggage in hand. All conservational bodies, not just the Trust, have to reckon with what the public wants from history, how they want it to act upon them (or, in some cases, not act upon them.)

Novelist Zadie Smith explored the weight of history in an essay for The London Review of Books. Smith argues that “Public art claiming to represent our collective memory is just as often a work of historical erasure and political manipulation. It is just as often the violent inscription of myth over truth, a form of ‘over-writing’—one story overlaid and thus obscuring another—modeled in three dimensions.” She’s speaking about monuments here, which are typically built with a particular narrative of the past in mind, but the way we maintain and present historical sites is another form of storytelling.

Smith, who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic, acknowledges the rampant erasure of slavery in the United States, but in the U.K., she sees not

erasure but of something closer to perfect oblivion. It is no exaggeration to say that the only thing I ever learned about slavery during my British education was that ‘we’ ended it . . . The schools were silent; the streets deceptive. The streets were full of monuments to the glorious, imperial, wealthy past, and no explanation whatsoever of the roots and sources of that empire-building wealth.

Smith’s experience casts doubt on the ability of the Trust, or any single organization, to act as a definitive “custodian of collective memory” when so much of our history goes unacknowledged. Even the idea of total inclusion, which makes up half of the Trust’s slogan, feels like an attempt to smooth over division and inequalities. Smith sees a potential remedy to historical amnesia in artists like Kara Walker, whose work depicts the grotesque absurdities of slavery. Walker famously interrogated the serene public monuments of imperialism with her piece A Subtly, an enormous sculpture of a black woman made from white sugar (a commodity that drove much of the slave trade and helped beautify those ninety-three homes identified by the Trust).

One Walker drawing, enigmatically titled “What I want history to do to me,” elicits a polyphonous response from Smith. She reflects,

What might I want history to do to me? . . . I might ask it to urgently remind me why I’m moving forward, away from history. Or speak to me always of our intimate relation, of the ties that bind—and indelibly link—my history and me. I could want history to tell me that my future is tied to my past, whether I want it to be or not. . . . I might want history to show me that slaves and masters are bound at the hip. That they internalize each other. That we hate what we most desire. That we desire what we most hate. That we create oppositions—black white male female fat thin beautiful ugly virgin whore—in order to provide definition to ourselves by contrast. I might want history to convince me that although some identities are chosen, many others are forced. Or that no identities are chosen. Or that all identities are chosen . . . All of these things. None of them. All of them in an unholy mix of the true and the false.

When we approach the past, we come with many contradictory and often submerged desires, as Smith makes clear. British historical sites will continue to draw in tourists who want to snap photos of sprawling gardens and elegant drawing rooms. We can only hope that the National Trust’s admirable recognition of colonialism will start a new conversation about the many uses and misuses of history.

Refusal to Repatriate: The Owning, Lending, and Stealing of Art

photograph of the British Museum at night

In 1897, British troops stole some 4,000 sculptures after invading the Kingdom of Benin, which is now southwestern Nigeria. Since then, Nigeria has requested the return of these bronzes with increasing frequency, especially since the plans for a Royal Museum to open in 2021 became firm. The British Museum, and the UK, have come under a great deal of scrutiny and criticism at their refusal to repatriate these cultural artifacts. The UK has refused to return the Elgin Marbles, named for the noble that took them from Greece, and has refused Egypt’s request to repatriate the Rosetta Stone. In November, the British Museum agreed to a temporary solution with Nigeria: they will loan some pieces of their collection to Nigeria for the museum opening. 

This decision is consistent with past loans. In 2016, the British Museum refused to repatriate the Gwaegal shield to Australia, instead loaning the shield for a museum exhibit and reclaiming it afterward. 

This tentative policy is a contrast to the 2017 commitment by French President Emmanuel Macron to return objects of African heritage. After announcing that the Quai Branly Museum in Paris will return 26 stolen objects to the country of Benin, Macron said he wants to change French law so that France must return stolen objects whenever a country asks for them back.

The British Museum is not alone in Europe for being under pressure to reevaluate their policy and laws preventing their museums from returning parts of their collections. The Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany, has repeatedly been criticized for its refusal to repatriate the Ishtar Gate to Iraq among other objects. 

Often in discussions of repatriating artifacts of cultural heritage, it seems straightforwardly fair that the countries of origin be in possession of their significant artifacts. However, the appropriateness of repatriating these artifacts can be less straightforward when three factors come into play. The contemporary country of origin may have less of a claim to repatriation when 1) the acquisition may have been just, 2) the source cultural group is unclear or not clearly contiguous with a contemporary group, or 3) the value of institutional retention of disputed objects is thought to outweigh the good of repatriation.

The first consideration, the justice of how the current institutions came to possess the artifacts, is part of what makes repatriation a systemic problem. The reason that there are so many countries in Europe with issues of repatriation is because they obtained the artifacts by their imperialist practices. Archeologists from the imperialist nations, rich collectors, and black market acquisitions led to many artifacts finding their way out of their countries of origin while under foreign control. These are colonial powers who often acquired significant artifacts as a direct result of their imperialism: they ruled the countries of origin at the time and brought the artifacts back. The countries of origin were cut out of a chain of possession because they were not ruling themselves at the time. The culturally significant artifacts were taken just as natural resources were taken. Currently in Germany, an inventory is being taken of the artifacts in the major museums to track how their pieces were acquired as a potential first step to determining ownership rights. 

The second issue with repatriation regards a practical concern. If the country currently in possession of an artifact grants that it obtained the object unjustly, there is still a question of to whom to return it. Part of what makes these artifacts so important is their connection to cultural history and heritage. They represent a window from which to view societies from the past. But whether a contemporary group can claim to inherit the rights to cultural property can be less than clear. If, for instance, current national borders do a poor job of capturing a culture that has no clear descendants, some have argued that a contemporary nation’s claim to own the artifact is not significantly stronger than the nation who is possession of it. 

Finally, there is the artifact itself to consider. There may be reason to keep artifacts where they are, often for their own safety. If their country of origin is experiencing unrest or does not have a suitable institution to care for the artifacts under consideration, this bolsters a nation’s claim to stewardship over the artifact. Germany, for example, has used the justification that travel back to Egypt would damage the delicate bust of Nefertiti to refuse to return it to its country of origin despite continuous requests since 1930. Likewise, the British Museum claims that the value of keeping the collection of bronzes together outweighs the claim of cultural ownership and requires them to maintain the rights to the Kingdom of Benin’s bronzes. 

There is mounting pressure in favor of repatriation, especially with France’s expressed commitment to abide by any requests they receive. Progress may be slow, but it is heartening that it is moving in the direction of significant artifacts residing where their context supports, rather than where colonial power and money have moved them.

Considering Avenues for Colonial Repatriation

Photo of old colonial fort with palm tree and grass

Over the past century, many arguments have surfaced in reference to Western nations giving reparations for their atrocities during the colonial period. Proponents of repatriation center their arguments around the numerical value of the people that were lost, natural resources given up, and artifacts stolen from them. On the other hand, many of the benefactors of colonialism claim that those countries that were colonized benefitted from this process and gave them an upper hand in an increasingly industrialized world. The claims of the colonialist beg us to investigate whether they are well-founded and true, for accepting them full-heartedly distorts the reality of the situation. Continue reading “Considering Avenues for Colonial Repatriation”