the things that were never just things

“The German word, "museal" [museum-like], has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present. Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. They testify to the neutralization of culture.” 1

These were words by Theodor Adorno, in 1967, on the museum as an institute. In 2018, we’ve seen Black Panther’s Killmonger stand in a room of a same kind of institute, the British Museum, face to face with a relic from his own country Wakanda, that was (wrongly) explained to him by a white curator. We’ve seen the Carter’s Apesh*t clip in the Louvre going viral, not just because of their fame, but because of the presence of their black bodies in a historically imperial museum, their spectatorship, and their claim for the heritage surrounding them. In Burkina Faso, we’ve heard President Macron stating that the return of African artefacts to their own continent is ‘a top priority’. In Athens’ recently renewed Acropolis Museum, we still see the empty pedestals of the Elgin Marbles, intentionally showing the void, putting the British theft of these marbles on the agenda. In the Netherlands, we’ve seen ten European museums agreeing to (partially and slowly) return the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria – on long-term loan for now, and under the condition of a high standard museum that still has to be built. Finally, more than ever before, the colonial artefacts that many Western museums have in their collections, are subject to an intense debate.

Varying from diamonds to mummies, from ancient clay tablets to ritual masks, the objects at stake are as varied as possible, but have one thing in common: they were obtained from the Global South under dubious circumstances in colonial times. Clearly, each of these objects has to be studied specifically in order to know the story of its provenance or its intended meaning. But what might give more insight in the current discussion about returning these artefacts, is a short background of the way in which these objects are more than just objects: a history of the story they were supposed to embody. If we speak about these diamonds, masks, mummies and tablets, what is it that we are speaking about? In whose story were they illustrative, and what have they meant in the places they are kept? My focus will be on the story that brings them all together: that of the Western, encyclopedic museum telling a story of earth, the nation, and the progress of mankind. For the story that was told about these objects, was bigger than the white walls of the museum: at least for part of the world, it became the story of its history and identity. In my opinion, the current discussion about colonial artefacts cannot be understood properly, without acknowledging the Western attachment to the story it has told about them.

The museums I am speaking of, in cities like Paris, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Madrid, have vast collections that often started privately, with prints or natural artefacts, and were at some point made publicly accessible in the 18th and 19th centuries. Slowly, via flea markets and galleries, ethnographic objects made their way into the collections, first as curiosities, then as objects that added to the explanation of the world that the collector was looking for. These encyclopedic collections became the core of what were founded as national museums, who had a role in formulating a shared history of the nation-state. Colonies were part of that national story, a proof of the power of the nation, but also a perfect ‘Other’ against which the national culture could be identified. Another layer of the objects’ meaning in this story was based on a certain cultural hierarchy that determined much of Europe’s nineteenth century thinking, in which Europe had the highest position, and so-called primitive cultures the lowest. This hierarchy also functioned as the story of human progress and cultural evolution, and therefore many objects from ‘primitive’ cultures were, however wrongfully, understood as examples of an earlier human development, a supposedly distant past for the European spectator.

So what does the object mean in a place like that? Regardless of their own specific cultural meaning and context, these objects were used in a eurocentric story about the world. Both the ones who are able to see them, and the ones being able to tell the story about these objects, are not sharing its original cultural background. In this context of one-sidedness, the imperial gaze upon the world was dominant and instrumental for the maintenance of geopolitical relations. But during the last century, things have slowly begun to shift.

In times of change, national museums have always played a role in creating a national or group identity. Whether it is in African nations after gaining independence, or in European nations after a war, or times of crisis. A place where a shared history is palpable, proven in objects – even if that history was mainly created for the now. Globally, power balances are shifting, and European countries are beginning to see inconsistencies in fabric of their own histories. Slowly but surely, the aura of neutrality that encyclopedic museums cherished, seems to be fading. Again, thinking of Adorno, this ‘neutrality’ seems connected as much with a quest for objectivity, as with the ‘neutralization’ of a potential threat. Other parts of the world are now allowed to speak and be heard, and their experiences and knowledges don’t match with the imperial story. An end is coming to the idea of universal knowledge and the singular story, and place is being made for a multiplicity of stories. A beginning of the end, perhaps, of the imperial gaze: with every object, several opposing stories, histories, and cultural identifications are at stake. And suddenly, next to the Western nameplate, these objects speak about the pain that they represent for the formerly colonized: symbolic of the theft of their history, and the memory of European presence. The self-evidence of Western ownership of these colonial artefacts is getting untenable.

Finally, even if museums are willing to give up part of their collections, to countries that claim their lost treasures, we need to be wary of underlying political motives. Take, for instance, a promise made by French president Macron to West-African countries, last year. Visiting Ouagadougou, he said he wanted to return African artefacts that are currently in French museums, on a temporary or permanent basis. However, despite practical difficulties of this operation, this reeks of usage of the artefacts for political bargaining. Because regardless of the returned artefacts, Macron still keeps an indefinite presence of around 3000 French soldiers in West-African countries, a presence that severely reminds us of colonial times. It brings up the question whether this return of artefacts will coincide with a different narrative, a different history for European nations, and a different understanding of our postcolonial selves. Or will it be a mere diversion from deep, continuing colonial divides?

Further reading:

– Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983)
– Robert J.C. Young, A Very Short Introduction to Postcolonialism (2003)
– Theodor Adorno, Valery Proust Museum (1967)

Sources and footnotes:

1 Adorno, Theodor W. Valery Proust Museum. Prisms. Translation S Weber (1967): 173-86
2 According to Wikipedia: British Museum, London: 1759. Louvre, Paris: 1793 Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam: 1808. Prado, Madrid: 1819
3 Dunthorne, Hugh, and Michael Wintle. The historical imagination in nineteenth-century Britain and the Low Countries. Brill, 2012.
4 Ibid.