Decolonising Museums isn’t Part of a ‘Culture War’. It’s about Keeping them RelevantRoundup
tags: museums, colonialism, culture war, public history
Dan Hicks is professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford and author of The Brutish Museums.
The dead don’t bury themselves. This is one of the first lessons that every student of archaeology must learn. A grave is never evidence of some Pompeii moment, a freeze-frame of someone as they were in life. It shows how that person was treated in death and by posterity.
This was thrown into relief with the publication of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s report on historical inequalities in commemoration. Entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes, the document explains, led to hundreds of thousands of instances of the unequal commemoration or non-commemoration of African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean people who fought for Britain in the first and second world wars. Claire Horton, director general of the commission, responded, “We will act to right the wrongs of the past.” “I welcome the fact that the commission … will make amends wherever possible,” chimed in the prime minister.
As the report was published, in the US a national debate about the human remains of Black people – in the context of not war memorials but the storerooms of museums – was gathering momentum. In July 2020, the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology apologised for its “unethical possession” of more than 1,300 skulls assembled by Samuel George Morton in the century for the pseudo-science of craniometry. Then, in mid-February, a report by doctoral student Paul Wolff Mitchell revealed that the Morton collection includes the grave-robbed skulls of 14 African Americans – dug up in the 1840s from a burial ground adjacent to the site on which Penn Museum now stands.
The ethical treatment of human remains is hardly a new topic, but as this debate has spread to Harvard and Princeton, it’s clearly one where public dialogue is quickly shifting. When Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum (where I work) reopened after the first lockdown in September 2020, all human remains were removed from display, and the famous “Treatment of Dead Enemies” case was dismantled. That 100-year-old exhibit promoted the racist myth that “headhunting” represents a coherent type of “savage” culture, while suggesting that the purpose of a “world culture” museum is to display what was taken from opponents of the British Empire.
Since the 1990s, the return of human remains has become a normal part of curatorial practice in UK museums. London’s Natural History Museum returned the human remains of 37 Indigenous people to South Australia’s Narungga community in March 2019. But this is a tiny proportion of what is held. Precise numbers are hard to come by, and little progress has been made since 2003, when a scoping exercise undertaken for the Ministerial Working Group on Human Remains indicated that England’s museums contain the remains of more than 60,000 people across 132 institutions, including perhaps 18,000 from overseas.
Questions about human skulls, bones, and specimens of hair and skin have gradually expanded to encompass ancestral cultural objects taken under colonialism. Today, restitution is as likely to involve artefacts as human remains. In November 2019 Manchester museum returned 43 secret ceremonial Indigenous Australian items. Mangubadijarri Yanner, representing the Gangalidda Garawa Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, observed that this return was “important and necessary for the purpose of cultural revitalisation – because locked deep within these items is our lore; our histories, our traditions and our stories”.
Britain’s museums sorely need such cultural revitalisation right now, and the question of human remains and artefacts offers a position from which to see debates around museums in a clearer light.
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