Museums as Monuments to White Supremacy

tags: museums, colonialism, racism, White Supremacy

Ana Lucia Araujo is a historian and professor of history at Howard University in Washington, DC. Her recent single-authored books include Slavery in the Age of Memory: Engaging the Past (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020) and Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).

We have reached a new phase in the public debate over whether to repatriate objects stolen from former colonies and now displayed in European and worldwide museums: individuals, on film and in real life, are quite literally taking matters into their own hands. One of the most powerful and intriguing scenes of the award-winning motion picture Black Panther (2018), for example, features Killmonger in a European gallery that could well be in the British Museum. The supervillain interrogates the white woman museum director about the provenance of one of the objects on display. When she informs him that the item came from Benin, he responds that in fact, the item was fabricated in Wakanda and taken from the Kingdom of Benin by British soldiers. Confronting the director by reminding her that her ancestors stole that artifact and many other similar items, Killmonger and his accomplices break the glass display case, withdraw the object, and remove it from the museum.

Amid the popular protests led by Black Lives Matter that emerged in Europe and the Americas, a scene similar to Black Panther’s was performed in a real museum. On June 13, 2020, Congolese-born activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza, along with protestors from the group Unité, dignité et courage (Unity, Dignity, and Courage), led a demonstration at the African art section of Quai Branly Museum in Paris. After a speech denouncing European crimes committed during colonial rule in Africa and the plunder of material heritage, the group removed a Chad funerary pole from its display and carried it around the museum before they were arrested.

Although in the United States, England, France, Belgium, and Portugal, concerned citizens have protested and sometimes taken down public statues representing proslavery and pro-colonial individuals, there have been very few cases in which activists have removed looted cultural objects from the museums where they have come to reside. Yet viewed together, Black Panther’s scene and the Quay Branly action illustrate widespread pain and anger over the legacies of European conquest and colonial rule in Africa, as well as current demands for restitution of objects plundered by European troops during the invasion and partition of the African continent at the end of the 19th century.

In The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution, Dan Hicks brings his expertise as an archaeologist, professor, and curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford to tackle this problem. Hicks recasts the discussion about the restitution of African cultural heritage by telling the story of the Benin Bronzes and other cultural and sacred artifacts stolen by the British from the ancient Edo Kingdom of Benin in 1897, in present-day Nigeria.

The book dismantles the common view that these artifacts were lawfully removed from Benin City and should belong to Western museums. Hicks therefore supports claims that they should be repatriated to Nigeria. In defending the return of looted heritage, he argues that museums choosing to continue holding looted sacred and royal objects plundered during colonial rule will remain monuments to European supremacy over African civilizations.

Read entire article at Public Books

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