Is the ‘world museum’ doomed?

Time to face facts? Benin Bronzes at the British Museum - BRIAN HARRIS / Alamy Stock Photo
Time to face facts? Benin Bronzes at the British Museum - BRIAN HARRIS / Alamy Stock Photo

Anyone who still believes that museums are quiet, dusty places lined with numismatic cabinets and cases of boring pottery shards should reset their preconceptions. More than ever, they’ve become a cultural battleground, as we’ve seen again this week.

On Sunday, the Medicine Man exhibition, which has been on permanent display at the Wellcome Collection in London since 2007, closed for good – because, according to an official statement released on Twitter, it “perpetuates a version of medical history… based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”. In other words, the institution now considers some of the medical artefacts and artworks in its collection so radioactive, in terms of their capacity to cause offence, that, it believes, they should no longer see the light of day.

Tellingly, the Collection began that Twitter thread by asking: “What’s the point of museums?” For museum directors around the world, this conundrum has become the question of our times, especially for those in charge of big institutions, such as the British Museum, which display what used to be called “tribal art” (much of which arrived during the colonial era), and are now facing an existential crisis as public opinion increasingly swings against them.

Recently, for instance, on his half-hour US TV show Last Week Tonight, the British-born comedian John Oliver waded into the complex debate about restitution (i.e. whether lost and looted objects in museums should be returned to their country of origin), and lambasted the British Museum, which opened in Bloomsbury in 1759, as a “morally indefensible” and “patronising” repository of “loot”.

Indeed, the time-honoured concept, which many of us grew up respecting, of the “universal” or “encyclopaedic” museum – in which representative objects from cultures across the world are displayed together, so that connections between different places and periods may be made – is now, even in the eyes of many professionals, defunct. Earlier this year, a curator at the British Museum described it to me as an institution “in crisis”, with staff broadly split along generational lines over the question of what to do about contested objects. (A spokesperson for the museum did not respond to this characterisation when it was presented to them by e-mail.)

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In Germany, where museology is being shaken up, some leaders of national museums are publicly willing to go further. Hartmut Dorgerloh, for instance, is general director of the Humboldt Forum, a new cultural development in a restored palace in Berlin that cost €744 million, opened in several phases between last summer and this autumn, and is home to various institutions including the city’s Ethnological Museum and Asian Art Museum. (Think of it, in certain respects, as Berlin’s answer to the British Museum.) Recently, he told me that the concept of the universal museum – which he characterised as “a monument of the Western domination of our planet” – had “collapsed”.

Admittedly, he says, “cracks in the system” have been visible for a while. Three years ago, when I last wrote at length about restitution, people were already using emotive phrases such as “museums of blood”, after France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, in an infamous speech delivered in Ouagadougou in 2017, had decried “the crimes of European colonialism” and argued for “the temporary or permanent restitution of African patrimony to Africa”. “African heritage can no longer be the prisoner of European museums,” the Élysée Palace tweeted.

Understandably, given the careful, scholarly work undertaken by their staff, Europe’s museum directors didn’t like that. Traditionally, Dorgerloh tells me, universal museums have compared themselves to Noah’s Ark, not Alcatraz: safe havens for the patrimony of the world. Yet, then, in 2020, came the publication of The Brutish Museums by Dan Hicks, a professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford, which crystallised the debate by focusing, in depth, on the so-called Benin Bronzes: a catch-all term for a group of sculptures made, from at least the 16th century, of brass, bronze, wood, and ivory, in the West African kingdom of Benin in modern-day Nigeria.

These objects, which include cast plaques, commemorative heads, and royal regalia, were dispersed across the West after a large British naval and military force sacked Benin City in 1897. A new online database listing historic artworks from the kingdom suggests that more than 5,200 objects are held by around 130 institutions worldwide – mostly scattered because of the British raid. For Hicks, that 1897 expedition was an “atrocity”, a “crime against humanity”. Consequently, he argues, the “violently-taken loot” of the Benin Bronzes (the British Museum holds by far the largest number, with more than 900 in its collection) should be returned to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) in Nigeria, where a new museum to house them, the Edo Museum of West African Art, designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, is planned.

A processional animal from South India on display at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin - dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
A processional animal from South India on display at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin - dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

In the past, Western museums have flatly refused to give back the Benin Bronzes – but now the tide is turning. Recently, several prominent institutions have committed to return theirs, including Cambridge’s Jesus College and the University of Aberdeen, as well as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. This follows a wider trend: in October last year, Macron announced the return of 26 of the so-called “Abomey Treasures” plundered by French forces in 1892. Belgium’s government, too, has promised to give back stolen African artworks.

The game-changer, though, was the announcement this summer that the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is responsible for Berlin’s national museums (including the two collections at the Humboldt Forum), had transferred ownership to Nigeria of all 512 of the Benin Bronzes that came to Berlin in the aftermath of the British expedition of 1897. Around a third of the transferred objects will remain on loan in Berlin, initially for a decade.

“Ten years ago,” Hermann Parzinger, the foundation’s president, explained to me last year, “this [issue of restitution] was not a topic at all.” Yet, as the Humboldt was being built, Parzinger and his fellow leaders recognised that they could no longer, as intended, display the Benin Bronzes in the reconstructed Berlin Palace (the residence, historically, of German emperors and Prussian monarchs); in 2017, the French art historian Benedicte Savoy, who specialises in the ethics of restitution, resigned from the Humboldt Forum’s advisory board, asking, “how much blood is dripping from each artwork?” in the Ethnological Museum’s collection of 500,000 items.

Now, according to Parzinger, the policy is simple: “If things have been looted, they have to be given back.” Dorgerloh and the German ethnomusicologist Lars-Christian Koch, the director of the Ethnological Museum and the Asian Art Museum at the Humboldt Forum, whom I also met recently, say that this restitution work is being undertaken carefully and sensitively, on a case-by-case basis, whenever provenance researchers uncover an instance of historical “injustice”. Koch – who calls this new concept the “collaborative”, not universal, museum – assures me: “Museums will change.”

“Ethically, we’re living in a different moment,” agrees Laura van Broekhoven, the Belgian director of the Pitt Rivers Museum (where Hicks happens to be a curator), which displays the University of Oxford’s anthropological collections. Earlier this year, the university supported the NCMM’s claim for the return of 97 objects in the Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean Museum collections taken from Benin City by British armed forces in 1897; the case is currently being considered by the Charity Commission – which has already approved the return to Nigeria of 72 objects forcibly removed from Benin City in 1897 from the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London, where a “signing ceremony”, marking the transfer of ownership, will take place later this month.

The Pitt Rivers Museum displays the University of Oxford’s anthropological collections - Peter Adams
The Pitt Rivers Museum displays the University of Oxford’s anthropological collections - Peter Adams

Yet Van Broekhoven rejects the idea that, in the 21st century, there is “no place” for anthropology museums such as the Pitt Rivers, which was founded in 1884. “We are more relevant than ever,” she tells me. “Colonialism doesn’t reside in the past: it is still affecting our present. So we’re opening up our collections and working with [indigenous] communities.”

Where does this leave the British Museum? Despite participating in the international Benin Dialogue Group (which aims to reunite dispersed artworks from Benin in Nigeria), it has so far resisted calls for restitution, until recently behaving, to its detractors, like a stubborn child with its fingers in both ears. As a result, ironically for a museum that considers itself “global”, it risks being seen internationally as an outlier, behind the curve. Whereas once, Koch says, Britain’s museums were “absolutely cutting-edge”, now “in some areas they are not.” “The strong idea of a British empire is still very much behind the self-understanding of the British Museum,” a German museum official tells me.

For many, including me, the stonewalling must stop. Yet Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum’s director, was not available for this article (despite speaking to me in depth about restitution three years ago). Instead, a spokesperson e-mailed a link to a speech outlining the museum’s current position delivered recently at the annual trustees’ dinner by its chair, George Osborne, the former chancellor. It was an exemplary piece of rhetoric, mounting a powerful defence of the universal-museum idea, which Osborne recast as “the global museum of our common humanity”. He spoke about “great changes” in the offing, including a refit of the Western sculpture galleries (last year beset by a leaking roof), and the prospect of increased engagement “with the communities of the world”, to whom contested objects could be lent. But he drew the line at restitution.

That speech, however, sidestepped the crucial handful of cases in which the moral argument for restitution is now overwhelming. Moreover, despite the prohibitive British Museum Act of 1963, which prevents the deaccession of items from its collection of eight million objects – which, anyway, Osborne described as “an excuse to hide behind for those who don’t have the courage to make their case” – the museum can, in exceptional circumstances, give back certain contested things: provision is made for objects looted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. A spokesperson tells me that it has settled five “spoliation claims”.

I don’t think it’s being “woke” or excessively self-flagellating about the record of the British Empire to acknowledge that what our troops did in 1897 was wrong. Moreover, returning the Benin Bronzes wouldn’t lead to the emptying of the British Museum. Even Fischer, three years ago, conceded that “very, very few objects… come from that context”.

The “complete re-imagination” of the British Museum, announced by Osborne, will be detailed next spring. There’s still time to do the right thing.

The Humboldt Forum is now open; information: humboldtforum.org. For more information about contested objects at the British Museum, see britishmuseum.org

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