Bristol City Council’s Museum Service holds at least 1.75m items in six locations. Within this treasure trove are pieces connected to Britain’s colonial past, some of which the museum has spotlighted in its Uncomfortable Truths project.
The uncomfortable truth is that, across the world, treasures of deep cultural and historic significance to their home regions remain on display as ‘curiosities’ within (and are traded between) the countries that pillaged them.
The debate around restitution – return of items to their ‘original owner’ – has been raging for decades. Recently it’s been discussed by media and sneaked into museum marketing materials; a result of hard work by diasporic activists, writers, curators and other influential individuals, and the desire of often white, elite institutions to respond to the ongoing racial justice movements of the 21st century.
But while these conversations have sped into the limelight, the actual restitution of artefacts has been slow. Not simply because of the pandemic, but also the practical, political and legal issues at play.
For example, where might Britain return an item if, when it was taken, colonial forces destroyed its home in the process?
The Benin Bronzes are thousands of ornate brass and bronze plaques and sculptures pillaged by British forces from the ancient Benin City. In early 1897, six British officials in the colonies of the Niger Delta were killed, against the wishes of the Oba (Benin City’s king), when they tried to dispute the Oba’s control of trade in the city and depose him.
Britain responded by conducting the Benin Punitive Expedition, a massacre which destroyed the Kingdom of Benin, brutally culled citizens en masse, and which historians claim amounted to a war crime. British forces killed women and children, looted the city, burned the palace, and sent the Oba into exile. The treasures taken, more than 1,000 Benin Bronzes among them, were auctioned off in London to pay for the cost of the expedition.
Today, 160 institutions around the world hold Benin Bronzes, including Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
The Bronzes have become a focal point of the global restitution debate. The modern-day Prince of Benin has been asking for decades for their return, and over a year ago reached out directly to Bristol Museum asking them to “blaze a trail” by returning the two Bronzes they have. At the time, Bristol council said they “did not know [the Bronzes were] stolen” and became the first institution in Britain to agree to the concept of restitution.
A spokesperson for the Legacy Restoration Trust in Nigeria, a central organisation pursuing the return of the Bronzes to Benin City, confirmed it has been “in discussion” with Bristol Museum and other relevant parties, but “there is no timeline for restitution at this point”.
Neither party has answered the question: if the Prince has been asking for the Bronzes back, and Bristol Museum has agreed, what’s the hold up?
Decolonising the museum?
Last year, the museum worked with a group of young people from the University of the West of England to create the Uncomfortable Truths podcast; exploring individual items held by the museum, their back story, what their status as display items means, and their possible futures.
“In this particular case, I think it’s only right that they should take it back to its place of origin,” states 24-year-old Pierre Niyongira, one of the student producers on the show, about the Bronzes. “A piece of culture and history was taken violently, and to put it up in the museum I think is disrespectful, honestly. This one is pretty clear cut.”
On restitution efforts in general, Pierre believes “it depends on the object and its place of origin”. He believes some items are not “ready”, or otherwise appropriate to return, for example due to current instability or lack of resources to adequately preserve the items. “One of the things I learned during the project was that, for example, many objects from the Middle East may have been saved from destruction due to war or religious cultural changes – and so there is a sense of history being preserved.”
As well as restitution, Bristol Museum’s Uncomfortable Truths project has looked at recontextualising items that depict Britain’s colonial past. In the entry hall is Robert Mackenzie’s huge 1907 painting The State Entry into Delhi, celebrating Edward VII’s ascension to the throne and, therefore, Emperor of India.
This celebration of British-imposed rule over India “doesn’t show the rebellions and discomforts experienced by local people on the Indian subcontinent” explains one of the students, discussing Mackenzie’s painting. “On the other hand, people could say that Britain built infrastructures, railways, canals … Without showing both sides it’s creating a narrative that is very false.”
The painting shows crowds in traditional Indian dress, standing to attention, gazing up at a procession of people riding elephants. One of the students suggests the museum re-label the painting ‘The Elephant in the Room’.
A museum blog post notes the plan for “changing labels” to recontextualise colonial works, and it’s Decolonisation Working Group has promoted its awareness-raising projects, such as the podcast and occasional updates about restitution efforts.
It’s difficult to know to what extent the decolonisation efforts are a success. There is one dedicated exhibition named Curiosities, examining ethical questions behind a handful of items. How many of the 1.75m council-owned items have colonial or otherwise problematic pasts is unclear. This historic and vast nature of the collections means that the council doesn’t know either. Council spokespersons said they “do not have a complete list of all ‘items’ from foreign countries acquired during the period of Empire” and that, given the Bristol Museum Service has effectively been collecting items for two centuries, “it is impossible to account for the provenance of every item in the collection”.
Speaking earlier this year on the Benin Bronzes held by the British Museum, critic and journalist Adewale Maja-Pearce wrote that he believes for now “[they] should remain where they are” but that he can’t accept the museum’s “continued refusal to properly discuss the circumstances of their original acquisition and its continued possession of them. Nor can it justify turning its nose up in the face of requests for loans, as it did in the 1970s”.
While Bristol Museum is clearly willing to have this conversation, a council spokesperson responded to one of my questions about items “taken from foreign countries” saying: ”What is meant by ‘taken’? Even our Benin Bronze was acquired from another museum collection so not directly from Africa, according to all legal considerations.”
The council said that its Decolonisation Working Group is dedicated to coordinating and supporting a wide range of activity connected to “the ever-evolving field of decolonisation”, and is currently forming an action plan. Details of the plan weren’t included in their statement, but its purpose is to “ensure we continue to celebrate, commemorate and respect cultures from across the world in appropriate ways”.
Bristol is still ahead of the rest of the country. In mid-October, the museum returned a hand-painted caribou hide hunting coat from the Cree First Nation of Northern Canada to the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute. The item has been held since the 1830-40s. According to the council, items like it “were often traded with or taken by outsiders”. Also in October a Cambridge college, a French museum and a Scottish university all returned artifacts looted from West Africa.
By contrast, the British Museum in London, which holds numerous items taken by colonial forces, including hundreds of Benin Bronzes, is bound by The British Museum Act of 1963, which prevents it from shedding any of its holdings despite a recent formal request from the Nigerian government. Early this year, when he was still Culture Secretary, Conservative MP Oliver Dowden threatened to pull funding from cultural institutions which would “do Britain down” by not “defending our culture and history”.
With this attitude, and legal stranglehold, Britain is behind other countries, such as Germany and France, who have already made the move to return their Benin Bronzes. The deadlock around our colonial legacy, both a cause and a symptom of the ‘culture wars’, is unlikely to shift any time soon. Restitution can only take place if it is agreed that the items were taken in the first place.