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The Art Buzz by Aimee Dawson
Reflecting on a year of Covid-19: why now is the time to return colonial loot
Art Stuff 23 Mar 2021

Is it just me or has it been a restless couple of weeks? I think it’s because of this awful anniversary we are currently marking in Europe: we’ve now been living with the pandemic for a whole year. I contemplate everything—and everyone—we have lost and how far we still have to go and it’s just so gloomy. But I’m trying to use this as a good moment to take stock, reassess and move forward. (I tried vision boarding for the first time last week and I recommend it for visually minded people who want to manifest good things for the future.) 

This period of reflection was also central to a fascinating chat I had with the art historian Alice Procter earlier this month about restitution (the return of stolen objects from one museum or individual to another). She has just published an updated version of her book The Whole Picture: the Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums and Why We Need to Talk About It, which is a call to action for visitors to stop taking museum artefacts at face value and to really engage with the difficult histories that might not be obvious at first glance.

Restitution is, of course, not a new issue in the art world but in recent years it had felt like there was a building momentum towards returning looted artefacts to their countries of origin. But for the last year… crickets. What is going on?

Back in 2018, France commissioned a report by the academics Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy in which they recommended the return of many Sub-Saharan African objects currently held in French public museums. It was heralded as a watershed moment for museums and Postcolonialism. In 2019, Germany joined the fray, allocating €1.9m this year to provenance research on colonial-era artefacts in museum collections, with the German culture minister Monika Grütters describing the issue as a “blind spot” within the country. Last year there was some action on the restitution front in the Netherlands—a panel of experts commissioned by the Dutch culture ministry recommended the return of artefacts removed from former colonies. But apart from the odd individual object (for example, this sword), European governments have returned nothing and still haven’t put into place systematic restitution plans. 

It seems to me that there are a lot of meetings, conferences, discussions, Twitter threads, books and reports that all agree that colonial objects should be returned but there’s very little actual action to put this consensus into practice? And has anyone else noticed that one particular country is conspicuously absent from all of this chatter? And it’s the former colonial power that arguably stole the most stuff… 

Of course, British museums and colonialism are intricately intertwined. The country is full of objects that were taken as the spoils of war and empire. The British Museum is said to be the first national public museum in the world and the foundational collection (not to even begin mentioning the rest) came from Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), a physician and the President of the Royal Society who was able to amass such materials because of his connections and wealth from the slave trade. 

So what is the progress of restitution in the UK? Minimal. The British Museum interestingly advertised a couple of new job adverts this month, looking for a curator and a project manager who would together oversee “a comprehensive redisplay of the galleries” as part of a radical redesign known as “Reimagining the British Museum”. The new masterplan “will give a new and powerful presence to the museum’s collections from all parts of the globe, including the Pacific and the Americas and give greater prominence to Africa”, says the British Museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer. So rather than return these colonial objects, we’re going to put them on a larger pedestal? The museum has also recently hired a curator who will research the history of its 267-year-old collection, although apparently “it is not the purpose of this role to examine the specific histories of contested objects”. Eh? 

Yesterday, it came out that Germany is planning to return its Benin Bronzes—sculptures that were taken from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin (in what is now Nigeria) by British forces back in 1897. Artefacts from Benin that were stolen during this brutal occupation are now spread all over the world in both public and private collections, but the most significant of repository of these is in the British Museum. As the art historian Dan Hicks—author of the book The Brutish Museumspoints out, isn’t it ludicrous that Germany is leading the return of objects that the UK actually stole in the first place? And isn’t it shameful that the only hope of artefacts ever being returned from the UK is due to pressure from other museums’ ethical decisions?

As someone who has been campaigning for restitution and postcolonial critiques of museums and their objects for years, Procter voiced to me her personal frustration at the glacially slow moves towards returning colonial loot in the UK. In our conversation she said something striking about museums, loot and our pandemic year: 

“In the museum context, I do think there is this kind of stagnancy. What we’ve experienced in 2020 and coming into 2021 is this incredible opportunity for museums to turn around and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a whole year to rethink everything’. So often the discussions that we have around changing institutions and galleries is that they don’t have the time or they don’t have the resources to do it. But they’ve just been handed this incredible opportunity to take things down and start again, to rewrite labels and reconsider what they have. But so few institutions have taken that opportunity.”

This is a really interesting point. To use the phrase that we all already hate, isn’t this the ideal opportunity to be thinking about the “new normal” for museums? This is the only chance we will ever have (I bloody hope) to press pause, step off the daily treadmill and reassess what we are doing, why we are doing it and what we are doing it for. Fair enough, the culture sector has had a lot on its plate during the pandemic (just surviving is a huge effort), but could this be the moment to manifest the museum of the future? Somebody get the British Museum a vision board, stat. 

See you in two weeks for more of The Art Buzz, my little bees. 

To contact Aimee, email: [email protected]


The Art Chart

What’s hot

A female trailblazer – The founder of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, sadly passed away on 6 March but what a legacy she left behind. Wilhelmina Cole Holladay created the museum to bring attention to overlooked women in the art world and she did so “against tremendous odds and with dedication, drive and a singular vision”. A heroine.

London gets a gallery weekend About time! Everyone here is counting down the days until the launch of our first gallery weekend. And it’s going to be huge – 87 galleries across the capital are taking part. Time to start that cardio, ready for a monster 72 hours of art, coming in early June.

Old art history categories get binned – Christie’s is abandoning its outmoded auction categories of Impressionist and Modern and Post- War and Contemporary in favour of simpler ones for “20th Century Art” and “21st Century Art”. While the decision is almost entirely market-driven (running out of Picassos, are we?) it’s still a victory for the field – it’s time we embraced the full diversity of art.  

What’s not

Bodge-it burglaries – In a seemingly film-worthy heist, two people tried to steal art from a branch of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in Texas and escape in a boat. But they bungled it: set off an alarm, didn’t manage to grab any art, were chased onto their fishing (!) dinghy and barely escaped through a storm drain… Texas Monthly described them as “C+ art thieves at best. Lol.

#MeToo at Magnum – The photographer David Alan Harvey took the decision to resign from Magnum Photos ahead of the agency’s vote on whether to permanently remove him. In a statement Magnum inferred that they were going to accept the testimonies of 11 women who accuse Harvey of sexual harassment and abusive behaviour. He still, however, insists on his innocence…

A year of Covid-19 – Do you remember when we first went into lockdown? Two weeks, max, we thought. A whole year later and we’re still working our way out of the pandemic. I miss art, fairs, museums, cities full of people, getting on a plane, falling out of bars after hours of art world gossiping, and all of your beautiful faces. But hang on in there, the end is in sight.


Aimee Dawson is a British writer, editor and speaker on all things art and culture. Among her areas of specialty are art in the Middle East and art in the digital sphere; she writes the monthly column Insta’gratification about how the art world and Instagram collide. She is currently the Associate Digital Editor at The Art Newspaper in London and also works as a freelance writer and producer. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Clubhouse @amldawson

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