Sunday, 19 June 2022

Who's afraid of decolonisation?

Humboldt Forum, Berlin (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

"Who's afraid of decolonisation?" is the title of a training course which will be organised in September by NEMO – Network of European Museum Organisations, and hosted by the UK Museums Association, SS Great Britain and Bristol Museums. For those who don’t remember, Bristol is the city where in June 2020 the statue of transatlantic slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and later put into display (but lying down) in the M Shed Museum, the city museum. In January 2022, a jury found four of the people who had helped topple the statue – the so-called “Colston Four” – not guilty of criminal damage.

The title chosen for the NEMO workshop sounds like a question we should be asking ourselves in Portugal, considering how little the public debate has evolved in the last five years (and museum practice even less). A recent “duel” published in the newspaper Expresso, between researcher and curator António Pinto Ribeiro and the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda director José Alberto Ribeiro, brought nothing new. The palace director repeated the arguments of other colleagues before him (see, for example, here and here), warning us against hasty decisions pushed forward by political correctness, asking for the revision of museum inventories, stressing the need for ex-colonial territories and today independent countries to invest in research and conservation and train their professionals (admitting, at the same time, that some objects are “better off” in Portugal…). We should also mention the warnings regarding illicit trade and the insistent argument which aims at comparing the looting or unethical acquisition of artefacts from ex-colonial territories to the removal, for instance, of the Parthenon Marbles or of Portuguese treasures during the French invasions. Sometimes, the way these arguments are expressed, reveals the persistent arrogance of European curators, who basically say that, if they were to engage in a discussion regarding restitution, they would themselves set the rules as to when, where and how, assuming that they know better and revealing total disrespect for the meaning certain objects might have for other cultures, the ones that produced them. Even though, one may ask: considering these arguments and warnings - which do form, after all, a position - what steps have their authors specifically taken in that direction in the last 4-5 years? Are we expected to engage in this kind of repetitive “duels” for ever?

The case of the director of the National Museum of Ethnology is rather particular. Paulo Costa has been argumenting that the museum he’s responsible for is a case apart. The main argument is that it was created quite late (in 1965 – the colonial wars started in 1961) and had a scientific perspective (hadn’t they all?). In another interview, Paulo Costa said that “most museums are not made with looted pieces, this is a misconception that some people have. There is a lot of noise about this subject” (the interview was given in January 2020; Dan Hicks’ book “The Brutish Museums”, documenting the instrumental role European museums had in the looting of objects and construction of racist narratives, was not out yet). What is most disappointing, though, was that in a conference organised in November 2021 by ICOM Portugal, entitled “Museum with non-European collections” (“non-European”, indeed…), the director of the National Museum of Ethnology stated (watch video recording, 5:45:55) that the so-called “Macron report” (on the restitution of African cultural heritage) was the initiative of two researchers, not of the French state, which did not recognise it. As everyone knows that the report was commissioned by the French Presidency of the Republic and that it was based on this report that the Quai Branly Museum returned the first objects to Benin, it feels deeply disturbing that this statement went unchallenged in a professional meeting.

In the meantime, Dan Hicks’ book “The Brutish Museums” came out in 2020 and mentions that there may be objects looted from Benin in the collections of Lisbon Geographic Society and the National Museum Grão Vasco. This reference has created no debate or questioning whatsoever in the Portuguese museum and heritage field. In the same year, Kwame Opoku (former legal advisor to the United Nations office in Vienna), writing about the Portuguese case in an article entitled Will Portugal Be The Last Former Colonialist State To Restitute Looted African Artefacts?, apart from criticising the arguments of some Portuguese professionals, questions the origins of objects presented in 1985 in an exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnology, called “African Sculpture in Portugal”, coming from a number of public and private Portuguese collections. Again, there was no reaction whatsoever to his questioning.

The quality of the public debate in Portugal has been rather poor and reveals a lack of interest and courage in assuming responsibilities, an intention to resist any serious thinking regarding the role of museums in relation to the country’s colonial past and racist present. At the same time, mentalities do evolve in other parts of the world. I believe that what really changes the rules of the game at this point is the new restitution policy of the Smithsonian which “gives its constituent museums the authority to return items in their collections that were looted or otherwise acquired under unethical circumstances. (…) Museums will now be able to initiate returns and enter shared stewardship agreements based on ethical considerations, even when there is nothing that legally impels them to do so.” Decolonisation is not only about restitution, it is first of all a state of mind, gaining awareness of one’s ethical responsibilities, which many times go beyond legal obligations.

Some European museums have led the way in this process. In Holland, the work of Tropenmuseum and the Research Center for Material Culture has been fundamental, as well as Rijksmuseum’s groundbreaking Slavery exhibition and the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency’s publication Traces of Slavery and Colonial History in the Art Collection. In the UK, Pitt Rivers Museum is the first to come to mind and projects such as African Restitution Research, Labelling Matters, Maasai Living Cultures, etc. Recently, I also found out about the MuseumsLab project, a platform that brings together a number of museums (including only one Portuguese Museum, the Museum of Lisbon) for joint learning, exchange and continuing education on the future of museums in both Africa and Europe. I found out about it through the Berlin Museum of Natural History and their work on Colonial Contexts.

Humboldt Forum, Berlin (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

What marked my recent visit to Berlin was the repeated use of the word “perspective” in museums and the fact that museums themselves ask questions. I was anxious to see the work undertaken by Humboldt Forum, which had the courage to invite Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as a keynote speaker at the opening. Entering the very first room of the Ethnological collection, the museum asks the visitor: When were these objects brought to Berlin and where were they put? What are the urgent issues? Further down, commenting on an inventory card regarding an object from Namibia, the museum asks: What information is not correct on this information sheet? What is missing from these information sheet? At the same time, it reminds us that perspectives change and that that part of the exhibition is designed to change and grow.

Emil Nolde, "Papuan Youth" (1914), Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

When the visitor exits the permanent collection of the Neue Nationalgalerie, there is a space for visitors called “Perspectives: dialogue and activity area”. Visitors are reminded that artists also give their perspectives through their work and are invited to put their heads together and find their own approaches. The museum also participates in a generalised, more conscious discussion of the German museum world regarding the country’s colonial past and asks, for example: How are the Brücke artists connected to Germany’s colonial history? These are not (were not) separate worlds and no museum is a “case apart”, if it wishes to be honest with itself and with society at large.

Texts from Humboldt Forum and Neue Nationalgalerie

Also on this blog:

And are you going to protect me?

Museums making sense: dealing with the discomfort of a multicoloured world

The urgency of difficult conversations

My responsibility for this vandalism

Discussing the decolonisation of museums in Portugal

The museum of (my) discoveries


Decolonising museums: this in practice…? Recording of the seminar organised in 2019 by Acesso Cultura | Access Culture. Parts I and II (with Wayne Modest) in English; part III in Portuguese only.

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