Articles & Essays

From the Universal Museum’s Ruins – Steven Gambardella

A Mounting Restitution Crisis is an Opportunity for Museums to Better Serve Global Communities

In February 1897 a punitive attack was launched by the British on the city of Benin, the capital of the West African empire of the same name. 1,400 soldiers took part in the operation equipped with the latest technology developed for bush fighting. This arsenal included rockets, artillery with incendiary shells purposefully chosen to burn thatched roofs, flares to aid night fighting, and thirty-eight Maxim machine guns with around two-million rounds of ammunition.

The Maxim fired 10 bullets a second. By one account, victims were “cut in two” by the hails indiscriminately fired into the bush as three columns closed in on the capital. Rifle rounds were filed down to expand on impact with human skin.

To use the modern parlance, this was “asymmetric warfare”. The technology used by the British was prohibited from being sold to local African populations, who defended themselves with obsolete muskets, improvised canons, spears and bows. The Maxim was the Victorian equivalent of the Predator drone, designed to annihilate from safe distances.

Columns of gunships cruised along the capillaries of the Niger Delta, shelling and machine-gunning the habitations near the banks. Three days of bombardment occurred before the city was breached and sacked by the troops. Civilians were displaced from their homes and buildings were torched.

Hundreds of soldiers and administrators tore apart royal residencies to enrich themselves with fragments of the deposed regime’s treasure. Among the loot taken were thousands of works of bronze and ivory art, much of it sacred. These exquisite objects are now housed in the collections of 160 or so museums around the world, the vast majority in the western world.

Benin art is among the most celebrated from Africa thanks to its outstanding naturalism and visual sophistication. Much of the art was produced for ceremonial purposes for the court of the Obas, divine kings who ruled the empire in an unbroken line from around 1440 until the sacking by the British.

The objects serve as both ritual aids and story-telling devices that recorded the history of the kingdom. These include functional and ritual objects like salt cellars, masks, bust portraits of Obas, ornamented tusks and hundreds of the famous brass plaques (known as the “Benin Bronzes”) that decorated the palace’s wooden pillars.

Decolonising Museums

After a century of lobbying, and after the tumultuous summer of 2020 in which the Black Lives Matter movement dominated global headlines, some of the thousands of sacred artefacts are being returned to Nigeria. Germany has committed to the restitution of several hundred objects, which will find their way to the newly built Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City.

While there are thousands of objects in the dozens of museums and private collections, looted Benin art is just one facet of many examples of stolen cultural artefacts sold on the open market or housed in museums. Governments and groups around the world, from Ethiopia to Greece, are campaigning to have objects stolen from their ancestors returned.

The restitution and “Decolonisation” efforts continue to agitate museums as part of an ongoing campaign for restorative justice for peoples subjugated by imperialism. This is not a campaign of fringe radicals — in 2018 the French President Emmanuel Macron announced that, “I want to see within five years that the conditions are met for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.” A report that Macron commissioned estimated that 90% of African antiquities are held outside of the continent.

The urgency of restitution is made plain by Dan Hicks, a curator, academic and author, who makes the case in his book The Brutish Museums that many anthropological museums actually sustain and perpetuate the violence of the colonial era. Every day a museum containing these objects opens is another day of inflicting violence on the people they were stolen from.

The cases for restitution are mounting, other high profile disputes include Greece’s Parthenon Marbles and the sacred statues of Easter Island’s Rapa Nui. The controversies of restitution betray a more fundamental problem for museums — a crisis of purpose.

As calls for restitution grew louder, 18 richly endowed museums published a “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums” in 2002.

More than half of the signatory universal museums were in the anglophone world, and all but one were located in the West. The declaration itself is lofty, its language serving as a bulwark against the attacks of restitution and decolonisation efforts. It combines a condemnation of the illegal traffic of historic artefacts with an appeal to the idea that “museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.” To restore objects to where they were taken from would be to “narrow the focus” of these museums, the declaration authors claim.

Figure of a Leopard, Benin, 1550-1680, bronze. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City). Public Domain by CC0.
caption: Figure of a Leopard, Benin, 1550-1680, bronze. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City). Public Domain by CC0.

An Unconscious Agenda

Since 2004 the term “universal” has slided out of favor for museums to be replaced by “encyclopediac” or “world culture”. For our purposes, let’s stick to the original terminology, since it is so telling.

Universal museums have two parallel functions — a conscious (and conscientious) function, and an unconscious function. The conscious function is to produce an ostensibly comprehensive world-view made up of a patchwork representation of historical and contemporary cultures. When you look at a map of such a museum, you will see it is divided up into locations and historical eras.

Universal museums often boast of being “comprehensive”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s mission, the website tells us, is that it “collects, studies, conserves, and presents significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas.”

The British Museum’s website makes the probable claim that, “No other museum is responsible for collections of the same depth and breadth, beauty and significance.” The key word here is “responsible”, since universal museums consider themselves tasked as the custodians of the precious objects they hold and work so hard at conserving.

Many universal museums are keen to impress the idea that world cultures have more connections and similarities than they seem. The British Museum makes the claim that its collection will allow visitors to “realise” (that is, learn) how “closely interconnected” cultures are beneath the diversity of expressions and forms.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi boasts that its “unique exhibition design explores the connections between civilisations and cultures that might at first seem to be far apart in time and geography.”

What could possibly be behind this shared preoccupation with revealing similarities behind cultural differences? What is wrong with exploring — and celebrating — cultural difference? The answer can be found in the universal museums’ unconscious function.

These universal patchworks of cultural artefacts, these “responsible” corporations working as custodians of world heritage, have the effect of levelling out of cultures, giving their unique attributes an equivalence.

A cultural ideology manifests itself in the omissions and implied assumptions of the universal museum. This is ideology not in its common guise as a professed belief, an “ism” like “liberalism”. Ideology here is rather a world-view structured by biases and prejudices. This kind of ideology is properly unconscious in that it is spontaneous and instinctive — it is knowledge only part-known to its knower.

So what are the omissions and implied assumptions? Most obviously, objects are divested of their spiritual power, their ritual significance, and their social or political utility to be made visible to the western anthropological eye. This makes the distinction between a supposed “backward” culture, and the progressive culture that has taken custody of the item for its aesthetic and scientific significance.

All human subjects are present in the “universal” museum except the subject that looks upon them. This omission — or rather exception by privilege — is the giveaway. Other cultures and other people are divided and categorised, which in itself is a contentious act. Dan Hicks makes the claim that “As the border is to the nation state, so the museum is to empire — two devices for the classification of humans into types.”

While modern displays are sensitively curated and communicated for the purposes of public education, they do assume an ideal spectator. This spectator is Western or “Westernised” enough to see past radical differences in cultures. They instead appreciate similarities that bear a resemblance to Western preferences in the political, spiritual, ethical and aesthetic realms.

So these museums are at once consciously universal and comprehensive, yet unconsciously they are parochial and ideologically blinkered. They equalize and subsume all cultures into a narrative that betrays a western world-view, one that distinguishes itself from the primitivism on display.

It’s a world-view that sees a universal aesthetic legitimacy in its collected objects. As such these objects must be rescued from the practical intents of their host cultures as much as from the ravages of time.

The people that work for universal museums undeniably respect the artefacts they hold and the cultures of which they are a part. But museums are more than a sum of their parts, and certainly more than the dedicated and well-meaning workers who staff them. It is possible for an organisation to respect and even love cultural artifacts while ultimately treating a culture with contempt, just as a misogynist can love a beautiful woman.

Cultural Violence and Extractivism

Restitution and decolonisation calls into question the legitimacy of the universal museum and the role it plays in domination, whether that role is unconscious or not. The restitution of Benin art from several collections is perhaps the tipping point — the moment that some justice will be restored and that the museums holding stolen artefacts will face up to a transformative crisis.

But as far as we can speak of justice, restitution and decolonisation alone are not sufficient to make amends. While restitution is laudable, there is the danger that the politics of restitution will deflect from the wider issue of ongoing “extractivism” taking place in the Global South.

The display of looted cultural artefacts in plain sight is inextricably part of a web of ongoing exploitation. Western (and Westernised) universal museums are simply part of the infrastructure of domination and extraction. Extractivism is the robbery of all kinds of commodities, from oil and food to diamonds and “blood metals” like coltan. As the theorist Ariella Aïsha Azoulay put it, “It is not possible to decolonize the museum without decolonizing the world.”

There is also an inherent limit to this particular strand of justice. There is no neutral and deliberative body to police and regulate the restitution of artefacts stolen during the colonial era, like there is, for example, the International Court of Human Rights. And neither will there be. Restitution is executed on the case by case basis of claimants, not on any global and objective audit of holdings.

The people of China, Greece and Nigeria can demand restitution of looted artefacts, leveraging national economic clout. The same cannot be said of the people of the Congo or Darfur, nor the indiginous peoples of nations such as Brazil, Australia and the United States. These peoples have no state representing them by either societal collapse as a result of war, or neglect as a result of subjugation.

Neither can well-meaning activists indulge in a Star Wars-like fantasy of good and evil when it comes to the reappraisal and retelling of the history of looted items. All empires are grotesque in their own way, and the Empire of Benin — as an example — was no different. Benin subjugated many peoples under the absolutist rule of the Obas, its means for doing so included brutal coercion as well as the ideological soft power of its crafts.

While the British Empire had machine guns and rockets, the Obas had their own ways of terrorising those they ruled over. British soldiers marching on the capital witnessed the horrific spectacle of the human sacrifice of slaves or captives, one tool of terror by which the Obas ruled.

Benin art has similar ideological functions as any other art crafted in the service of an imperial power. The works serve exclusively, it seems, to glorify the supremacy of the Obas. The palace plaques reveal very little of the lives of the ordinary Benin people — no women or children, and certainly nothing of those conquered and subjugated to the Obas’ mighty empire. Apart from the Obas, only those who buttressed imperial power are represented — soldiers, performers, courtiers, and the Europeans who brought manillas and muskets in exchange for slaves, ivory and palm oil.

Benin art never belonged to the “Benin people” anymore than the British Royal Collection belongs to the subjects of Britain. To allow Benin art to escape the same critical scrutiny as, say, nineteenth century British art, is to make the same omissions and assumptions that do violence to subjugated cultures. It denies the people of those cultures the agency that subjects of moral criticism are assumed to possess.

European colonialism was a horrific addition to and escalation of a long history of warring tribes, states and empires, subjugation and state-sanctioned theft. The dehumanisation of non-Europeans was a means to the ends of subjugation, not the end in itself. While the Western world had (and still has) novel means of dehumanising those it victimises, dehumanisation is not a modern European innovation.

All this doesn’t make looting right, but it does show that there is no simplistic moral story of which restitution is simply the conclusion. Restitution and decolonisation is only the beginning of a reconstruction of the museum’s purpose — not only as a site of “conscience” (as Hicks puts it), but also as a crucial institution in constructing a fairer, more equitable planet.

Future Museums

What can replace the dead idea of the “universal museum”? What do the better museums of the future look like? Firstly, cultural museums would do better to conceive of history not as distinct eras but as a continuum ever flowing into the present.

Better museums would have narratives guided by the communities they serve, rather than elite trustees. They will be impartial and safe spaces for debate and play an active role in shaping local, national and international culture. They will be multidisciplinary and open-ended to new possibilities of interpretation and conjecture.

This vision is not a fantasy — these better museums are already emerging. New museums in the Global South are leading the way in expanding the remit and scope of the museum’s role in society.

The Palais de Lomé in Togo, for example, is the reclaimed colonial governor’s palace. A building that was once a symbol of domination now houses an organisation that serves in “Reinventing natural and historical heritage to foster creative talents in Africa”. The museum and leisure park lists among its priorities commitments to inspiring creativity and biodiversity. Its multidisciplinary remit includes botany, music performance and gastronomy.

Ironically, globalisation has made global museums extinct. Restitution of looted items and decolonisation will not mean the end of museums. It certainly will not end the outstanding scholarship or “narrow the focus” of the world’s best museums, as the declaration of 2002 warned. As activists point out, such measures will bring a new wave of invention to museums and expand history books. This will bring a richer, more diversified tapestry of histories that serve communities more evenly around the globe.

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