by Marc Masurovsky
A recent spat is opposing some historians and museum scholars to a decision by Edinburgh University to return nine skulls to Sri Lanka which were in its collection for more than a century, although the exact circumstances of their “acquisition” remain murky.
Chief Uruwarige of Sri Lanka’s Vedda community accepted the skulls from officials of the Scottish university. Presumably, the Vedda had taken arms against the British colonial presence in the early 1800s.
The pushback in the United Kingdom to this return was rather loud. Some historians have argued that the repatriation of objects obtained by force and other means of duress from colonized peoples around the world weakens the narrative of the museums that hold these objects because it makes it more difficult to tell the story of Great Britain as a “former imperial and colonial power.”
Others are more vociferous in their opposition to these returns which propel museums in the middle of what is perceived as a “contemporary cultural war” and warning that “museums should not be used for political battles.”
Let’s stop here.
An initial observation is that the debate over the repatriation of objects seized by force and other means from colonial subjects of Britain has questioned more openly the role of museums and their function as extensions of State power and Ideology. These debates are not new; after all, even the public accepts the general trope that museums were founded with objects removed during warfare and accompanying acts of pillaging, considered “normal.” The only people upset about this state of affairs were those on the losing end of the stick, asking for the return of their cultural property. This charade has been on-going for several centuries.
Two world wars, half a dozen well-documented genocidal undertakings and a long chain of military feuds (on average, several per annum) since 1945, have gradually altered the tenor of this conversation from “to the victors go the spoils” to “we maybe should reconsider holding these objects which we stole.”
Thousands of academic careers have been forged on the presence of objects in Western cultural institutions removed by force from across the globe. Untold numbers of exhibits have highlighted these objects. Auction houses and collectors the world over continue to trade in these objects.
Conditions on our planet have worsened at every level—the very notion of freedom is under attack every day as are basic civil, cultural, economic and human rights. Invariably, museums that hold objects obtained by force and subterfuge decades ago and admired as brilliant works and objects of art are finding that possession of such objects is coming under fire and are now paying the price for wanton acquisitions of objects that, truthfully, should not be in their hands.
One obvious irritant which fuels and hardens those who advocate for repatriation is the refusal of museum directors, curators and lawmakers to tell the story of these objects accurately, wrinkles and warts included. In other words, pretty objects may embody stories, histories which are not pretty. Sugar-coating does not work. That’s called rewriting history, a form of revisionism and denial of history. Like any drug, the effects of the sugar-coating are short-lived and reality sets in anew, naked and, oftentimes, ugly. In this case, the provenance of colonial objects and human remains is anchored in events that, today, would be qualified as crimes against humanity and attacks against the cultural rights of those who were assaulted by imperial forces many moons ago.
In short, instead of grandstanding, those who complain about museums being politicized by “cultural wars” should remind themselves that museums exist as instruments and extensions of economic and political power. As someone famous once said, he who controls the narrative holds the power. Or something to that effect.
Let the dialogue begin. There is still time to find a solution embraced by all.