#BLM Promises and Restitution – Where Are We Now?

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In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic bound us to our homes and forced most of us into a state of deep introspection. Whilst locked down, important conversations about race and racism were provoked by thousands of videos of police brutality captured by people across the world. When George Floyd was murdered by police officers in the US, the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) forced discussions about police brutality, race, racism, corporations, consumers, and for the decolonisation of global policies and practices, especially those concerning racialised bodies. The systematic and racialised brutality of society was made hyper-visible as people turned to the internet to share with the world the injustices they have faced personally and professionally living and navigating in the world whilst racialised as ‘Black’. A wave of BLM protests then ensued the world over. In Bristol, four protestors tore down and threw into the docks a statue of Edward Colston, a prolific slave trader. They were charged with criminal damage in June of 2020.

Two years on from the 2020 BLM protests, the ‘Colston Four’ are acquitted of criminal damage charges [1]. This judgement is imagined in media circles as precedent for the UK facing up to its colonial ‘past’, just as many hail organisations for their ‘promises’, ‘manifestos’ and ‘diversity measures’ in response to the racialised injustices of 2020. Are these landmark legal decisions and public statements enough to hold the coloniser in chief – Britain, accountable?

The statute of slave trader Edward Colston now sits at Bristol’s M Shed Museum as a memorial of the BLM protests in 2020.

This salvaged piece serves as a harsh reminder to racialised people of the subterranean roots of empire, colonialism and slavery within the arts and heritage sector.

Whilst many arts and heritage organisations did respond to questions regarding the acquisition and histories of their collections, many have made statements in opposition. Whether it be the decision to leave statues in place or write mandates addressing histories of slavery and colonialism within the arts and heritage sector, there is no doubt that the events in 2020 have sparked a discourse within the sector that exposes the insidious nature of racism and its shrines, and entreats discussions of art and cultural heritage.

Restitution since BLM protests

On the 5 June 2020, The British museum released a ‘statement of solidarity’ in the form of a blog from Director Hartwig Fischer. This performative piece gave no mention of restitution or a plan to repatriate stolen items. Instead, we received apology and allyship; a promise to ‘listen, learn and act’. Similarly, the University of Oxford’s Oriel College “expressed a wish to remove [statute of imperialist Cecil Rhodes] in June [of 2020]” [2]. As of today, the statue is still in place and an ‘explanatory board’ has been placed outside of it, ‘contextualising’ the statue and monumentalising the insidious legacy of empire and imperialism. These behemoth cultural institutions continue to hoard and hold captive the largest loot of artefacts and refuse to consider repatriation. The British Museum holds the world’s largest collection of stolen Benin Bronzes, postulating that the collection gives “…millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time”.

Positive reforms and restitution

Though there has not been much progress from National institutions like the British Museum, there have been some significant returns and progress in regional museums. The University of Aberdeen agreed to and facilitated the repatriation of a Benin Bronze to the Nigerian Federal Government upon their request [3].

Jesus College has also returned a Benin bronze to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, completing the handover process in a ceremony of return (Jesus College, 2021).  The Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Bristol Museum and Art Gallery have commented that they are “open to return [if] a claim was made” and “open to all possibilities” [4].

In the case of statements made in response to the BLM movement, the National Museums Liverpool, Science Museum Group, Glasgow Life, Imperial War Museums and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales have implemented various strategies respectively that seek to educate, diversify, and hold their institutions accountable [5]. Our CEO and Artistic Director, Dr Errol Francis, spoke with Geraldine Kendall Adams for Museums Association in 2021 to shed light on progress made within the arts and heritage sector since leading the development of a Black Lives Matter Charter in 2020.

“Francis has been approached by a range of arts and culture organisations in the past year – from funders and independent charities to government bodies – to move forward their work on improving diversity and tackling structural racism” [6].

Structural blockades

The idea of restitution and repatriation have been flirted with, encouraging conversations regarding borderless exhibitions and returnism. Whilst there have been very positive changes made by regional institutions such as The University of Abderdeen and Jesus College, the concept of returning stolen art and artefacts to their rightful owners is seemingly alien to its captors. Despite the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery stating that they were “open to all possibilities” regarding the return of looted Benin bronzes, [7], when Prince Edun Akenzuaade a direct appeal to the city asking for the return of looted artefacts, “Jon Finch, the head of culture at Bristol City Council, which runs the museum, said when they took on the sculpture they had not known it was stolen” [8].

To simply posit that the origins of the loot in your museum’s possession is abhorrent and ignorant. Finch added that he had “seen the prince’s impassioned pleas” and was willing to “…explore with the prince the opportunity of returning the object. We’d like to have correspondence with him to see what the specific request is and how we can progress that”. This dismissive and reductive manner of dealing with Prince Edun Akenzua’s plea meant that he had to go through several hurdles, even after submitting a formal request for repatriation, at the behest of the Bristol Museum.

The Bristol Museum “…cited uncertainty over the relocation of the Bronzes on the Nigerian end as the most recent reason for their withholding – a claim Professor Abba Tijjani, from the Nigerian delegation, handled with ease at the Jesus College Ceremony on Wednesday, as he assured international ‘Partners’ that the Bronzes would be ‘Going to the right place’ to be ‘Looked after’” [9].  These reactions are simply “a ploy for gaining time to express readiness to discuss whenever an African country asks a Western Museum to return looted objects”[10].

A year later and the “Benin Bronze belonging to Nigeria is still at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, despite an agreement to return the sculpture 18 months ago” [11].

We may have seen regional success in addressing repatriation and restitution as museums that sit outside the national portfolio are more easily open to the idea of the return of stolen artefacts than those classed as part of the national institutions. The British Museum, and other national institutions, such as the V&A, cannot repatriate stolen items under the British Museum Act 1963 and the Heritage Act 1983[12].

Imperial conditions

France and Germany are in the process of returning looted artefacts as “the European museum landscape is now being reshaped” whilst the UK keeps guarded watch on colonial artefacts (DW, 2021). Art historian John Picton posits that the stolen items in the storage of the British Museum should be returned instead as the museum that is to be built in Nigeria is “…far too small to be able to exhibit all the bronzes there”. He suggests that only the bronzes that are in the British Museum’s storage should be returned, so that art from sub-Saharan Africa can still be seen in Great Britain[13].

Where are we now?

The events that have ensued since the BLM protests of 2020 are further testament for the need to decolonise the arts and heritage sector and to return colonial exploits that are displayed and enjoyed in the  colonising country, separated from their rightful owners and inaccessible to those with the same heritage. Truly decolonising the arts and heritage sector will be to fulfil promises made due to pressure by the BLM movement, creating opportunities for people who are historically excluded from these institutions, and acknowledging abhorrent practices and white supremacy that upholds these and sustains systematic abuses. It is evident that colonial loot will not and cannot be returned as this infringes on whiteness and the identity prescribed to whiteness hangs in the balance without its collection of bodies and artefacts, without its eugenic identity.

British media will continue to applaud the arts and heritage cliques for merely acknowledging the sinister histories that form and sustain the foundations of their institutions. Colston’s revamped bust prompts us to think of the penalties that are given for reclaiming colonial artefacts and forcing this country to cease displaying stolen, violent, wealth and their captors proudly. Therefore, we must applaud the actions made after statements of solidarity, such as those of the National Museums Liverpool, Science Museum Group, Glasgow Life, Imperial War Museums and Amgueddfa Cymru. Changes made by these organisations are major steps towards actualising demands by the Black Lives Matter Charter for the UK Heritage Sector.

Image Credit: The Guardian: ‘The statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston is now being displayed at M Shed, Bristol’, Photograph by Ben Birchall, retrieved from www.theguardian.com.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Doherty, Brian, Graeme Hayes, and Steven Cammiss. n.d. “We Attended the Trial of the Colston Four: Here’s Why Their Acquittal Should Be Celebrated.” The Conversation. Accessed February 14, 2022. https://theconversation.com/we-attended-the-trial-of-the-colston-four-heres-why-their-acquittal-should-be-celebrated-174481.

[2] “All These Organisations Made Black Lives Matter Pledges. But Have They Kept Them?” 2020. HuffPost UK. November 28, 2020. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/uk-black-lives-matter-george-floyd-pledges-businesses_uk_5fc12988c5b6e4b1ea4af536.

[3] “Ceremony to Complete the Return of Benin Bronze | News | the University of Aberdeen.” n.d. www.abdn.ac.uk. Accessed February 14, 2022. https://www.abdn.ac.uk/news/15479/.

[4]“A Potent Historical Artefact’: The Statue of Edward Colston’s New Role.” 2021. The Guardian. June 4, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/04/edward-colston-statue-potent-historical-artefact-david-olusoga.

[5] “Black Lives Matter: One Year On.” n.d. Museums Association. Accessed February 14, 2022. https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/analysis/2021/05/black-lives-matter-protests-one-year-on/.

 [6] Ibid.

[7] “Bakare, Lanre. 2021. “Regional Museums Break Ranks with UK Government on Return of Benin Bronzes.” The Guardian, March 26, 2021, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/26/regional-museums-break-ranks-with-uk-government-on-return-of-benin-bronzes.

[8] Cork, Tristan. 2020. “African Prince Asks Bristol to Return Stolen Bronze Sculpture.” BristolLive. March 23, 2020. https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/african-prince-asks-bristol-return-3973323.

[9] “Opinion | Bristol’s Heel-Dragging over Returning the Stolen Benin Bronzes Is a Symptom of Britain’s Deep-Rooted Denial of Its Colonial Past.” 2021. Epigram. November 25, 2021. https://epigram.org.uk/2021/11/25/opinion-bristols-heel-dragging-over-returning-the-stolen-benin-bronzes-is-a-symptom-of-britains-deep-rooted-denial-of-its-colonial-past/

[10] Opoku, Kwame. 2021. “Talking about Benin Artefacts Is Not Enough: Return the Looted Treasures! – Vol. XXIX – Africa Update – CCSU Newsletter.” Www2.Ccsu.edu. 2021. https://www2.ccsu.edu/africaupdate/?article=509.

[11] ‌ BBC News. 2021. “Stolen Benin Bronze Still Remains at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery,” October 26, 2021, sec. Bristol. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-59053085.

[12] Bakare, Lanre. 2021. “Regional Museums Break Ranks with UK Government on Return of Benin Bronzes.” The Guardian, March 26, 2021, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/26/regional-museums-break-ranks-with-uk-government-on-return-of-benin-bronzes.

[13] Welle (www.dw.com), Deutsche. n.d. “Africa’s Lost Heritage and Europe’s Restitution Policies | DW | 09.11.2021.” DW.COM. https://www.dw.com/en/africas-lost-heritage-and-europes-restitution-policies/a-59763966.

[14] Doherty, Brian, Graeme Hayes, and Steven Cammiss. n.d. “We Attended the Trial of the Colston Four: Here’s Why Their Acquittal Should Be Celebrated.” The Conversation. Accessed February 14, 2022. https://theconversation.com/we-attended-the-trial-of-the-colston-four-heres-why-their-acquittal-should-be-celebrated-174481.