Over the past years, disputes on art repatriation from Western countries to their countries of origin have received much attention. Not only practical issues relating to the repatriation of objects acquired by means of force, violence or deceit are under discussion, but also the very necessity of the return. In the past, restitutions from France to South Korea, Italy to Ethiopia or Germany to Tanzania have been tedious and hard-fought. The discussions complexly relate to questions of national history, identity, law and mobility.
Opponents of repatriation argue that the return often is requested in the interest of nationalist elites rather than a country’s public. The assemblage of objects from around the world in ‘universal’ museums, however, would capture global art and history in a multi-perspectival view that enables research.
More practically, it may be difficult to determine whether artefacts should be returned to nation states established in response to colonialism or other non-state actors like ethnic groups and to find suitable conditions for preservation and display. Some artefacts like the Aztek feather headdress from present-day Mexico, exhibited in the Weltmuseum (world museum) in Vienna, may be too fragile to be moved ever again. Roman law renders public collections inalienable, making returns from museums in countries like France and Spain difficult, an obstacle which can be overcome through long-term loans or the design of new museum policy.
Despite these logistical and legal issues, it is the politics behind the discussions that deserve scrutiny. ‘Colonialism is alive and well in the art world’, says Tess Davis, a lawyer and current Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition. While museums originate from the colonial period, they are not inherently inappropriate institutions. Rather, their history and present-day configuration need to be considered carefully.
Serious controversies around these considerations have arisen in the case of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, which from later this year is to host the collections of the former Prussian state as well as ethnological and Asian collections. One of its three founding directors, Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British museum, claims that the display of colonially acquired pieces would stimulate discussion about and research into the histories of the objects, ultimately allowing for multiple histories, rather than one unilineal and objectively true history, to be told. Conversely, art historian Bénédicte Savoy resigned from the board of experts of the Humboldt Forum, stating that prior to their display, ‘I want to know how much blood is dripping from each artwork […] Without this research, no Humboldt Forum and no Ethnological Museum should open’.
MacGregor further argued that, because the art would be displayed digitally as well, it was accessible indiscriminately of nationality, social class or mobility. This claim fundamentally ignores that museums derive much of their value from spatial immediateness and curation. It also invalidates his decision to pilot free entry to the forum, a concession rare in Germany but more common in the UK based on the idea that it encourages locals not only to visit the museum but to ‘feel that the public collections belong to them’. While the aforementioned Aztek headdress was restored and researched in a joint Austrian-Mexican effort and Mexican citizens are granted free entry to the Weltmuseum, these accommodations favour a specific group of Mexicans. It is implicit then that public collections currently belong to certain members of the public more so than to others.
While the virtual circulation of cultural goods is desirable, it should not be proposed as the future of ethnological or universal museums. Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe argues that we should strive not only for the restitution, but the physical circulation of art. The beauty of his vision in which the artefacts should travel just like people do lies in the idea that an engagement with colonial pasts will not attribute guilt but become truly ‘universal’ by existing in multiple places.
Of course, this idea calls for complex solutions with regards to ownership, insurance, transport and preservation. Nevertheless, Savoy concludes a three-step guide to a more respectful and equal engagement with cultural heritage by saying that ‘we must allow ourselves to dream’. Ambitions should create a dialogue that firstly implicates the parties involved in restitution but secondly does not prescribe to other countries how to manage the details of such exchanges. Rather than shying away from the complexities of a colonial history of art and post-colonial reflection, we must allow for time and conversation to create environments in which objects can be displayed, circulated and appreciated with curiosity and respect.
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