Stealing History 2006

conference audience chatting

A debate about museums and cultural property

12 October 2006 at Merseyside Maritime Museum

This free public debate on the repatriation of African objects was one of the key events of Black History Month 2006, with an international panel of guest speakers.

Speakers’ abstracts

Collecting and colonialism: case studies from the World Museum collections

Dr Zachary Kingdon, curator of African collections at National Museums Liverpool

Dr Kingdon focussed on particular African objects in the World Museum collections and also on a few of the people who donated them. In response to a previous debate on this subject, his main point was that Africans during the colonial period (the main collecting period for World Museum collections) should not be seen simply as victims who were passively divested of their material culture by British collectors. Zachary explained that there are many different ways through which objects came to the museum and there are also various reasons why Africans were prepared strategically to exchange certain of their cultural objects, give them as gifts, produce versions of them for sale, or present them to museums at this particular period in history.

Restitution issues

Dr Raymond Costello, historian of the Black British community

To illustrate the complexities of issues relating to the restitution of artefacts that have found their way into museums, Dr Costello discussed a particular item that exemplifies the interrelatedness of Africa and British Black people. This item possibly demonstrates how a royal family formed alliances by intermarriage, at the same time showing the building of a trading relationship with a British pottery firm. Dr Costello raised questions about whether such an item is important in informing a Nigerian people, the Efik, about their own history or whether it should remain in England as part of the present-day British multicultural society.

Plundering Africa's Past: Who owns Africa's history

Professor Barbara Bush, senior lecturer in history at Hallam University, Sheffield

Professor Bush started by considering the contradictions between western assumptions that Africa had no valid past or culture and the seemingly unquenchable demand in the West for African artefacts. This included the plundering of Africa under colonialism for private collections and museums (where Africa and Africans became a 'colonial spectacle' to entertain Europeans) and, more recently, the international art market. She described how the African past, including the history of slavery and the slave trade, has been and continues to be misrepresented in the West, yet the means of 'rethinking' African history - art, artefacts, and the material collections from archaeological sites - continue to rapidly disappear into private collections, museums and galleries in Europe, North America and Japan.

She continued by raising the important issues about how such art and artefacts are represented and what message is given about contemporary Africa. She described encouraging developments, such as the return of the remains of Saatje Baartman to South Africa from Paris and the fact that more emphasis is being placed in the West of helping African states to preserve important historical sites, such as Elmina Castle in Ghana. However, she pointed out that this raised other issues about the impact of Western tourists that such important sites attract.

Professor Bush concluded by describing how not only is there ongoing debate around 'ownership' but also who is best able to value and protect historical African artefacts, which could extend to the artefacts of Africans in the Diaspora revealed by archaeological digs. She posed the question of whether museums are appropriate to the African context, if they are a facet of Western modernity, describing how the most 'successful' African museums have been in the ex-white settler colonies where they were designed for the pleasure of whites only. This in turn raised additional questions as to what happens to African artefacts if they are returned to Africa, and about 'the ownership' of African and African Diaspora artefacts in the West. The discussion concluded by considering if it is valid for them to stay in western museums if there is more direct participation in their conservation and representation of citizens of African origin?

The Royal Museum for Central Africa’s program of return of ethnographic collections (1975-1982) and the non-issue of 'restitution': facts, experiences and perspectives

Dr Boris Wastiau, curator of ethnography at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium

Dr Wastiau looked at the following issues:

  • The origin of our museum collections and the non-issue of restitution claims. Why distinctions need to be made in the types of restitution claims relating to different cultural and historical contexts, and the importance of avoiding double standards.
  • Museum collections vs private collections: the unfair situation.
  • Art collections and other types of collections, including the experiences and establishment of IMNZ, acquisition of collections in the field and the transfer of collections from Belgium.
  • Present state of the Congolese collections, the looting of African museums and the illicit trade.
  • Perspectives on the decline of expertise and knowledge of collections, the relative disinterest in research into non-western art and material culture and the catastrophic decline of research and knowledge in the source country.
  • Who is driving the 'restitution' movement and what role for the museums? The role and application of international conventions.