How have objects come to be in museums?

MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies student at the University of Manchester, Asha Hall-Jones, launches new social media platform to inspire conversation about looted objects in museums.

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In recent years museums around the country are being asked to reflect on this question. The term ‘looted objects’ refers to artworks that were taken through dishonestly, force or stealth. In other words, works that were stolen from a place or person. Many British museums have looted objects in their collections due to Britain’s colonial past. For example, in 1897 British soldiers invaded Benin City in modern day Nigeria and looted thousands of artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes. These artifacts are now scattered across the world, many of them located in British museums. This is just one example of how looted objects have ended up in British museums.

"Many British museums have looted objects in their collections due to Britain’s colonial past."

Over the past few years there has been increased media coverage on these issues. In 2020 Radio 4 released a podcast series called Museum of Lost Objects which traces the histories of antiquities and landmarks that have been destroyed or looted. The debate was even reflected in the 2018 Marvel film Blank Panther during a poignant scene set in the fictional ‘Museum of Great Britain’. As the debate has seeped into popular culture, more people have become aware of the violent history behind some of the most well-known collections in British museums.

In response to this, many museums and heritage sites are striving to reinterpret their colonial collections and the looted artworks that they contain, widening participation along the way. As museums strive to reframe displays and build inclusive spaces, it is essential that audiences are given the opportunity to contribute their thoughts on these topics.

As an MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies student at the University of Manchester, I’m currently completing a work placement at World Museum’s World Cultures Gallery. Here, I’ll be using social media to gather insights into what people think about the presence of looted artworks in museum displays. Starting by creating a new Twitter account, Looted Objects (@lootedobjects), I will be sharing relevant resources and quotes, which I hope will act as a springboard for discussion during the Spring of 2021. The discussions that unfold will be archived and ultimately made available for public access at World Museum, Liverpool.

"The debate was even reflected in the 2018 Marvel film Blank Panther during a poignant scene set in the fictional ‘Museum of Great Britain’."

I hope this project will help create awareness about how many museum objects are in fact looted and inspire discussion not only in the museum sector but across the city and beyond. Twitter is a perfect platform for this; anyone, from anywhere, can contribute, allowing for what I hope will be rich and meaningful discussion. As public spaces, I believe everyone should be able to contribute to ideas about how objects are displayed in museums and that museums themselves should be willing to engage and listen. This way they can continue to work towards becoming spaces that truly serve and enhance their communities and the wider world.

I am excited to run this account for the next couple of months and I really look forward to hearing what everyone has to say. I want this to be a space where everyone feels comfortable to share their thoughts on such an important topic. I have already been posting on Looted Objects for a few weeks so if you are interested in this project follow @lootedobjects on Twitter, check out the resources that are already on there and feel free to share any thoughts you may have. Let’s talk!