Possessive instincts and dusty archives: the history hidden in British collections


As symbolic gestures go, the repatriation of a bronze cockerel could hardly be more priapic. The decision by Jesus College of Cambridge to return a Benin Bronze, given by the parent of a student in 1905, was returned in October to the royal court of Benin amongst much discussion.

This impressive action takes place a mere six years since university students protested about its provenance and voted for it to be returned, and a staggeringly brief two years since the university announced they would return it: the BBC article detailing the statement of intent of return in 2019 pertinently observed: “No specific date has been given for the return of the statue, nor any details of how it will be done.”

Recently, the connections of universities and public institutions to slavery and the financial legacies of philanthropists with the Atlantic slave trade have been examined—but we should not lose sight of the other legacies of Britain’s history that remain with us today. Country houses owned by the National Trust, rich and vivid exhibitions of culture and history in our museums; quiet underlying admissions of involvement in colonialism and cultural looting are now making their way to the forefront of public moral reflection.

The immense scale of these collections is barely comprehensible

Likewise, UK universities and cultural institutions seem to be making the sudden discovery that their valuable and expansive collections of artefacts did not mysteriously appear out of thin air. While these collections have provided valuable contributions to the understanding and knowledge of the regions they were looted from, the undeniable fact remains that they were taken with little regard or consideration for the nations and cultures from which they originate.

The immense scale of these collections is barely comprehensible. It is hard to get an exact sense of the scale of this possession; in 2001 the British Museum had around eight million objects—and was then burnished with an additional six million from Wendorf Collection consisting of Egyptian and Sudanese objects. Durham’s combined digitally categorised collections come in at just over 51,000 objects.

These collections are often the dedicated study of academics throughout their life, and still, thousands upon thousands of objects remain unobserved. The only larger collection of Egyptian objects in the world belongs to the Cairo Museum, which does not hold them all on-site. This collection has provided inspiration and awe to any person lucky enough to step into the Egypt halls as a child, but the price of this joy and inspiration comes at a high cost.

The most egregious act of cultural vandalism lies within the British Museum, an act that puts the entire country to shame. The Ethiopian tabots, altar tablets on which copies of the Ten Commandments are scribed, are held in a back room of the museum with a strict policy never to display them. The importance of these tablets to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church cannot be overstated; they are considered the literal dwelling place of God on Earth itself. Looted—for there really is no other word—in 1868, generations of devout Ethiopians have died without the return of these incredibly important religious artefacts.

Is it better to let these artefacts sit stale, in the dark, or to let a people that have longed for their return love them in the light of day?

The claim that these artefacts are locked up in the British Museum because of recognition of their sanctity is laughable, as the tablets may only be viewed by Orthodox Priests. With no cultural value to their staying here, and study forbidden, it is an act of extreme callousness to hold them here.

Durham’s role in this should not be overlooked. The Arts Council of England lists the Durham University Library and Durham University Oriental Museum as ‘Designated Collections’—of such significance and note to be singled out. Specifically mentioned are the Chinese and Egyptian collections; both obtained from British collectors decades on. The language used to describe these collections and the method of their arrival is always curiously neutral: objects are ‘accumulated’ or ‘amassed’.

The Sudan Archive, founded the year after Sudanese independence, also has designated status from the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council, and contains a wealth of documents about colonial governance of the region. In Britain, they are awkward memories of a half-suppressed, half-forgotten time; in Sudan, they can offer a picture of oppression and the formation of the state. The University should rouse itself to the difficult task of acknowledging where it is, and quickly move to what it can do to rectify the errors of the past.

Arguments are often made about the instability of states to which these objects might be returned. Perhaps they would not be as meticulously cared for, and their lifespans reduced. They would, however, be at home, in cultures that often have gaping holes cut through them from a history of theft. The nature of life is impermanence—the Mona Lisa will eventually fade to nothing due to light damage and the Elgin marbles crumble to dust. Is it better to let these artefacts sit stale, in the dark, as so many of these treasures do, or to let a people and a culture that have longed for their return love them in the light of day?

Image: Jl FilpoC via Wikimedia Commons

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