Now You See It, Now You Don’t – Addressing the Invisibility of Europe’s Colonial Past in Museum Collections

Anna Boyce

In London, Alice Proctor – an Art History student – has begun conducting ‘Uncomfortable Art’ tours around a number of the city’s biggest museums. The purpose of these tours is to confront visitors with the harsh reality of how many of the pieces on display in these museums have been acquired and to counter the one-sided narratives presented by the institutions. Despite Europe’s colonial past now being discussed more than ever, the fact of the matter is that remnants of this past still form an intrinsic part of European heritage, the issue is that most of the time this is not being challenged.

I grew up in Bristol in the UK, which once was one of the leading ports in the slave trade. I spent much of my childhood walking up streets with names such as Farr’s Street and Colston Avenue and attending music events at the Colston Hall – never did I think to question the origins of the names these streets and venues bore. As it happens Thomas Farr and Edward Colston were prominent figures in the slave trade, from which they made vast amounts of money and earned the prestige that led them to have buildings and streets over the city named after them.

Over the past few years campaigning by the city’s Afro-Caribbean community, alongside the refusal of bands such as Bristol-based group Massive Attack to play at the venue, has led the Colston Hall to vow to change its name following renovations due to finish in 2020. However the issue remains, the legacy of colonialism quietly lives on within European nations.

Museums in Europe are amongst the most problematic culprits when it comes to masking the colonial past. Looking around museum exhibitions displaying objects from different cultures, descriptions of pieces often state that they were “donated” or “acquired”, this kind of elusive language often means that the objects came into the museum’s possession through the means of colonisation and plundering. Most of the time, the story of how these objects ended up halfway across the world is not touched upon, instead, they will be coupled with a simple description of what the museum’s curators believe they were used for or signified.

In late 2018 members of the East African, Maasai tribe travelled to Oxford in order to visit the Pitt Rivers Museum, where a large collection of objects belonging to the tribe are on display. The visiting members were shocked not only by the sheer number of objects in the museum’s possession but additionally by the incorrect way in which many of them were described. For example, an object stated by the museum to have no known purpose, in fact, plays a crucial role in circumcision rituals. The Maasai delegation were also surprised to find a number of sacred objects which one should only come into possession of through inheritance – hence indicating that the means by which the museum came into their possession were less than ethical. Here we see the problem is twofold, not only are museums covering up the origins of their collections, but they are misrepresenting them and thus, the cultures they originate from. The issue with material remnants of the colonial period is that they have become hyper-visible. So much of what is visible not only in museums but within the very fabric of European cities, contains complex histories which have thanks to their constant presence have become untold histories. One initiative attempting to address this invisibility in Amsterdam is the ‘Black Heritage Tour’, a sightseeing tour through the centre of the city which traces the history of the slave trade and recently discovered stories from Amsterdam’s black community.

Initiatives such as this counter this hyper-visibility and bring to the forefront forgotten histories and stories. So why aren’t museums doing the same? Recently the ‘Benin Bronzes’ were returned – on loan – by the British Museum to Nigeria. Nigeria had been requesting their return since the country gained independence in 1960. As it stands many museum objects and art pieces are being returned to their country of origin, but only at said country’s request. So whilst European countries appear willing to address their colonial past and return objects acquired through colonialism, they are not actively doing so.

Previously there has been international pressure on European nations to issue public apologies or statements of regret to their ex-colonies, but the sincerity of these apologies is somewhat lost when objects stolen and looted from ex-colonies remain estranged from their countries of origin. European nations act as if colonialism is part of the past, something that should be forgotten and that both the coloniser and colonised should move on from. However, it is impossible for previously colonised nations to overcome their traumatic past when they are physically separated from their heritage. In order to facilitate better future relations, it is imperative that European nations not just wait for the requested return of an object in their possession, but rather proactively go about returning objects they know do not belong to them.

The NMVW (The Netherlands’ National Museum for World Cultures), has vowed to return art and museum objects procured during the colonial period, much of which is displayed in Amsterdam’s Tropenmusuem. In total there are over 375,000 objects dating back to the period, thus undoubtedly this will be a lengthy process, nevertheless, this is a positive example as it shows a European nation acting off its own initiative rather than only in reaction to an ex-colonies request.

In addition, the previously mentioned Pitts River Museum in Oxford is also actively countering the aforementioned hyper-visibility. They are instigating a program where they engage ‘originating communities’, in order to ensure that the objects on display in their museum are understood and described correctly, therefore better representing the originating communities. These are examples of positive action challenging the structures which have for so long denied ex-colonies their agency and served as an obstacle to nations trying to move on from the colonial past.


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