The challenge for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is to ensure it not only becomes an anti-racist organisation, but also extends its breadth of connection with museums, galleries, designers, and makers across Africa, says its Director, Dr Tristram Hunt.
“The resurgent Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 has restarted a new in-depth conversation about slavery, colonialism and structural racism, which will inevitably focus on all aspects of UK life, including museum collections,” says AFFORD’s Return of the Icons report, 2020.
It is perhaps something of a surprise this fresh impetus is required, coming only 18 months after the Sarr-Savoy report, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics, was released in France.
Originally commissioned in 2017, Sarr-Savoy was a seismic event, with wide impact. Firstly, for the French government – leading to President Emmanuel Macron’s announcing the return, “without delay”, of 26 artworks taken from Benin during the colonial era.
Secondly, its impact was felt by most world governments and museums, all understandably concerned about their collections’ provenance.
Finally, and most significantly, there is its impact upon the countries and communities seeking the return of historically significant cultural artefacts.
When these artefacts were first claimed by Benin in 2016, the argument in France against their return was to reference the Edict of Moulins, a state law from 1566 – forbidding parting with inherited objects. However, Macron’s “without delay” pledge became a “perhaps at the beginning of 2021” promise by Franck Riester, the former French Minister of Culture.
In the UK, rather than the Edict of Moulins, we have the National Heritage Act of 1983 to contend with. The act, which established the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) as a non-departmental public body, also includes specific conditions on the circumstances under which museum trustees might acquire or dispose of objects. The document that underpins the success of our operational processes also dictates the terms of our operation.
Still, we remain committed to working within this legal framework, to address notable issues in our collections. And as a museum born of the colonial moment, we have a responsibility to explore and account for our own role in the apparatus of racism.
The V&A is at the forefront of proactive provenance research. We have the UK’s only appointed Provenance Curator, who is systematically assessing 1,200 items, to determine if they were looted during the Nazi period.
Looting of Ethiopian treasures
In Ethiopia, we are addressing another pressing concern. On 13 April 1868, the fortress of Emperor Tewodros II at Maqdala was besieged by British troops. They stormed it, released hostages and took items of value to auction off to raise money for the military. A crown, chalice and other valuable objects made their way back to England, to be deposited with various national museums.
William Gladstone, then Prime Minister, condemned the taking of treasures and “deeply lamented, for the sake of the country, and for the sake of all concerned, that these articles … were thought fit to be brought away by a British army’. In fact, he urged they “be held only until they could be restored”.
In 2018, the V&A’s Maqdala 1868 exhibition allowed us to reflect on an imperial past, show transparency and offer re-interpretation. The display highlighted the craftsmanship and beauty of Maqdala’s treasures within the context of the collection’s complex history.
At the time, we made a clear statement that if Ethiopia was interested in pursuing the long-term loan of the Magdala items, we would stand ready to assist. But we wholly understand the political challenge entailed in such a compromise and also appreciate the competing demands on the current Ethiopian administration.
Similarly, we hold an array of Asante gold weights, originally displayed in the museum as a show of imperial trophy-hunting, rather than for their design significance.
In the coming years, we are looking forward to working with prospective partner institutions in Ghana to share these items much more equitably.
Our challenge at the V&A is to ensure we use this moment not only to become an anti-racist organisation, but also extend our breadth of connection with museums, galleries, designers, and makers across the continent of Africa.
This entails confronting and analysing our colonial past – and ensuring the question of repatriation and the sharing of collections is an essential part of the discourse and no longer a barrier to partnership.
Dr Tristram Hunt is the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
About the Return of African Icons 2020 special report
This article forms part of the Return of African Icons 2020 special report in the August/September 2020 edition of New African magazine.
The colonial period led to the wholesale plundering of African icons, many of which still languish in Western museums and other heritage sites. It is time they were brought back home to help close another painful chapter. This report has been compiled in collaboration with the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), which has been one of the leading campaigners for the return of African icons and restitution for past wrongs. It lays out the current state of play and the growing momentum for this noble cause.
Click to view more articles from the Return of the Icons 2020 special report.