Stolen Heritage: Decolonizing European-American Museums

At least once a year from the age of ten, I visited the British Museum for a school class. I would visit on my own to draw objects for art classes and, to this day, I return every time I go home for a trip. One of the enduring controversies around the British Museum that I learned about as a kid was its refusal to return the “Elgin Marbles,” a collection of sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. The Marbles have been on display in the British Museum since they were taken by Lord Elgin at the beginning of the 19th century when Greece was under Ottoman rule.

The Acropolis Museum in Athens (where the rest of the Parthenon sculptures are housed) built empty exhibition spaces to symbolize the hope that the British Museum will someday return the Elgin Marbles. The Greeks hold vigils praying for their return. I once watched a documentary on the Marbles where a curator at the British Museum haughtily argued that the Marbles shouldn’t be returned with one of the most British sentences I’ve ever heard to this day: “Would you give a naughty child back his toys?”

If the Elgin Marbles are returned, what happens next? Would it set in motion a landslide of repatriation claims from nations around the world questioning the British Museum’s ownership of the Rosetta Stone or the Assyrian Balawat Gates?

Earlier this year, art historian Alice Procter led a series of “Uncomfortable Art Tours” around London museums (including the British Museum) to expose the public to the colonial roots of many of the U.K.’s national collections. She even gave out “Display It Like You Stole It” badges to attendees. Proctor writes that she sees the British empire and its history of colonization and imperialism reflected in these national museums. She points out the euphemistic language embedded in museum lingo, such as the word “acquisition,” which often obscures the truth of how many of the collections throughout Europe were formed.

In response, the British Museum has pushed back in the media and launched monthly “Collected Histories” talks. The Museum says it can offer more nuanced histories of the objects in their collection and disagrees with the argument that its entire collection was looted. This response is a protective one, because the precedent set by returning stolen heritage to its rightful keepers is a slippery slope for the British Museum and the museum world at large.

There is archaeological evidence for collecting and the ancestors of modern-day museums can be found around the world. In Europe, such collections were mainly owned and controlled by the nobility or the church. Wealthy European landowners travelled across lands colonized by their home countries to “collect objects” for their personal collections. The provenance of museum collections is often so murky partially because of the looting and grave robbing that occurred during these early colonized archaeological excavations.

Around the 18th century, many of the most famous modern-day museums (the British Museum, the Lourve, etc.) were founded to open up these privately held collections and make them accessible to the public. They were founded as centres for education, knowledge, and curiosity.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the collections of these museums grew as museum curators and private collectors went in search of objects from colonized lands under imperial rule. Early archaeologists should better be understood as grave robbers. The famous example of the “discovery” of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham (one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones, a famous grave robber in popular culture) resulted in the theft of cultural patrimony from Indigenous Andeans by Yale University, who funded Bingham’s expedition. They’ve since repatriated the stolen heritage to Peru.

The National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of Natural History both have federal mandates for repatriation as part of their status as federal institutions under the Smithsonian’s umbrella. These museums have active repatriation departments that handle requests for the return of cultural patrimony to their rightful holders. The NMAI’s collection was founded on the private collection of George Gustave Heye, another one of those 19th century explorers who travelled the Americas “acquiring” Indigenous patrimony.

These museums have a federal mandate for repatriation because of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a major civil rights victory for Native Americans. NAGPRA was enacted in 1990 in response to the concerns and activism of Indigenous Nations around the theft of Native bodies and cultural heritage as well as the display of both in U.S. museums. James Luna, a Native performance artist who passed away earlier this year, famously put his own body on display in a museum as a commentary on how Native bodies are objectified.

While it is now illegal to display the body of a Native American in a U.S. museum, it is not uncommon to see human mummies from Ancient Egypt at museums around the world or even the bodies of child mummies like those on display at the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in Chile.

NAGPRA protects the cultural heritage of Indigenous Nations that share borders with the United States. It does not protect the rights of Indigenous peoples from throughout the Americas or globally. There are other museums under the Smithsonian umbrella that hold Indigenous human remains as part of their collections. The difference is those people are from the African continent, the Asian continent, South and Central America, Australia, and Oceania.

This past September, the New York City-based liberation group Decolonize This Place led its third Indigenous Peoples Day tour at the American Museum of Natural History. They demand that visitors have “a right to know the full story behind the collecting and the exhibiting of the museum’s contents.” Their tour, and a decolonized map they created in collaboration with other organizing groups, discusses how “the ideals of male chauvinism and white supremacy….are still embedded in the museum’s classification and framing of materials.”

What does it say about us when our museums host stolen patrimony and teach a white supremacist narrative about the world? How do museums negotiate respect for human life and Indigenous rights, recognition of the global history of European-American colonization and white supremacy, scientific inquiry, and public education?

The recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture was formed without a founding collection rooted in colonization. The curators spent years forming the museum’s founding collection through donations from the public and equitable compensation for African American heritage.

Museums are educators. Teachers and children around the world rely on them for knowledge, for sparking curiosity and creativity. They were established to be accessible institutions for public education. Museums are also research institutions on the forefront of their fields where curators and scholars collectively write the history of our shared earth.

The British Museum will go ahead with its Collected Histories talks, but the public must continue to push back and demand respect for Indigenous rights and the removal of white supremacist narratives from our public institutions. Decolonial museums exist and decolonization work is being done, but we, the public, must put our bodies and our voices behind it. Our cultural institutions reflect our shared values.

The Smithsonian Institution likes to refer to itself as “America’s attic.” What’s hiding there? Who is telling the stories? And what stories have not been told?