Returning artefacts of empire isn’t so simple

As someone raised in colonial Africa who has taught art history here for nearly 50 years I agree with David Olusoga that returning the spoils of empire makes a lot of sense (, 28 May). It need not empty our museums of everything so acquired. As he showed in his recent BBC Civilisations programmes, cultural interchange between Europe and the rest of the world shaped a shared heritage. That needs displaying so its legacies can be appreciated without concealing the uncomfortable historical facts.

Objects from the old empires will still have a place in European museum collections because, more vividly than most postcolonial history books, they bring that past to life. Wherever we and they are physically, with modern digital technologies and the internet they can be recorded, seen and interpreted from anywhere, but still there is no substitute for the originals, especially in countries that have few surviving artefacts from their own past. That is why returning some, while retaining others, would be mutually beneficial educationally, culturally and diplomatically.

Deaccessioning colonial acquisitions from British museums could have other benefits. To ensure that they would be going where they will be cared for to the highest standards, money from the overseas aid budget could be used to invest in museums and professional training, providing opportunities for our own institutions to develop new income streams from heritage management and consultancy services. It could also reimburse at current market values the cost to museums of objects acquired with public or charitable funds. The investment would demonstrate more than a cultural commitment to the Commonwealth: it would pay educational dividends, support our museums, and contribute economically to growing tourism in developing countries.

I completely disagree with David Olusoga. First, not all of the artefacts adorning the or V&A were looted. Often there was a lot of collusion between the colonised people and the colonial masters in acquiring objects. Second, how does one determine who or which country should be the rightful owner? Which country should get the Koh-i-Noor diamond from the royal crown – India, Pakistan or Bangladesh? Should it be cut into three pieces so that none of these three countries feel left out? Should religion play a part in the returning policy so that Moghul miniature paintings in the V&A go to Pakistan, but the Rajput ones go to India?

What guarantee is there that, once returned, these items would be properly looked after? Fundamentalism has become a dominant force in many of the ex-colonial countries and in recent years we have seen what has happened in Afghanistan and Babri Masjid in India, and what Isis did in Syria.

Besides, most of the ex-colonies did not have the financial resources to care for and properly preserve these artefacts. Any researcher will know the condition of the colonial papers in Indian archives whereas similar papers are properly preserved in the British Library.

Lastly more people come to Britain to see these artefacts. How many of them will go to or Afganistan to see the statue of Gandhar Buddha or the relics of Harappa?

Colonialism and what happened at the time are part of our inheritance, whether we like it or not. To claim restitution in the form of returns of goodies encourages cheap sentimentalism.

The artefacts should stay where they are.

Source : theguardian[dot]com