Tthe dead are not buried. This is one of the first lessons every archeology student should learn. A tomb is never evidence of a Pompeii moment, a frozen image of someone as they were in life. It shows how that person was treated in death and in posterity.
This was highlighted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s publication report on historical inequalities in commemoration. Ingrained prejudices, preconceptions and the widespread racism of contemporary imperial attitudes, the document explains, led to hundreds of thousands of cases of unequal commemoration or non-commemoration of African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean peoples who fought for Great Britain in the first and second. world wars. Claire Horton, CEO of the commission, answered, “We will act to correct the mistakes of the past.” “I welcome the fact that the commission … will make amends whenever possible,” intervened the first Minister.
When the report was published, a national debate about the human remains of blacks was gathering momentum in the US, in the context not of war memorials but of museum warehouses. In July 2020, the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania apologized for its “unethical possession” of more than 1,300 skulls assembled by Samuel George Morton in the century for the pseudoscience of craniometry. Then in mid-February, a report by PhD student Paul Wolff Mitchell revealed that Morton’s collection includes the skulls looted from the graves of 14 African Americans, unearthed in the 1840s from a cemetery adjacent to the site where the Penn Museum now stands.
The ethical treatment of human remains is not a new topic, but as this debate has spread for Harvard and Princeton, it is clearly one in which the public dialogue is changing rapidly. When the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (where I work) reopened after the first closure in September 2020, all human remains were removed from screen, and the famous case “Treatment of dead enemies” was dismantled. That 100-year-old exhibit promoted the racist myth that “headhunting” represents a coherent type of “savage” culture, while suggesting that the purpose of a “world culture” museum is to show what was taken from the opponents of the British Empire.
Since the 1990s, the return of human remains has become a normal part of curatorial practice in UK museums. London Natural History Museum Return the human remains of 37 indigenous people to the Narungga community of South Australia in March 2019. But this is a small proportion of what remains. Accurate figures are difficult to obtain and little progress has been made since 2003, when outreach exercise conducted for the Ministerial Working Group on Human Remains indicated that museums in England contain the remains of more than 60,000 people in 132 institutions, including perhaps 18,000 from abroad.
Questions about human skulls, bones, and hair and skin specimens have gradually expanded to encompass ancient cultural objects taken under colonialism. Today, the restitution is likely to involve both artifacts and human remains. In November 2019, the Manchester Museum returned 43 secret Indigenous Australian ceremonial items. Mangubadijarri Yanner, on behalf of Gangalidda Garawa Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, He noted that This return was “important and necessary for the purpose of cultural revitalization, because locked deep within these elements is our tradition; our stories, our traditions and our stories ”.
British museums are in dire need of such cultural revitalization at this time, and the question of human remains and artifacts offers a vantage point from which to view museum debates more clearly. Some may seek to marginalize these acts of transparency, devolution, and reparation, or denigrate museum colleagues who seek to promote professional ethical practice, dismissing them as “activists.”
The outdated view persists that curators should limit themselves to writing history while keeping collections preserved in amber. There is a palpable nostalgia among some members of the museum’s board, directors and associations of friends for the reassuring voice of curatorial authority. For evidence of how that particular ship has sailed, consider the fast reverse on plans impose a chronological structure on the Victoria and Albert Museum art and design collections. This retrograde step would have integrated sub-Saharan Africa and its diasporas into the Asian department, which smells, as the historian and author of the trade Tanya Harrod points out, to a frame of “west and the rest”.
The conservative position is that “to decolonize is to decontextualize.” But anti-racism in museums is not about pretending that colonialism never happened. It begins by pretending nothing but colonialism and its consequences are totally in the past. Some of Britain’s colonial-era museums may attempt to go on simply showing, narrating, and thus rewriting stories of dispossession, violence and atrocities. Others will be open to dismantling the colonial infrastructure where it is perpetuating outdated worldviews and institutional racism. Sometimes the context changes without you.
Acting to correct errors in the treatment and commemoration of the dead is not unpatriotic or iconoclastic, but an urgent task of truth and reparation among the living. For museums, this calls for a new openness to transformation, driven by equitable partnerships with audiences, stakeholders, and the communities that museums serve and from whom they derive social legitimacy. Today, the gap between London’s largest national museums and those with the closest ties to world cultural collections, both internationally and in the city, is widening. How can this gap be addressed?
A precedent here is how professional standards for the management and care of Britain’s historic built environment have evolved over the past three decades. Value-based conservation decision making is displace Ingrained and elitist historical-artistic stories of value based on knowledge and the architectural canon, with approaches that focus the importance that people invest in the places they love. We need this spirit in our museums, replacing hierarchy and traditional authority with civic values that drive change. Museums have been transformed before, for example through free access. In these changing times, how can we approach the Arts Council England’s Let’s Create strategy document? Names like your investment principles of “inclusion and relevance”?
Let’s be transparent about the tens of thousands of human remains taken under colonialism that languish in the warehouses of our museums. Let us be open to the return of stolen cultural objects, remaking international relations with credibility and honesty. Let’s dismantle the structures of inequality, exclusion and racism where they have persisted since colonial times in our institutions. These are not iconoclastic attacks on museums, as some will claim, or part of some “culture war.” They are overdue measures to keep Britain’s global museums up to date with an ever-changing world.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism