Finders-Keepers? The Balance between Colonialism and Morality

Our Eurocentric view of the past is standing in the way of a truly global history

Natasha Doris | Mon, 11 Mar 2019

The Ta-Kheru exhibition at Aberdeen University (pictures by Christina Mackenzie)

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” George Orwell’s warning is acknowledged across the world as a striking reminder that the foundation of a society lies in the appreciation of their roots. How unsettling it should be to us then, that we have imposed a Western lens on the way the world views its history, and in doing so, have blinded ourselves to the historical appreciation shared by the very cultures we claim to represent – a practice which has emerged as a form of “Neo-colonialism” for the 21st Century.

In 2002, a group of nineteen museums from across North America and Europe signed The Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, which identified these museums as a new class of “elite” museums. This declaration stated that “… museums serve not just citizens of one nation but people of every nation.” The declaration sparked controversy, coming under criticism from museums and scholars globally for its narrow approach to an appreciation of history. Many criticised the declaration as a way of hiding from the surging debate surrounding repatriation – others said it was arrogant to exclude museums of great merit and significance which operated outside of the Eurocentric sphere of its signatories. Indeed, this declaration does raise the question – should we, as a nation, deliver back everything we once took from those we exploited, or are we justified in our rationale, that in keeping our collections, we in turn provide an invaluable resource for the world to benefit from?

In the 18th century, Aberdonian Charles Forbes took a detour through Egypt in the course of working for his father in India. Forbes did not return to Aberdeen alone, however. With him was a coffin bearing the remains of an Ancient Egyptian mummy, named Ta-Kheru - and in autumn last year, the University of Aberdeen displayed Ta-Kheru for all to see at her own exhibition. In our new and apparently enlightened age, the university is deconstructing what an exhibit can be.

The question emerged regarding the nature of displaying the dead – can we use the dead for our education, and yet still claim that we are respecting them in their death as they would have desired in life?

The exhibition proved a curious litmus test. Instead of exploiting her potential for novelty, the University emphasised the importance of honouring her name, and her life. This respect for Ta-Kheru’s culture is an attempt by the University to respect the extraordinary artefacts in its care, and to communicate that although they cannot undo the errors of colonialism which brought her to them, they can still respect her as they explore her life and her history.

“We decided that as she would have wanted her body to be preserved and her name to be remembered, we focused on telling a story that was about her life and used her name as the title of the exhibition” says Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections for the University. “I think she would have liked to be remembered in this way.” 

This respect for the cultures embedded in museum collections comes at a time when post-colonialist Britain is desperate to rid themselves of their heavy legacy. At the height of colonialism, pieces of other cultures from around the world found their way into Western museums, with little to no questions, or concerns, with regards to how they got there. Ta-Kheru was one such case.

As with many artefacts currently under the care of Western museums, the University has no record of how Forbes came into possession of her remains. Now, Westerners of the modern day are in a hurry to shake off the shadow of their colonial past. 

The danger that Western museums find themselves in is the way in which they categorise the material in their possession. One of the most sensitive topics in this conversation surrounds the spiritual and religious significance of the likes of ancestral remains. In their treatment of Ta-Kheru, the University demonstrated care to respect her in a way befitting her spiritual beliefs. In their eagerness to make amends for the sins of our past in the 21st Century, the West is, furthermore, eager to send back the remains of indigenous ancestors to their homeland. However, our itchy trigger-finger for repatriation may be doing more harm than good.

In our eagerness to rid ourselves of what we’ve taken, we have forced other cultures into an uncomfortable situation. While collectors believe they are doing what is morally correct, often times, the societies whose ancestors we took are not ready to take them back here and now. Preparation and a delicate process of negotiation and respect is essential to the process, unappreciated properly by a Westernised approach to museum artefacts, which often treats human remnants as more akin to canvas or a marble sculpture, than the remains of the dead.

“Repatriation claims really matter to people and are normally the result of much care and thought. It’s a big thing, bringing your ancestors back. We should not push people into repatriation if they do not feel it is the right thing to do just now”, says Curtis. “The risk is that repatriation from museum collections could be driven by a desire to clear Western consciences. If society really wants to deal with the wealth that came from colonialism, repatriation from museums would just be a token gesture.” The challenge to us if we are to truly move forward is to halt our efforts to both hide and expel our colonial past from our museums, and instead to open up a dialogue with the cultures we took from, so that our culture does not presume to set the standard for the rest of the world, but that instead, we take the effort to learn from one another, and see history in a new light – we have the chance to transform the way we view the world in a way we have never considered before.

In viewing all museum artefacts under the lens of static items whose significance is limited to what they tell us about our history, we fall into the trap of Eurocentric mentalities, and consequently, “repatriation could become a form of Neo-Colonialism.” An attempt to wash our hands of the blood of our own ancestors risks seeing us follow unwittingly in their footsteps instead. 

For Ta-Kheru, the University says that there have been no requests for her return. Instead of trying to expel the legacy of colonialism from their story, they are acknowledging it as part of Scotland’s tangled history. “Scotland’s history includes the stories of people who have benefited from and suffered from colonialism, slavery. We need to acknowledge and explore this legacy, not hide from it.”

Out of the 250,000 items in its collection, the University have received two completed repatriation requests, which leaves the question as to how to honour the legacy of those which remain? The answer has the potential to rebuild the bridges we burned – we need to stop relying on our own interpretation on history, and stop shutting the world out from its own cultural heritage. If we are to truly honour our global history, we need to broaden not just the audience, but the curators as well. This is what the Western museums fail to implement.

A paper by Moira Simpson in Museum International journal states that “… indigenous people frequently refer to the limitations of museum display as a means of expressing and preserving culture, emphasising that culture is a living process that incorporates both continuity and change.” This perspective can serve to open our eyes to the alternative ways that history can be told. Alive, and intimately experienced. No more freezing our history on a podium and claiming that we now know your heritage.

If our museums are going to be universal, it is time to let in the voices of the peoples we oppressed. It’s time to build our world together, our feet fixed firmly on the path to the future, and our eyes clear, unclouded by this single narrative of the past.

The challenge to the University, and to collectors over the world, is to assess how exactly we balance the tension between an appreciation of the artefacts in our possession, with a respect for the practices of the cultures which they have been procured from.

The exhibit of Ta-Kheru was constructed with this question in mind. Striking a balance between sharing the story of a culture which is not our own and honouring their culture in a way which they acknowledge, is the first step on the road to global reconciliation. To acknowledge, rather than hide from our past is vital. In doing so, we do not force other cultures to view the history of their culture through the Western prism. Instead, we let the world in to our museums, into our collections, and we emerge at the other side with a history that is truly global.


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