Museums, empire and racism

Contextualising what is referred to as ‘contested heritage’ is always necessary, but it is not the same as restitution or reparation. There is no nice way to say it: the starting point of museums was always a process of extraction

December 06, 2022 11:37 am | Updated 05:10 pm IST

A file photo of the Wellcome Collection museum.

A file photo of the Wellcome Collection museum. | Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy:

“What’s the point of museums?” asked the Wellcome Collection, a museum and library in London, recently on social media. Wellcome is a global philanthropic organisation that funds medical research. It was set up in 1936 after the death of Henry Wellcome, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. Over a lifetime of selling medicines around the British empire, including the innovation of giving free samples to doctors, he had collected over one million artefacts, a number of which were related to medicine and healing practices around the world.

In a series of tweets, the Wellcome Collection went on to reflect on the ways in which one of the galleries in their museum, titled Medicine Man, was problematic. The display of objects had been amassed by one man with “enormous wealth, power and privilege”; and it centred that man’s story. The display never questioned who the artefacts had belonged to, or how they had been obtained.

For some time now, the art and culture world has responded to problematic questions about empire and racism with contextualisation: here a footnote, there a curator’s reflection, occasionally even an entire exhibition devoted to exploring these issues. But somehow, actual cultural artefacts continue to remain exactly where they are. Except for a minuscule few, they do not go back to where they came from. Contextualising what is referred to as “contested heritage” is always necessary, but it is not the same as restitution or reparation.

Rhodes still stands

What does contextualisation do? I think of the statue of the racist imperialist Cecil Rhodes that stands at the entrance of Oriel College in Oxford with a small sign below which provides the context: that although the college had wanted to remove the statue, they are under legal advice not to do so.

A number of arguments are offered against restitution — it is an impractical and naïve idea; it is expensive; objects could be damaged in transit or after return; the places to where the artefacts are returned will not be able to care for them in the same temperature-controlled conditions. And so on.

When I went to the British Museum in London this October, the bus dropped me at the back entrance, which was closed to the public. As I walked around to the front entrance, I became acutely aware, step by step, of how very large the museum was.

The museum was massive, and practically everything of value inside had been “acquired” from elsewhere. As a friend commented, it could have been called “Treasures from the Empire”. I wondered if the many school groups being led through the galleries were also being taught about British imperialism and the lasting damage it had done to the world. Or was that not a relevant part of contextualisation?

The role of museums changes with time, but a starting point was always to turn some people into eternal objects while others remain subjects. It was to remove cultural artefacts from their locations in different parts of the world, and take them in only one direction, following trajectories of influence and power. There is no nice way to say it: it was always a process of extraction. The Parthenon marbles, the Benin bronzes, the rich artefacts of Egypt… they are all in the West.

I once saw an exhibition of children’s work in a village school in India, two hours from the district headquarters. One child had made a poster of a  veeragallu, a hero stone. I asked him where he had seen a  veeragallu. He had seen one near the village. The poster was beautiful. Heritage is the soil and the humus on which creativity is produced.

Who gets to look?

But one might argue that the world also has the right to look at these artefacts. If so, who gets to look at these objects? Are they only for those who are able to see them in the urban centres, in museums, sitting in the cafes, buying the smart tote bags? Or do the rural working people who built them also have a way to see these sculptures, sit in their shade, live and work with these artworks in the background? 

Many cultural artefacts have ceremonial use and spiritual affiliations. Even without these, there is just the plain and simple logic of ownership. Just because they are now placed in large well-funded buildings with temperature control and fancy curatorial practices, one cannot ignore that these objects belonged to the communities in which they were located. Culture is a living organism, not an array of inanimate or dead things, some of which can be taken and placed arbitrarily in glass cases. When they are removed forcibly from a place, objects leave a gap.

In their statement, the Wellcome Collection wrote: “Medicine Man is 15 years old, and the world is very different now to when it opened. If we were curating the space for the first time today, we would not choose to display these items through the lens of a single person, Henry Wellcome.” The tweet series ended with an announcement of the decision to close the Medicine Man display. It was closed on November 27.

Culture Twitter was up in arms. Some thought the museum itself was closing down. Apparently, museums were supposed to get on with their work to “educate the public”, and had no business to reflect on their role. One critic said viewers were being denied their right to see the display. You’re being paid to run a museum, so run it, was the message. “Irritating lefties” was how another critic put it. They thought it was the end of the world.

Yet, was it, in a way, the beginning of the end of at least one way of regarding the work of museums?

( Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS)

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