The newly crowned King Charless III wants to embrace a multicultural and multi faith United Kingdom. So, religious leaders from all representative faiths in the UK participated in his coronation ceremony on May 6.
Now, can there be real talk about repatriating some of the artifacts of the British Museum to their respective countries, the ex-colonies, whose people, faiths, languages, constitute today’s multicultural England?
As a citizen of India, I remember how frustrated I felt when a security guard chided me for attempting to take a photo of the Koh-i-noor diamond in The Tower of London. That artifact came from my country; rather, was “stolen” from my country. So I wanted to protest. There are many more such ‘stolen’ artifacts such as the Cullinan diamonds that have become symbols of the British monarchy’s power and lineage. Many museum artifacts in Europe and the USA are ‘stolen’ or were collected during the heyday of colonialism and talks about repatriation never seem to take hold.
In fact, in 2022, some Mexican activists infiltrated the audio guides in Vienna’s Weltmuseum to protest the possession of Moctezuma’s headdress.
In the United States, in 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed. However, the UC Berkeley’s museum, for example, continues to hold the largest collection of unrepatriated Native American human remains in the country.
As a librarian in the broader profession of procuring, curating, and making accessible information resources such as books, music, movies for borrowing (libraries), objects and artifacts on display for viewing (museums), and historical records for research (archives), I can tell for sure that many among us cringe at the blatant racist, colonial, and imperial histories that inform the resources we handle everyday.
To be sure, efforts to address how resources are classified in library catalogs through which patrons can discover them have been undertaken, as evident in the ‘Decolonizing the Catalog’ webinar held in 2021 by the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association. Similarly, in 2020, Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, committed to revise how the collections in the deYoung Museum and the Legion of Honor would be developed and presented by researching their histories with accuracy from an anti-racist perspective.
On my way to attend the AAPI Heritage Month celebration at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco last weekend, I heard Episode # 541 ‘The Case of the $4 Million Gold Coffin’ on Freakonomics radio. Kim Kardashian in 2018 unwittingly helped a stolen golden antiquity find its way back to its place of origin in Egypt and the MET suffered a loss of almost $4 million. This was just the story I needed before seeing the porcelain and schist artifacts from all over Asia. In fact, I learned that in 2020 the museum had initiated the deaccessioning process (removal from collection) of two sandstone lintels that were to return to two Thailand temples because the documentation of procurement and acquisition had proved insufficient to the museum experts and Thai authorities.
We all have a responsibility to question the provenance or the documentation of the journey of cultural artifacts that seem to showcase our or other nations’ histories. This is because, often, these exhibits have had questionable journeys and have tales of violence and coercion behind their acquisitions.
When you see an exhibit in a museum and you know there’s more history or context than what the museum either reveals or is aware of, look up the curator or director and talk to them. Curators of cultural histories and knowledge must correct the mistakes that were committed by our predecessors.