In 2017, the French government announced its intentions to revisit and reconsider the collections of its ‘ethnographic’ and ‘world’ museums. Commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron and released in November 2018, Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy’s ‘Restitution Report’ stated that dealing with Europe’s colonial past is ‘one of Europe’s greatest challenges for the 21st century’.
Crucial, overdue calls for decolonization in Europe are taking place in the political terrain and media, in museums and cultural fields, including contemporary art. While in exhibitions we have seen the much-needed entry of voices diverging from the Western canon, too often these inclusions, to quote Ana Teixeira Pinto in frieze, ‘adhere to the museum’s own regulation of cultural difference’. Institutions, biennials and mega-exhibitions operate through a format they have inherited directly from the past: the modern museum. And the collections of ‘ethnographic’, ‘world cultural’ and archaeological museums that are abundant in the European north are revealing: they expose these unresolved colonial pasts.
Language enforces power, and one word pops out from Emmanuel Macron’s speech arguing for the return of artefacts, held at the University of Ouagadougou in 2017: ‘Starting today, and within the next five years, I want to see the conditions put in place so as to allow for the temporary or definitive restitution of African cultural heritage to Africa.’ The crucial word is: allow. White, Western museums still hold the power to adjudicate between the temporary and the definitive. They justify this power, claiming to hold the expertise and knowledge of ‘what is best’ for these artefacts. A colonial logic persists in this relationship between the thief and the owner: the purloiner holds the power. The use of the word restitution, cleverly decided by the powers at play, is rarely replaced with the more appropriate terms of repatriation or return – return to the rightful owner.
Recent large-scale exhibitions of contemporary art often present artefacts. They are shown as ‘liberated’ from their confines, though their means of display perpetuates the long-standing power apparatus of the museum: it decides when, how and for how long it offers the opportunity to see the prized and ubiquitously acquired artefact. The contemporary art exhibition abides to the confines of the ‘modern museum-as lender’: its security requirements, loan forms and bureaucratic procedures and rules.
Contemporary art must disinherit itself from its paternal heirlooms: it can do so by rejecting the mechanisms of display, loaning and financialization derived from the modern museum. Numerous texts from contemporary exhibitions wax lyrical on the act of inclusion, yet they also enact an erasure of violence. Rarely is there serious consideration of the vast changes necessary so that the Other is not only included but can self-define its rightful space.
The German historian and director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, stated recently in an interview in Greek newspaper Ta Nea: ‘the artefacts of the collection of the British Museum belong to the British Museum and there is no chance of a long-term loan to Greece. In order for us to loan an artefact the lender must recognize we are the rightful and legal owner’. It seems Fischer believes that the looting of the Parthenon Marbles (severed from the actual monument of the Parthenon in Athens with saws) was not only a charitable act, but also a creative one. ‘When you move an artefact in a museum, you move it out of its context. However, this move is a creative act. This is true not only for the British Museum, but the Acropolis Museum as well’, he said.
I am not sure how such a process can be considered ‘creative’, or equal for both the Acropolis Museum (rightful owner) and the British Museum (looter) unless Fischer means a ‘creative economy’. The Parthenon Marbles are profitable for the British Museum; the room where they are kept is among the most prized and visited. Numerous posters and replicas of the Marbles do quite well in the Museum Shop: you can get your own replica of the Horse of Selene (c. 438 BCE), for a mere GBP£1,650. I call that a bargain.
In response to Fischer, Dimitrios Pandermalis, the director of Athens’s Acropolis Museum, was quick to state on Deutschlandfunk public radio on 2 January 2019 that the British Museum is not the legal owner of the Parthenon Marbles. For Pandermalis, the long-running dispute with Greece over their fate can only be resolved with their unconditional repatriation and not with a lending plan. ‘The full return of the Parthenon Marbles is the only solution. Everything that is inextricably linked to the monument must be reunited’, he was quoted in Greek daily I Kathimerini.
In April 2017, Future Climates, a platform I co-founded with curator Antonia Alampi, unveiled a new work by artist Alexandra Pirici, commissioned together with Kadist Paris, entitled Parthenon Marbles (2017). Avoiding the endless red tape and bureaucracy of Greece, we decided to perform the piece, guerrilla-style, on the Acropolis rock. It was an act that aimed to break from the tradi-tional routes of discussing the issue of repatriation and return. The piece, which the artist calls a ‘living human sculpture’, was a choreographed tableau vivant wherein five performers translated via their bodies, the poses of the figures of the looted section of the Parthenon frieze. The work references the Acropolis Museum’s (and Greece’s) ongoing quest for the British Museum to repatriate the marbles – an active request since the reinstitution of democracy in Greece in 1974. The British Museum has blocked this return for 48 years.
Pirici’s work also involves a textual component, produced in collaboration with curator and writer Victoria Ivanova, read out by the performers. The text narrates the history of the Parthenon Marbles and uses the notion of the derivative as a tool for identifying concrete socio-economic advantages when it comes to holding prized artefacts. In Athens, Pirici chose the Acropolis rock as the site for the work, effectively proposing this performative repatriation, and in other countries she has chosen equally symbolic spaces. The particulars of the way the artwork is conceived serve as an answer to how to avoid the culs-de-sac of the normative narrative on display and language that we have inherited from the colonial modern museum.
As contemporary cultural practitioners, we are implicated in continuous refusals of the museums of Europe to return artefacts to their rightful owners. But this also exposes another elephant in the room: the role of art in the economy of all cultural institutions, and its role in reinforcing financial inequalities. I am referring both to the revenue such museums bring in, but also the way in which economic inequalities are reinforced between so-called ‘developed’ and ‘under-developed’ or ‘developing’ countries. The revenue from visitor numbers of museums such as the British Museum, the Louvre or the Pergamon is largely dependent on audiences fascinated with these prized items. The continuous narrative of the white, Western museum is: we are trying to sustain, promote, conserve culture, simply because we are the only true experts with means. The decision of keeping these artefacts, so as to sustain tourism economy, go hand in hand with the excuse that the conditions for their preservation, in the countries of origin, are not optimal. Never mind that on 20 December 2018, water leaked from the roof onto the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum. Fischer admitted to the leakage in his interview on 27 January, albeit with the reassurance that ‘they were certainly not damaged’.
The brand name and prestige of these museums allows them to sustain narratives of power structures of previous centuries – but also accumulate wealth. The annual report of the British Museum is telling: whilst the salary of its director is between GBP£260,000 and GBP£265,000, with a ‘15% bonus of the annual gross salary, entirely at the discretion of the Trustees’, apart from the main structural funding by the British government many of its temporary exhibitions are supported by corporations, several from the countries where the looted artefacts come from: ‘donations and legacies of £15.9 million were received during the year (£22.0 million in 2016/17), including donations and legacies received from individuals, trusts and foundations and gifts in kind. A further £13.0 million (£20.4 million in 2016/17) was received from other trading activities and £21.6 million (£20.7 million in 2016/17) from charitable activities’ (according to the British Museum’s 2018 annual report).
The economic power of institutions of this calibre is sustained not only by them operating as vehicles of soft – or not so soft – diplomacy. It is also perpetuated through their position as beacons of the Western canon that dictates the rightful ownership of these artefacts, as well as determining what is culture or not. And it adds insult to injury: the countries afflicted by theft and their ambassadors (in the forms of corporations or wealthy jetsetters and patrons) often cannot support financially the life of these artefacts in the museums of their home countries, so they support them in these museums, since it is after all the only way for them to exit the vault and see the light of day, ever so briefly, in the form usually of temporary exhibitions. Or they simply approve of the looting.
There is only one way that the contemporary art institution can contribute to the decolonizing process of the museum: it must actively engage and participate in a continuous and long fight for repatriation, by putting the knife deep in the wound: such museums have few valid reasons in 2019 to keep these artefacts in their possession, and by refusing to return them, they confirm power structures of centuries past, and their colonial horrors.
Many will propagate in favour of the role for these museums in educating and informing a wide audience. In the words of Mr. Fischer: ‘we exhibit the sculptures in a framework of world civilizations, promoting artistic excellence from all over the world, under the same roof, highlighting the links between cultures’. The desire to ‘learn from’ the colonized ‘other’ is an imposition of power in itself: these learning processes are set by the former colonizer. Others, such as Jess Saxby, warn against ‘collective amnesia’ that might result from repatriation; though this does not take into account the continuous financial gain from colonial loot and the economic inequalities between looter and owner, that museums perpetuate.
If contemporary art institutions want to decolonize themselves and break free from these centuries’-old modus operandi of how culture is justified, acquired, displayed, presented, promoted and sustained there is only one way forward: a form of patricide. And by that I mean abandoning the operational tropes of the modern museum; not including artefacts in contemporary exhibitions that come from such museums, just to give the contemporary exhibition a ‘twist’ and demand actively the return of looted artefacts by bringing these questions in the contemporary museum. What is needed is to refute, constantly, the vestigial excuses given by these colonial dinosaurs: they should have already been extinct. In order to survive, the shocking arrogance of their statements should be replaced with a meaningful dialogue with their constituents, which embodies and respects their diversity and complexity.
Main image: Goddesses in diaphanous drapery, figures L and M from the east pediment of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble. Courtesy: © The Trustees of the British Museum
iLiana Fokianaki is a writer and curator based in Athens, Greece. She is the founder of State of Concept Athens, a non-profit institution operating since 2013, and the co-founder of Future Climates, a platform investigating sustainability and precarity of small art institutions and art workers. In 2019, she founded a research grant for Greek women artists above 35.