London, England – “The South Sea Company did not trade in fish,” says Alice Procter, as she shows visitors around Queen’s House, a maritime museum in Greenwich, southeast London. “They traded in something far more valuable to the English monarchy – slaves.”
The 23-year-old Australian art historian is behind the “Uncomfortable Art Tours”, a series of museum visits in the capital exploring history with a twist.
She focuses on what she describes as racist narratives and an ideology that underpins the objects displayed in European exhibitions from the colonial period, which isn’t always mentioned.
On the Queen’s House tour, portraits, botanical records, curios and engravings commemorating various European expeditions are analysed and put into context, sometimes to the discomfort of some of her tour group, who are mainly young white women – like Procter herself.
“It is no longer possible for Britain to present itself as a world power, and people aren’t willing to pretend any more,” says Procter. “They are interested in the stories that aren’t being told.”
Admiral Nelson’s lifelong opposition to the abolition movement, the English Crown’s financial involvement with slavery and the lack of evidence to support lurid tales of cannibalism all come as a bit of a shock.
“Museums provide almost a Trojan horse type of space to confront the official narratives we’re told,” says Procter, who started the tours in 2013.
“I started them out of a sense of frustration over the lack of self-awareness that white British people have over their pasts and history – and that lack of attention is part of the shadow of white supremacy and racism that’s hanging over our heads right now.”
Museums provide a biased view of the past, she claims.
“While museums continue to argue that they are neutral spaces, the fact is that they are not. There is always one side of the story that has been privileged over the other in these spaces, and we need to be more honest and open about that.”
This challenge to the official narrative comes at a time when Europe is facing a renewed debate over returning African art, much of which was acquired as colonial-era loot.
Museums and galleries across Europe have faced repatriation claims for decades. The counter-argument has always been that these objects are now presented as part of a global history.
Our Britishness is based on an erasure of history, and the 'Great Britain' narrative is based on ignoring the bad in the past. It's important to look back to understand what's happening now.
Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Europe had a responsibility to return artefacts.
“African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums,” he said during a speech in Burkina Faso, later appointing two experts, one of whom is Senegalese, to oversee the repatriation process.
Other European nations followed suit.
In May this year, Germany’s culture minister and the association of German museums released a “code of conduct” which included guidelines on how to research artefacts in collections, and how to repatriate colonial-era objects.
In the United Kingdom, the director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) made headlines when he suggested that the museum’s Maqdala collection, around 80 artefacts looted from the palace of the Abyssinian Emperor Tewodros II in 1868 by British and colonial troops, could be returned to Ethiopia on a “long-term loan” basis. The country had filed a claim for their return in 2007.
“We believe that long-term loans are the quickest way to get these objects in front of the communities they came from,” says Tristram Hunt, V&A director. “The point about the Maqdala exhibition was to highlight the contentious provenance of the objects – and we decided to speak to the embassy about loaning these objects back because we need to be open and transparent about the collections.”
Formed in 2016, the Benin Dialogue Group, a consortium of European museums, discuss how best to return the Benin Bronzes, antiquities looted in 1897 during a punitive British military expedition to crush the dissenting West African Kingdom of Benin, in present-day Nigeria.
“There is great value in presenting objects from the Kingdom of Benin in a global context, alongside the stories of other cultures,” a spokesperson for the British Museum, which is part of the group, told Al Jazeera.
“[The museum] will always consider loan requests subject to usual conditions.”
The British Museum currently possesses 700 artefacts from Benin which were plundered in 1897 and has faced restitution claims from both the Nigerian government and the Benin Royal Court.
Are long-term loans the solution?
Long-term loans have been greeted with reservation, due to the legal precedent they may set.
In order for a loan to go through, the country requesting the objects would first have to recognise the institute possessing the artefacts as being their legal owner – a contentious prospect when it comes to looted art.
This has fuelled concern over a potential whitewashing of the painful history behind how these artefacts were acquired by European nations during the “Scramble for Africa” in the 19th century.
Writing in the Modern Ghana journal, former UN legal adviser Kwame Opoku said long-term loans represented Europe’s perceived “God-given right and obligation to supervise Africans and their activities, including what obviously is African property and resource”.
Some activists, however, have conceded that the loans might be the best way for the artefacts to be returned for now.
“Many of my Ethiopian friends and colleagues are uneasy about a clear endorsement of a long-term loan on the grounds that that would be recognising the legitimacy of the loot,” says Alula Pankhurst, a social anthropologist and member of AFROMET – The Association for the Return of The Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures. “However, there are some who recognise the need for a pragmatic approach, building trust between museums in the UK and Ethiopia. Personally, I am more inclined to the latter view.”
Professor John Picton, emeritus professor of African art at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), said repatriation sets an uncomfortable precedent that no museum will easily agree to, whatever the moral considerations.
“The ownership of the Benin Bronzes clearly lies with the Kings of Benin – but that argument won’t convince museums to return them,” he told Al Jazeera. “What will is long-term loans, the construction of museums in Benin and increased cooperation between European museums and Africa to understand their collections better.”
Back on the Queen’s House tour, visitors are forced to reflect on Britain’s colonial past.
“Our Britishness is based on an erasure of history, and the ‘Great Britain’ narrative is based on ignoring the bad in the past,” says Kemi, a journalist attending the tour. “It’s important to look back to understand what’s happening now.”