As European museums face increased pressure to return African art — much of it taken during the so-called “Scramble for Africa” — one London-based curator is trying to tell a side of art history not documented in most school books.
Alice Procter’s “Uncomfortable Art Tours” at the Queen’s House, a maritime museum in Greenwich, explores the racist narratives and ideologies underpinning many objects displayed in Europe from the region’s colonial period, Al Jazeera reports.
From the news site:
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….
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.
“While museums continue to argue that they are neutral spaces, the fact is that they are not,” Procter told Al Jazeera. “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.”
Her tours come at a time when many European and American museums are reckoning (or refusing to reckon) with how they came to possess some of their most valuable pieces. From works that were mysteriously acquired during the Cambodian genocide to artifacts seized by British forces during military offensives in present-day Nigeria, the art presented in so-called “universal” museums is often the rightful property of countries that were colonized.
In recent years, according to the Guardian, many have called for the “repatriation” of antiquities to their countries of origin. But while some curators support a system of long-term loans — in which the country requesting the objects would gain access to them for a period, but would first have to recognize the museum as the legal owner — others believe that could set a bad legal precedent when it comes to looted art.
Long-term loans represent institutional Europe’s perceived “God-given right and obligation to supervise Africans and their activities, including what obviously is African property and resource,” former UN legal adviser Kwame Opoku wrote recently in the Modern Ghana journal, according to Al Jazeera.
As Next City has covered, whitewashing history is a problem in American museums as well — particularly when it comes to Native American art. And representation remains an issue as well. In 2015, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that only 16 percent of art museum leadership positions were held by people of color, even though 38 percent of Americans identify as black, Hispanic, Asian or multiracial. Several museums, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Oakland Museum of California are working to more closely align their exhibits with their surrounding communities.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.