How activists are exposing the colonial history of museums

Museums and colonialism are inextricably linked. Julio Etchart explores how projects in colonizing countries are wrestling with how to address that past.
Performance by curator KV at the 'No Place like Home' exhibition by Vietnamese diaspora collective at the Museum of the Home in London, UK. Julio Etchart
Performance by curator KV at the 'No Place like Home' exhibition by Vietnamese diaspora collective at the Museum of the Home in London, UK. JULIO ETCHART

Museums are often seen as neutral spaces that display and preserve the cultural heritage of humanity. However, many of them have a colonial history that shapes how they present the objects they hold – often without acknowledging or addressing the violence and injustice that underlie their collections.

In more recent years, campaigns led by Majority World artists and cultural workers have pressured institutions to confront the colonial contexts of their collections and to begin a dialogue with the countries or communities in which those objects originated.

One example is the Museum of British Colonialism (MBC), a joint British-Kenyan effort founded in 2018. MBC does not hold a physical collection but runs as a platform that aims to restore and make visible the suppressed, destroyed, or under-represented histories relating to the British imperial project. It produces online exhibitions, documentaries, podcasts and educational resources that challenge the dominant narratives of colonialism and highlights the voices and experiences of those who resisted and survived it.

Invaders took local artefacts as a bounty of their incursions into the conquered regions and sold them to museums

‘There is a lot of power in reclaiming agency over your own past,’ the Kenyan historian Chao Tayiana Maina, of the MBC team, told the Christian Science Monitor earlier this year. ‘Having someone else define who you are… is very detrimental to how you see yourself.’

One of their projects, ‘Emergency’, is a digital exhibition about the brutal British detention camps in Kenya, established during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, when the British colonial administration quelled Kenya’s most prolonged and violent rebellion for land and freedom from colonial rule. The exhibition features oral histories, archival documents, photographs, and 3D reconstructions of the camps.

Other groups are joining hands with the fossil fuel divestment movement and focusing on direct action, calling for the repatriation of stolen objects. In Paris, France, a group of activists called ‘Libérons le Louvre’ staged a series of protests in the world’s most visited museum by creating a symbolic river of crude oil in front of one of its main attractions, to expose the Louvre’s ties with fossil fuel companies.

The group campaigns for the restitution of looted objects and the renaming of rooms and wings that valorize figures involved in colonial crimes, among other calls.

In reaction to that challenge, in 2016 the Louvre became the first museum in France to showcase works illegally trafficked out of Libya and Syria by professional criminal networks and seized in France, to return them to their country of origin at a later date. The collection includes four half-statues of funerary deities, female figures that each represent a goddess of the dead. They were originally discovered in the masonry and rock tombs of Cyrene, one of North Africa’s largest ancient cities located in present-day Libya, founded in 631 BC.

There is a lot of power in reclaiming agency over your own past

There have been criticisms of this approach. Writing in Hyperallergic, a forum for radical thinking about art, journalist Farah Abdessamad noted that one of the statues remained ‘far away from her native Mediterranean coastline and the deceased she’s supposed to protect’.

‘If the Louvre museum is genuine about combatting the wrongful acquisition of artwork,’ Abdessamad continued, ‘it should start with decolonizing its century-long institutional practice and accelerate voluntary restitutions.’ She added that theft should void the museum’s custodianship over objects.

The return begins

Across the Atlantic, as Indigenous peoples were forced from their lands to make way for westward expansion throughout the 1800s, museums and the US government encouraged the looting of Indigenous remains, funerary objects and cultural items. Many well-known institutions continue to hold these today, including the Smithsonian in Washington DC, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago.

In some cases, institutions resist the return of artefacts – or even human remains – to their original communities despite the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law that provides for the repatriation and disposition of certain Native American human remains, funerary and sacred objects, in 1990.

‘We never ceded or relinquished our dead. They were stolen,’ said James Riding In, an Arizona State University professor from the Pawnee nation in an interview with ProPublica. The independent newsroom is investigating the failure of NAGPRA to bring about the expedition's return of human remains by federally-funded universities and museums.

In the heart of the borough of Hackney, London, is the Museum of the Home, which has begun work to confront the legacy of colonialism and Transatlantic slavery within its history. A founding donor to the museum was enslaver Robert Geffrye, who was the museum’s namesake until 2019 when the institution changed its name.

The museum recently commissioned a collaborative exhibition featuring a group of Vietnamese diasporic artists presenting works about the theme of home through their cultural lens. The main focus of ‘No Place Like Home’, co-curated by KV Duong and Hoa Dung Clerget, is on how immigrant family meals are important moments to pass on culture from generation to generation.

Low-rise tables invite visitors to sit on straw mats to engage with the works. Their soft curved shape disrupts the traditional hard-edged tables guests may be more used to, allowing transmission of knowledge and experiences for voices from marginalized second-generation immigrants, presented through an immersive soundscape.

‘Taking food together has long played a part in the social transmission of culture,’ says Sonia Solicari, the museum’s director. ‘For diaspora populations, food is a signifier of traditions, places, languages and contexts that live in memory.’

One of the artists, Carô Gervay, of French, Algerian and Vietnamese background, told me how she contributed to the group’s effort by producing a hand-made book in collaboration with the artist and community organizer Cường Minh Bá Phạm, exploring the community’s history upon arriving in the UK in the 1980s. ‘I was trying to reflect on the collective’s complex conversations on the trauma of war and migration that forced the movement of their relatives into this country’. The installation was strengthened with the powerful ‘Unhomely’ performance by KV Duong examining the burdens and complexities of mixed identities.

 a simple skirt and bodice in a European style, but her loose hair shows she is Indigenous, a Haida woman from the Pacific Northwest. HOLLY BIRTLES/JULIO ETCHART
‘A man grabs a woman by the hair,’ a montage by Julio Etchart and Holly Birtles. The images shows a woman twisting away from a man, but he holds her tight. He is wearing Euro-American clothes – a top hat, greatcoat and holds a pistol. His face is bland, betraying none of the violence of the scene. The woman’s clothing is more ambiguous: a simple skirt and bodice in a European style, but her loose hair shows she is Indigenous, a Haida woman from the Pacific Northwest. From The Whole Picture by Alice Procter. HOLLY BIRTLES/JULIO ETCHART

Uncomfortable disruption

As a photojournalist who has been documenting global inequality issues for years, this is a topic I have been following keenly, and have incorporated into my work.

I have been inspired by the painstaking research and writings of Alice Procter, an art historian and activist who used to run the Uncomfortable Art Tours in London. These were unofficial guided outings that drew attention to the stories the museum was not telling, such as how certain items came to a museum against a backdrop of imperialism and how the museum in question continued to display and interpret its collections in problematic ways.

‘On each tour, we unravel the role colonialism played in shaping and funding a major national collection, looking at the broader material history of celebrated works: where the money comes from, the ways they’ve been displayed, and the ideological aesthetics at work,’ explains Procter’s website.

In some cases institutions resist the return of artefacts, and even human remains, to their original communities

I have also developed a collaboration with fellow photographer, photomontage artist and educator Holly Birtles. I take photos of traditional colonial spaces in museums and public areas, then share them with Birtles, who symbolically destroys the images and manipulates the photographs.

Birtles applies materials such as gold leaf, varnish and wax-resin to large format negatives. Then, she juxtaposes the negatives with my original documentation. The resulting works are presented as twin panels, and images are paired with text from a range of influential research sources, such as the writings of Procter and the late Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano.

The goal is to create images that challenge the toxic inheritance of the plunder of the colonial era by the agents of former imperial powers when invaders took local artefacts as a bounty of their incursions and gifted them to their royal sponsors and/or sold them to museums and private collections.

As we have seen above, many of those relics are now the subject of a worldwide debate on reparation and restitution, a conversation that our project is aspiring to join.

Correction: This article was updated on 21 August 2023 to include the name of an additional collaborator in the No Place Like Home exhibition.