Restitution without ethics: Apathy and isolationism in the return of colonial collections from UK museums, 1945-1970

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In the immediate post-war period, in museums across the UK, a distinctive discourse on the restitution of collections from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas emerged. Institutions as diverse as the British Museum and the V&A, the small private Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent, and regional museums in Leeds, Leicester and Bristol were all involved; their British staff discussed and often realised the return of select colonial collections to their communities of origin. This little-known pre-1970’s provincial practice focusing on the return of cultural property can be characterised in sharp distinction to the heated international debates around restitution that took place in the late 1970s and 1980s. While these later proactive discussions were infused (for some) with a sense of anti-colonial social justice or universalist ideals of collaboration, in the UK, in the immediate post-war period, the discourse on return was instead born of a deeply conservative resentment and apathy, both towards collections from beyond Britain, and their rightful owners.

In the crisis of resourcing, specialist knowledge and space that infused every aspect of UK post-war museum practice, curators experienced a profound sense of collections excess and anxiety. As empire and immigration became increasingly controversial, some museum staff shifted to policies of ‘regionalisation’ focusing instead on ‘local’ (white) cultures and their objects. Isolationism and a denial of the multicultural population of Britain motivated a policy of disposal that contravened several of the ethical benchmarks usually expected of modern museums. In some cases, conservative apathy created opportunities for claimants to successfully extract their cultural heritage from the UK without having to negotiate the conditions of ongoing ‘partnership’ that European museums have demanded more recently. Yet, in the majority of cases before 1970, ‘return’ represented an abdication of responsibility to collections and their communities of origin, including those in diaspora. In several institutions, restitution discourses provided a convenient excuse for museums to allow Western commercial dealers to remove culturally significant collections which later appeared on the open market.

Drawing on extensive archival research in national, regional and private museums across the UK, this paper explores the social and political context for this post-war discourse of return. It focuses on the language and material conditions that characterised the practices of restitution before 1970 and urges us to acknowledge that return does not equate to decolonisation. It can instead be borne of deeply unjust and racist conditions that devalue the perspectives and needs of originating communities. The long history of resistance against colonial expropriation through claims for the return of cultural heritage must be qualified by the colonial and neo-colonial arguments and rhetoric that were also utilised in these early cases. Understanding problematic historic practices of return can identify precedents for restitution from UK museums, and also help advocate for an ethical practice of the future that centres claimant needs.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Long History of Claims for the Return of Cultural Heritage from Colonial Contexts
EditorsLarissa Förster , Jan Hüsgen
PublisherDe Gruyter
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 27 Sept 2022

Bibliographical note

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  • Repatriation
  • Cultural heritage
  • Museums
  • Restitution


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