Why is restitution a more prominent and pressing issue now? First, according to Herman, a series of landmark cases in Europe and North America over the past two decades that concern art looted by the Nazis, or stolen archaeological treasures sold privately, have laid the groundwork for claims to be made about other items. Second, the countries asking for restitution are driven not only by emotional or moral concerns, but also by politics. In Ethiopia, according to Bahru, demands for restitution of the Maqdala objects once came mainly from civil society; the current government, which has embarked on a project of liberal reforms, is looking to develop its tourism sector—the Maqdala treasures include royal jewelry as well as religious objects. Nigeria, which is building a major new museum to house the Benin bronzes, is asserting its global cultural influence as the country’s economy grows. Third, pressure also comes from below. Indigenous communities in Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific have all been able to amplify their demands for restitution and gather international support, via social media. In the U.K., these calls sit alongside wider grassroots campaigns for the “decolonization” of public institutions—the acknowledgment that museums, galleries, and universities have been shaped by empire and racism, and that they will readjust their output and working practices accordingly.
Many of the most important treasures from Maqdala are held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, another major London institution, which specializes in art and design. The museum’s director, Tristram Hunt, has been particularly vocal on the issue of restitution. Last year, the V&A launched a temporary exhibition of the Maqdala treasures that, unusually for a British museum, highlighted the controversial circumstances under which they were obtained, and invited responses from Ethiopian commentators and representatives of the Orthodox Church. This June, the museum announced it was “working toward” showing them in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
But Hunt is wary of calls for permanent restitution. Writing recently in The Observer, a British newspaper, he cast the varied collections of western Europe’s museums as a defense against rising nationalism, quoting the philosopher Edward Said to make the case that the “hybrid, heterogenous” cultures that resulted from empire should not be dismantled. In The Art Newspaper last year, he warned that calls for decolonization driven by “a highly emotional focus on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and nationhood” could eventually lead to the deportation of human beings: “Some fear, first of all, the objects—and then the people.”
Read more: The museum of colonialism
Gurminder K. Bhambra, a professor of post-colonial and de-colonial relations at the University of Sussex and co-editor of the book Decolonising the University, told me she sees a different danger. In failing to acknowledge the uncomfortable aspects of a country’s history, we risk “a purification of the past, which then leads to political purification.” She also said claiming that British museums are a cultural resource for all rings hollow, given the U.K. government’s harsh immigration policies. For Bhambra, calls for decolonization are an essential step toward having a more honest conversation about history. Maaza agrees: “For Britain to return these looted items, then it’s going to have to reimagine itself. Is Britain strong enough to do that?”