WE HAVE BEEN CRUEL AND GREEDY FOR FAR TOO LONG.
THE MUSEUM AS A CRIME SCENE
The history of museums and their development is deeply rooted in exploitation, racism and colonialism. Early museums began as the private collections of wealthy individuals, families or institutions. They collected rare art and curiousity-stimulting natural objects and artifacts from foreign countries. These were often displayed in wonder rooms or cabinets of curiosities that were supposed to amaze and amuse the viewer.
Ownership of objects symbolized the status of the owner, and the more objects and works of art he had in his possession, the higher his social status was. Access to these museums was often restricted for the dignitaries in society alone, especially for private art collections, but at the whim of the owner and his staff. One way that contemporary men of the elite gained a better social status in the high society was by becoming a collector of these astounding objects and then displaying them.
As many of the collectors or naturalists held interest in natural sciences, they were eager to obtain new discovery items in their collections. By putting their collections in museums and on display, they got to exhibit their fantastic findings. Furthermore, they also used the museums as a way to sort and manage the empirical explosion of materials -produced by "the wider dissemination of ancient texts, increased travel, voyages of discovery and more systematic forms of communication and exchange".
Over the years, as objects and artefacts were collected from all over the world, museums evolved into their modern form as we know them today.
The colonial expansion was motivated by a number of reasons: economic exploitation of natural resources in areas outside Europe for the benefit of the European mother country; Exploitation of labor in an area subject to colonial control, inter alia through forced labor; Utilization of land outside Europe for the cultivation of agricultural crops not endemic to Europe; Finding new markets for the agricultural and industrial produce of European countries by controlling imports into colonial-controlled areas; Recruitment of soldiers from the inhabitants of the areas under colonial control; Political prestige - competition between the world powers for control of many new territories; Christian missionary work and more.
At its height in 1922, the British Empire governed a fifth of the world's population and a quarter of the world's total land area. Although the supporters of the Empire say it brought various economic developments to parts of the world it had controlled, critics direct the attention to massacres, famines and the use of concentration camps by the British Empire.
The enrichment of Western countries and their military supremacy enabled large-scale looting and destruction. Thousands of archeological sites were looted and the findings were sent to Europe, in order to entertain and amaze visitors to the cabinets of curiosities and museums.
To this day, millions of artefacts are stored in the archives of Western museums.
However, it is important to focus on how the items came to the possession of those collectors and the role of colonialism in the looting of artefacts.
Colonialism is a phenomenon of superpowers taking over territories overseas - mainly in Asia, Africa and the Americas, but also in the oceans and Pacific islands. They took over those lands through settlement and the establishment of a system of colonies, while dispossessing the local population and exploiting its natural and human resources. Although the terms 'colonialism' and 'imperialism' are sometimes interchangeable, the term 'colonialism' often refers not only to economic aspects but also to the cultural and religious aspects associated with the occupation.
Modern colonialism began to develop in the 15th century, as part of the Age of Discovery, with the establishment of the Portuguese colony of Ceota in North Africa (1415) and the Portuguese settlement in the Azores Islands (1439). After these territorial expansions, the trend intensified and gained momentum after the discovery of America by Christoper Columbus (1492). Thus began the takeovers of the various naval powers (especially Portugal, Spain, Britain, France and the Netherlands) over new territories all over the world, in order to utilize their resources to the benefit of the powers. Modern colonialism reached its peak around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, when it often involved colonization operations in Africa and Asia.
" THE LOOTING WAS A CHAOTIC FREE-FOR-ALL "
A BRIEF HISTORY
OF WESTERN MUSEUMS
WE COULD NO LONGER IGNORE
FOR DECADES, WE SAW OURSELVES AS THE FAITHFUL KEEPERS OF THE ART WORKS AND BELIEVED THAT WE ENRICH THE WORLD BY PRESENTING THEM.
AFTER YEARS OF DENIAL, WE REALIZED THE MAGNITUDE OF THE PAIN WE HAD CAUSED,
AND DECIDED TO EMPTY THE MUSEUM.
TRACES OF CRIME
Closing: 30 08
Opening: 03 11
N E W
E X H I B I T I O N
Selected artefacts from
ALBANIA 1,406 ALGERIA 487 ANGOLA 29 ARGENTINA 3,451 ARMENIA 552 AUSTRALIA 25,68 AZERBAIJAN 561 BANGLADESH 2,350 BELIZE 89 BOLIVIA 2,459 BOTSWANA 431 BRAZIL 12,335 CAMBODIA 186 CAMEROON 7,402 CANADA 10,216
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC 506 CHILE 13,583 CHINA 152,783 CONGO 83
CUBA 35 CYPRUS 12,827 EGYPT 293,071 EL SALVADOR 487 ETHIOPIA 893 GABON 103 GREECE 148,305 HONDURAS 56 INDIA 52,036 INDONESIA 986 IRAN 5,046 IRAQ 7,854
ISRAEL 5,086 ITALY 84,329 JAMAICA 23 JAPAN 3,188 JORDAN 735 KENYA 1163
SOUTH KOREA 53 KOSOVO 83 KYRGYSTAN 28 LAOS 39 LEBANON 1,263 LIBERIA 623 LIBYA 763 MADAGASCAR 788 MALAYSIA 563 MEXICO 50,234 MONGOLIA 63
MOROCCO 17, 362 NEPAL 7,824 NEW ZEALAND 17,280 NICARAGUA 801 NIGERIA 2,103
PANAMA 901 PERU 8,221 PHILIPPINES 9,386 POLAND 812 PORTUGAL 3,587 RWANDA 305 SAUDI ARABIA 1,693 SENEGAL 59 SOMALIA 1,367 SOUTH AFRICA 20,193 SUDAN 903 SYRIA 12,641 THAILAND 9,671 TUNISIA 785 TURKEY 21,473
TURKMENISTAN 51 UGANDA 139 VIETNAM 2,663 YEMEN 2,597 ZAMBIA 473
List of repatriated artefacts by Country:
The Royal Palace in Benin City
during British looting in 1897
The Old British Museum collection totaled at least 8 million objects. Roughly 80,000 objects were on public display. This was only 1% of the collection. 99% of the exhibits were kept in the museum's basements and were not exposed to the public.
As part of the museum's decolonization process, we have decided to repatriate 7,768,821 looted artefacts, which comprise of 92% our collection, And stop benefitting from the horrors of colonialism.
Workmen deliver a portion of the Parthenon frieze, the Elgin Marbles, to the British Museum in 1961.
Greece has demanded the sculptures
be returned to Athens.
THIS IS NOT A MONOLOGUE
YOUR OPINION MATTERS
WELCOME TO THE DECOLONIZED
EMPTY BRITISH MUSEUM 2033
For too many years, We have locked up in our museum the precious legacies that were stolen from other cultures
through wars, aggression, theft and covetousness. No more.
In the last three decades, museums have undergone a drastic change. The large number of museums is evidence to the central place of the museum experience in the globalization processes of late capitalism.
Global culture is concerned with the production, distribution and marketing of new goods, namely the "knowledge products" and "memory products" provided by the museum. These are offered to millions of tourists who flood its showrooms in hopes of discovering the "secrets" hidden within its walls. In the age of the decline of "truth", the museum offers a particularly sought-after commodity: the ability to produce a thematization of reality, and bringing in the visitors into the "true story" which they experience with their own eyes.
Such a description points to the distance the museum has traveled from the "sublime" temple of the rational spirit and the initiation of the Enlightenment, to the narrative space of today. The traditional museum, which claimed to be a magnificent monument to the story of future-oriented progress, has become a story of a historical and past-oriented observation: the presence of past stories serves as a basis for interpreting our lives in the present.
However, it is important to remember that museums are not neutral in their preservation of history. In fact, they are arguably sites of forgetfulness and fantasy. The form in which exhibitions are constructed, normally assumes that the viewer is part of a European audience and grants preference to the colonial gaze. For Western viewers, the collections are an enjoyable diversion, a nostalgic visit which conjures up a romanticised version of an empire.
On the other hand, for many people of colour, collections symbolise historic and ongoing trauma of theft. Many beautiful object and historically important monument invoke a negative response. Looking at these items in the displays is reminiscent of the looting and repression their culture went through. Moreover, many times the artefacts are displayed in an insulting way. To many, mummies should not be displayed in museums, but placed in the original burial chambers surrounded by their treasures; Statues of African Gods are not inanimate objects, but living creatures with a divine being, and therefore displaying them behind glass in a museum does not respect them; Religious manuscripts are supposed to be kept by the adherents of the faith they pertain to, and not to be displayed with light spots on them; Many times the explanatory text next the items is historically inaccurate and favors the occupier's point of view.
Michael Connolly Miskwish, a historian and tribal member of the Kumeyaay Nation, acknowledged that recently the museum of was taking a step forward to improve representation, while some remain critical of how Native Americans and their culture are portrayed. Miskwish begs to differ: “Of course, museums love to display things from Indian people and they have a tendency to display things from Indian people as something that once existed and is long dead, But there are still people in the community who are distrustful of the ultimate motive.”
In order to remain relevant and create inclusive spaces loyal to the real account of history, museums need to change and adapt. In the past few years, museums across the United States, Europe and Australia are trying to tackle the challenge of decolonizing their institutions. The Washington Post defines it as “a process that institutions undergo to expand the perspectives they portray beyond those of the dominant cultural group, particularly white colonizers.”
DECOLONIZING THE MUSEUM
"EMPTY THE MUSEUM, DECOLONIZE THE CURRICULUM, OPEN THEORY"
THE ROLE OF THE MUSEUM
AND ITS PLACE IN SOCIETY
ABOUT THE EMPTY BRITISH MUSEUM
Visit The Empty British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG
IN THE HEART
OF THE LOOTED
This project investigates the future of museums.
My intention was to explore how museums could be turned into an inclusive spaces that compensates for their colonial past.
The Empty British Museum is a speculative project taking place in 2033. In this future scenario, Western museums internalize the criticism raised against them and decide to compensate for their colonialist past.
By peeking into the future, we are able to imagine a better preferred future. The project aims to create an illustration of a museum that has undergone a deep decolonization process. Since the process requires a large financial investment and taking responsibility, it is clear to me that the likelihood of it happening is not high.
However, I hope the project will raise awareness of the injustice and the fact that for many populations museums are threatening places and that they are active accomplices to crime.
The project touches on the deepest questions of identity, otherness, culture and belonging. Perhaps it will accelerate compensation and restitution processes that have already begun, and perhaps more museums will do self-criticism, in pursuit of a better and more just future.
This website was done as part of the submission of an MA final thesis project in Graphic Communication Design at the Royal Danish Academy.
Superviser: Nikolaj Knop
This project was created with the support and guidance of BespokeCPH and Designmuseum Danmark, as part of the Sharing Futures initiative.