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Colour, Collar & Collection

Great Britain has showcased its colonial mentality yet again as three British museums have decided to confront the colonial legacy of their artefacts. British Museum, Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum have planned to review the labels on thousands of their objects – plundered during the colonial times – in order to maintain transparency about the provenance of those items.
A senior spokesperson of British Museum recently was heard mentioning: “We are looking into and researching collection histories. This is an ongoing process. So, I am unable to give the number of Indian objects that might have to be relabelled.” She had also said that Britain acquired many of those objects “as a result of punitive expeditions, forced acquisitions and colonial collecting”. However, there are many items that were received “as diplomatic gifts, donations and objects that have been given or sold with conscious intent”, added the spokesperson.

The British Museum

Interestingly, V&A Museum had appointed a provenance curator in 2017 mainly to co-ordinate the museum’s provenance and spoliation research. The spokesperson stated: “V&A is not embarking on a re-labelling project in isolation, but exploring a variety of programmes through we hope to re-contextualise the histories of some objects in our collection.
Pitt Rivers Museum, too, recruited a research associate for its ‘Labelling Matters’ project. His main task is to identify how the museum can best deal with the historical labels in its galleries. The museum, with an Indian collection of nearly 25,000 items, keeps historic labels on display. “Some of the historic labels are problematic,” insisted its Director Dr Laura Van Broekhoven. She told the press: “Some have very derogatory words on them which are racist or sexist. In the case of others, we feel we are not being upfront about the problematic history. Some objects came to the museum as the result of plunder and looting. The project is to find ways forward. In some cases, we might take the label off, in others we might keep it on. It is all part of a process of decolonising museums.

Victoria & Albert Museum

It is to be noted that French President Emmanuel Macron announced in 2018 that Paris would return artefacts – taken from the African countries without consent during France’s colonial period – permanently. However, Britain, seemingly, has no such intention! The three British museums made it clear that they didn’t receive any such (official) requests from India and other former British colonies. Earlier, the V&A denounced “colonial collections” on its spaces, with Director Tristram Hunt saying: “We are very clear and open about our colonial past, but we are not going to remove things.
Meanwhile, both V&A and British Museum have claimed that they are ready to lend objects extensively across the world. Therefore, they have started collaborating with museum colleagues across India. “Restitution is an important issue for our sorts of museums currently. We are in the process of drafting a policy on the return of objects,” stressed Van Broekhoven.

Pitt Rivers Museum

Noted historian and former BBC Delhi correspondent Andrew Whitehead has urged the British museums to return the looted artefacts to India and other former British colonies. “To the victor, the spoils may once have been the approach of imperialists and military adventurers, but it can’t be basis on which major international institutions justify their holdings and collections,” he said.
However, London-based PIO historian and author Dr Zareer Masani has expressed a completely different view, stating: “I don’t see how re-labelling can clarify the issue of looting as a lot of art has travelled in different ways and been plundered, sold and forsaken. I don’t see how a label can get into the complexities of that.

13th Century Indian artefacts in British Museum

Dr Masani further said: “The Nizams of Hyderabad jewels were displayed at the National Museum in Delhi for a couple of months after the Government of India acquired them in 1995. Now, they have disappeared and no one has seen them since. That will be the fate of anything that returns to India. Where the looted treasures are now, they are seen by a far wider group of people than would ever be possible if returned to India. There is no space to even display what they have.

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