Vases Won’t Cut It

Kaitlin Dryburgh

The Scottish Government has recently announced that they have fully endorsed all six recommendations provided by the Empire, Slavery, and Scotland’s Museums steering group. The group have looked to address an issue effecting many Western nations right now, how do they tackle their historic role in colonialism? Especially when it comes to artefacts and exhibits in Museums. Occasionally a story will crop up in the news concerning a repatriated museum artefact. For example, here in Scotland we recently returned an indigenous totem pole to Canada. The continued back and forth between Greece and the British Museum over the Parthenon marbles seemed to heat up last year as Rishi Sunak cancelled a meeting with the Prime Minister of Greece in retaliation to him “relitigating issues of the past”. Then King Charles played a blinder and wore a tie adorned with Greek flags at Cop28. Regardless of your thoughts towards him or the monarchy, that was rather humorous.  

Either way, it’s an issue that steadily receives media attention. Just this week the V&A as well as the British Museum returned several items of Ghana’s crown jewels, having been looted throughout the 19th century. True to Britain’s “retain and explain” policy, making it pretty much illegal for the majority of artefacts to be returned, the jewels have been loaned back. For many countries, items that were stolen being loaned back to them is simply unacceptable. Many calls have been made for this law to be changed, including from the director of the V&A. Although no one wants to live in a world where their museums no longer hold any pieces from other countries, it is important to return items that are of a significant religious or cultural value. Additionally, some countries or groups are looking to expand their collections and grow their tourist industries, and this should also be supported.

The six recommendations put forward by the expert steering group include creating an organisation to lead on addressing our role in empire and colonialism, embedding anti-racist policy through-out museum workplaces, public consultation for museums, and commiting to further research and learning to establish a comprehensive view of historic events.  The last recommendation encourages the Scottish Government to “demonstrate support for the restitution and reparation of looted and unethically acquired items in Scottish collections”. I think the phrasing “demonstrate support” is very tricky indeed, since it allows for the government to adopt these recommendations without having to apply actionable support, despite supporting this in the past.

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development Christina McKelvie, who enthusiastically supported the recommendations, has some high expectations of the work that is expected to be carried out. Although she has asserted that currently the Scottish Government is unable to commit to the full £5,000,000 being asked for by the steering group, £200,000 is being made available. Yet she is determined that this will help Scotland acknowledge and learn from the past, and in essence address current day racial inequalities and reduce harms of systemic racism. It’s an understatement to say there’s pressure to deliver when you’re being asked to address deep rooted racism reflected in culture with just £200,000 in your pocket.

Yet it’s also about including the whole truth within culture, the good and the bad. Why something has come to be, why a certain aspect of culture grew from racism, and why we have come to acquire a certain artefact. I can personally reflect on a photography exhibition I viewed almost ten years ago which demonstrated the historic links between a town in Jamaica and Scotland. Although it did examine the sugar plantations, it failed to mention anything about slaves and colonialism. This should no longer be acceptable. If you want to tell a story through art it should really tell the full story, otherwise what is the point?

Although some would believe that work like this only feeds into ‘culture wars’ and ‘cancel culture’, it is perhaps a way of putting a stop to them. Cancel culture deems that we should just completely forget anyone who has done anything wrong, but perhaps museums and other cultural centres acknowledging the wrong in our history or historical figures allows us to find a middle ground. We can agree that this person did bad and was involved in actions we would never deem acceptable now, yet they are important to learn about and perhaps they did contribute positively in other ways.  

However, it could very much be argued that handing back the occasional vase or religious sculpture is the easy way out, because what would actually need to take place would be astronomically more expensive. The roots of the slave trade can be traced back to the sixteenth century, yet some believe we need to pat ourselves on our backs because we’re about to “better reflect the country’s role in empire, colonialism, and historic slavery” and “demonstrate support” in handing looted items back now. When in fact, handing back artefacts that are sourced immorally and establishing placards is the very least that we could do to build bridges.

The impact of Colonialism is far and wide stretching and there is no doubt that the effects of climate change have negatively impacted upon those who were Colonialised two-fold. Many of the nations who ‘conquered’ these areas and countries did so to extract as much as they could, to grow their industries as fast as possible. The industrial revolution has meant we’ve been pumping out carbon at much larger quantities and for much longer. We need to share much more of the blame, yet we aren’t having to see out the effects of the climate crisis. Countries that have historically experienced colonialism are much more vulnerable, they are less equipped to prevent and protect from climate disasters. For example, we’ve now seen 33 million people affected by floods in Pakistan, and storms in Vanuatu which havee caused widespread devastation, with little infrastructure for some of the most natural disaster-prone areas in the world. They are less accountable for the climate crisis, and yet they are much more vulnerable. Additionally, many of these countries have had economic growth stunted as a result of colonialism’s legacy in the region. Lasting problems from having ecosystems destroyed, governments failing and a loss of knowledge about the land and resources, has stunted progress in technological advances, among many other things.

If Scotland and other nations are serious about making amends for their dodgy past, then they need to pay up. Climate vulnerable countries and activists have been campaigning for loss and damage funds for several years, and COP27 finally saw their establishment. It is estimated that around $400 billion per year would need to be funnelled into the fund. Scotland was one of the first countries to come out in support but pledged a measly £2 million. This figure is not representative of the damage we’ve contributed and continue to, as the oil and gas industry is still alive and well here. Scotland isn’t the only country to offer such small funds as only $700 million was pledged at COP28 overall, which only accounts for less than one percent of what is truly owed. Yet it is estimated that in Africa, countries will have to pay up to five times more preparing for the climate crisis than on their healthcare. It’s statistics like this that show the need for the money, now.

We do owe a debt, but it doesn’t just amount to a vase or two.

1 thought on “Vases Won’t Cut It”

  1. On the topic of the repatriation of important cultural items to the country from which they were looted, how about Common Weal initiates a campaign for the Book of Deer to be returned to Aberdeenshire? For anyone unaware of this book, it is a 10th century Latin Bible with 12th century Gaelic notes – the earliest surviving Gaelic writing from Scotland. It is wrong that an item of such historical and cultural significance should be owned and on display, outwith Scotland, by Cambridge University library.

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