Cultural conquest: Britain’s hold on imperialist tendencies

We’re taught in history classes that imperialistic conquest is a thing of the past, something that happened once and is now over. What we aren’t taught are the real, long-lasting effects that European expansion has had on the global south and the fact that imperialism is not truly over. Even if it’s more subtle now – at least in the West – the sense of cultural superiority and a right to conquer never truly disappeared. How can it, when they are still facilitated and institutionalized? Most people do not think that when they go to these old, celebrated museums in Europe and America, the cultural artifacts they see are actually the remnants of a time when cultures were punished for being not western. Yet, the hold that museums have on relics from other countries is one of the most swept-under-the-rug examples of imperialism persisting today.

The story of how exactly Britain got their hands on these artifacts–religious idols, records, or artwork–is a saddeningly common one. The British empire arrives at the destination they wish to conquer. They launch a series of punitive raids, destroying monuments and palaces. They decimate a culture, force religion on their conquests and take trophies – statues or carvings or paintings – back to prove their success. These artifacts sitting in museums are not indicative of Britain’s “cultured” and “sophisticated” nature. They are remnants of an empire that actively sought to strip any culture that was not theirs.

Now, in the face of countries asking for their artifacts back, the British Museum in London refuses.
Not all museums are abstaining from returning artifacts back to the countries they were taken from. Institutions in France, Amsterdam and a select few in England have already begun the process, responding to an increasing demand for accountability regarding imperialism. The British Museum, however, is keeping its hold on these artifacts. It makes sense why they would not want to give them up. These artifacts bring in tourists, and tourists bring in money. For a less shallow reason, the British Museum is providing an opportunity for people to learn and view other cultures that they might not have an opportunity to do otherwise. The British Museum is helping preserve cultural heritage, not destroy it, right?

Not exactly. First of all, a large part of these artifacts are actually kept in basements and archive collections, not for the public to see. Nigerian, Chinese, Indian and Iraqi properties – among others – remain in British possession, collecting dust in British archives. Then there is the issue that about 90% of all of Africa’s material cultural iconography is located in the West. That is not preserving cultural heritage; that is stripping people of the right to celebrate their own culture. Then, when these countries ask for their artifacts back, the British Museum becomes stingy.

One of the most contentious artifacts in British holding right now are Nigeria’s Benin bronzes, a collection of priceless bronze sculptures that were taken from the Kingdom of Benin by British soldiers in the late 19th century. Nigeria has demanded them back, and Britain has responded with a rotating loan system, in which they allow Nigeria to display the artifacts for some time with the caveat that they must come back to Britain. In doing so, Britain has cemented themselves as the true owners of these artifacts, with Nigeria only allowed temporary custody.

This does not preserve Nigeria’s cultural heritage, it takes it out of their hands and into British museums so they might appear to have a cultural high ground and educate their visitors on histories that they have already violently infringed upon.

The controversy surrounding this cultural imperialism is about more than the artifacts themselves. It’s about a long-term cultural war launched against people of color, seen in the way that Black culture is only acceptable when appropriated for aesthetics. It’s seen in the way that yoga and astrology were deemed barbaric and hedonistic until white people decided it was the spiritual awakening that they needed. Over and over again we see the people in power punish the marginalized for their culture, only to take it from them and put it on display. African artifacts are placed in museums so that people can look at them and feel cultural and intellectual, without knowing that those artifacts are stolen property. These museums are clearly not promoting acceptance and education of history and culture when as recently as 2020, a quarter of the British population wants to bring the British empire back.

Museums are only one facet of a larger conversation surrounding the persisting impacts of imperialism. Although much more understated than actual conquest, putting museums in the context of the discrimination that people of color still face today in the West paints a picture of the lasting damage that marginialized communities face. However, this is not a hopeless cause. As stated before, some institutions have already begun this repatriation process. Conversations between imperialist forces and the countries these artifacts originated from have begun. One day, we may enter a time when cultures are truly celebrated instead of being held captive by systemic power dynamics, if only those in power allow themselves to be held accountable for past actions.