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V&A stands firm on true history of its colonial artefacts

The Victoria and Albert Museum, based in central London, has emphasised its responsibility to tell the true history of the origins of its collection of artefacts.

You may already be aware that a large majority of the V&A Museum’s permanent collections include items that were looted by British forces during the colonial era.

However, the preservation of controversially acquired artefacts and commemorative statues only came under intense widespread scrutiny during the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, when several statues of men linked to the slave trade were pulled down in major cities worldwide.

In wake of this, The British Museum, another prominent London exhibition hall, removed the figure of its founding father Sir Hans Sloane, storing it away along with his collections which were purchased with money accumulated through enslaved labour on his sugar plantations in Jamaica.

The move was considered by some to be a constructive effort to ‘decolonise’ Britain’s history, but many others see it as doing the opposite – an act which hides and covers up the nation’s dark past.

These collective events sparked a widespread debate over what kind of message was being sent by commemorating historical figures who, while may have had a perceived ‘positive’ contribution to advancing society and bringing valuable assets to home soil, did so by piloting the immense suffering and enslavement of those in other countries.

The government’s stance on this is quite hard-line.

In a controversial letter addressed to museums across the UK, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden wrote that the removal of museum artefacts ‘motivated by activism or politics’ is not supported by the government.

Instead, they argued, the historical significance of these items must not be censored and edited. Rather, they should be used to educate the public and act as a reminder of historical errors, providing context of the messy past of Britain so that they may not be repeated.

The letter also threatened that any museums which remove colonial artefacts from their collections could risk losing government funding, which helps to upkeep facilities and enables free entry for visitors.

In response, the V&A released a statement saying they are committed to providing this type of education through its displays, believing it is their duty to tell the whole story behind items acquired during the growth of the British empire.

Activists have suggested that items should be returned to the countries they were looted from, as they are symbols of national heritage and culture. Ethiopia is one country that has been in talks with museums to reclaim their treasures for years.

Although the British government returned several stolen Ethiopian artifacts during the 20th century, legislation complicates the reinstitution of these items when they are currently held in museums.

Regardless of whether you feel these artefacts should be returned or remain in place as a reminder of Britain’s dark history, the need for better education remains an important factor.

The promise of the V&A to provide more rigorous context on the acquisition of their collections pertaining to the British Empire is more relevant than ever.

As far as statues go, members of the public have pulled down or defaced statues of slave owners and political leaders who were responsible for injustices throughout the British Empire and beyond. This has led to protective barriers being built around the base of statues, to prevent climbing and vandalism.

On a stroll through central London, you’ll most likely pass tons of statues without even realising it. It’s easy to assume the people they signify are those who were upstanding, moral citizens. But the truth is far more complicated.

The resurgence of the BLM movement during an extensive lockdown provided many with additional time to research institutional racism, colonialism, and the histories of injustice across the world.

As today’s generation further questions how we arrived at this moment in time, how disparity amongst rich and poor nations came about, and what implications this had for entire communities in history, the ‘official’ ways we choose to preserve history will change.

If the looted collections remain in museums, the beauty of items made from gold, gems, and fine China will surely be tarnished by the knowledge of how they were brought ashore many years ago.  The practice of erecting enormous statues of politicians may become outdated – or is it already?

An open discussion, guided by the facts will be key in shaping our future. It’s promising to see these conversations being had between governments and institutions like museums – as well as amongst the general public.