‘Guardians of Beautiful Things’?: The Politics of Postcolonial Cultural Theft, Refusal and Repair
This paper examines the politics of cultural theft under imperialism, specifically thinking through how social movements surrounding artifacts looted from former colonies now housed in Western museums reveal the ongoing social and political legacies of imperialism. At the height of the global Black Lives Matter movements in 2020, the world witnessed a surge of actions calling for the decolonization of ‘world culture’ museums and other public cultural institutions and monuments. I consider my research to be a pre-history of the conditions which facilitated the rise of the decolonial activism against cultural hegemony at the heart of the current movement for reparations, and a contribution to the fields of critical race studies and the sociology of empire and culture. Drawing on historical records from six archives and ethnographic data collected across two continents over three years, the paper traces an ongoing history of restitution from 1960 to 1998 of postcolonial actors in Nigeria advocating for the restitution of their ancestral heritage, and the British cultural and political establishments whose ‘world culture’ museums have increasingly been called upon to decolonize their collections and practices. I contend that the plunder of cultural patrimony is a constitutive element of colonization and racial capitalism as well as enduring forms of cultural neoimperialism and global racial domination that have long been overlooked by scholars of race and empire. Further, I offer a theory of imperial repair which considers the restitution and repatriation of spoils of war an essential component of the process of modern decolonization and the rebalancing of relations of power between Europe and Africa.
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