‘Ownership and the Price of Empire’ is an exhibition running as part of the Futurecade experience at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery for Festival of the Mind (2022). As we explain in the project’s overview, this exhibition is: ‘an exploration of the debates around the repatriation of “stolen” museum objects implicated by Britain’s imperial past.’ To probe this contentious and layered debate, we tell the story of a historic figure of Buddha, crafted in the 3rd-4th century in the region of Gandhara (now in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan). How did this ancient sacred object find its way into the city of Sheffield’s storage facility, now managed by the Sheffield Museums Trust?
Discussion around the repatriation of museum objects in UK collections has been growing in momentum in recent years, particularly as a response to large-scale public movements, like Black Lives Matter. For me, it was a third-year module at the University of Sheffield entitled ‘Decolonising History: Empire, Power and Colonialism’, convened by Professor Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, that brought this issue under the microscope. For one of our seminars, we were tasked to design a new gallery in response to the controversy surrounding the The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, opened in 2002 and closed just six years later. Our group of four, including myself, Jessica O’Neil, Maisy Morris and Erin Shaw, chose the theme of ‘Ownership and the Price of Empire.’ We interpreted ‘ownership’ in a material sense, presenting plans for an exhibition that explored the effects of colonial looting and plunder, while proposing ideas for the future of European museums.
In our presentation, we examined two notable cases in the British Museum connected with demands for repatriation: a stone figure (moai) from Rapa Nui (as local peoples call Easter Island) and the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria. Government officials and local representatives from Rapa Nui and Nigeria alike have made repeated calls for the restitution of these items on the basis of their cultural and spiritual significance. In recent years, appeals of this type to European museums have been considered and often honoured with increasing frequency. Just last month, in August 2022, the Horniman Museum in London agreed to return their collection of Benin Bronzes, – but the British Museum is yet to follow suit.
Inspired by our plan, Professor Lambert-Hurley invited us to work with her to pitch the idea for the gallery to the Festival of the Mind team – from which point I took up the baton on behalf of our group. Further collaboration with local Sheffield creatives at Joi Polloi (Russell Stearman and Zoe Roberts), a curatorial consultant from the Portico Library in Manchester (James Moss) and the Sheffield Museums Trust enabled our initial ideas for a seminar task to evolve into the exhibition now featured at Futurecade. The Sheffield connection allowed us to shift emphasis from the more well-known sacred objects in the British Museum to the Gandharan Buddha ultimately featured from the city’s collection.
Sheffield Museums Trust, it should be noted, had already expressed their commitment to a decolonising agenda. As it states in the report on ‘Racism and Inequality in the Culture Holdings of Sheffield’, dated 29 July 2021:
Like many museums in the UK, Sheffield’s are built on a history of colonialism; the desire to explore, collect and ultimately to control the world is reflected in the Museum as an institution and through its collections. Britain’s colonial history, racism and the legacy of slavery are woven throughout Sheffield’s collections and we recognise and will seek to address these offensive ideologies and uncomfortable truths.
But the question remained of what this decolonising agenda should look like for a local museum.
Repatriation is just one – if perhaps the most high profile – of the many ways in which museums can engage with decolonising agendas. The debates for and against the return of ‘stolen’ objects are multifaceted, with a popular concern being that our museums could be emptied of precious objects if items taken without consent are returned to their countries of origin. As London’s TimeOut magazine put it: ‘if we give back everything we got from other cultures, legally or otherwise, what the hell will we be left with?’ This fear of ‘empty museums’ was an idea we wanted to explore and challenge. How can museums honour repatriation requests whilst avoiding blank museum walls and cases?
Technology, we show in this exhibition, offers opportunities to transform our experience and understanding of museums. Possibilities are opened to engage intimately with ancient and historic artefacts in a way that also honours decolonising agendas. In ‘Ownership and the Price of Empire’, we present a 3D print of the Gandharan Buddha, inviting visitors to touch and even hold the object in a way that is entirely alien to most current museum contexts. The power that an original piece can hold may be diminished, but this type of technology allows alternative ways in which to engage – perhaps even more deeply – with the stories the artefact holds.
In the course of the exhibition, visitors are invited to move the object across five separate plinths, each triggering a projection that reconstructs a different aspect of the Gandharan Buddha’s long life. While the first introduces its current existence in a familiar museum context, the second recounts its origins and creation – including through the use of a 3D scan to approximate elements lost from the object in intervening years. The third plinth recounts its colonial ‘recovery’ in the late nineteenth century before the fourth encourages us to ponder the politics of ownership since that time. The final plinth invites visitors to engage in decolonising processes by suggesting future options for Sheffield’s Gandharan collection, currently in storage. To finish, the object is placed back in the archaeological context from which it came through the recreation of that landscape using AI technology.
The example of Hoa Hakananaiʻa, the moai from Rapa Nui in the British Museum that we focused on for our seminar project, seemed straightforward to me and my fellow students in terms of the repatriation discourse. This project on the Gandharan Buddha, on the other hand, encouraged me to explore the complexities and complications when it came to the repatriation of other objects in European collections. Every object has its own unique history, convoluted present and possible futures – and those need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Join us at the Millennium Gallery to engage in Sheffield’s decolonisation processes by reflecting on these debates and dialogues around the repatriation of museum objects. The story of a Buddha from Gandhara offers ideas of how we can use technology to transform museums for the 21st century.
Lauren Hare received her History BA from the University of Sheffield in 2022. Following this exhibition at the Festival of the Mind, she wishes to pursue a career in curation and exhibition production.
With thanks to Siobhan Lambert-Hurley for her edits and additions.
For more information and additional resources, please see our project page on the Festival of the Mind website.