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The British Empire

Ownership and the Price of Empire | Festival of the Mind 2022

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The original object in Sheffield’s storage facility

‘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.

Catalogue card from Sheffield Museums Trust

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?

Page from the Sotheby’s record, photographed at the British Library

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.

A 3D scan of the Gandharan Buddha in the city of Sheffield’s collection, used to prepare the 3D print for the exhibition, may be accessed on Sketchfab.

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.

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The 1807 Abolition Act and British Public Memory

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The passage of the ‘Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ on the 25th of March 1807 (two hundred and twelve years ago today) was a significant event in the history of the Atlantic World. It criminalised the transportation of slaves in British vessels, and helped to initiate the process which concluded the forced diaspora of Africans to the Americas.

Bicentennial celebrations were held throughout Britain in 2007 to commemorate the passage of this legislation through Parliament. Major public events celebrated the ‘benevolence’ of liberal institutions for their decision to end the transatlantic slave trade. The bicentenary was used by the government as an opportunity to demonstrate to a global audience that the principle of social inclusion had been enshrined in British political institutions since the early nineteenth century. Tony Blair’s Labour administration sought to present Britain as a dynamic multicultural nation committed to alleviating racial discrimination and socioeconomic disparities.

But these forms of public history deliberately simplified the development of abolitionist campaigning to a narrative of ‘moral progress’, primarily for political purposes. The commemorations did not effectively contextualise Abolition within the wider history of the Atlantic World during the eighteenth century, when Britain was the dominant slave trading power.

The period from the late-fifteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century saw over 12 million African slaves involuntarily transported to the Americas. By the eighteenth century, northern European powers, such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands assumed naval supremacy in the Atlantic, displacing Portuguese and Spanish control over this lucrative trade. The economic dynamism of British colonies in the West Indies stimulated a high demand for labour. Enslaved Africans worked on plantations to produce tropical commodities such as sugar for consumption in European markets. Consequently, Britain became the leading slave trading nation in the eighteenth century, and shipped approximately 3 million Africans to the Caribbean during the era of Atlantic slavery. This was not highlighted sufficiently during the official British commemorations of the 1807 Abolition Act, drawing significant criticism from professional historians and activist groups as a result.

The public memory of Abolition in Britain places an excessive emphasis on the role of individuals, such as William Wilberforce, in campaigning for legislative change. This fails to acknowledge how the British Anti Slave-Trade lobby also drew power from mass campaigning, which transcended class and gender divisions, and from international links with social movements fighting for the same cause.

Anti-slavery sentiment was prevalent among working class supporters from burgeoning industrial centres such as Birmingham and Manchester, who submitted petitions to Parliament calling for an end to slave trading. The dogma of ‘separate spheres’ dictated that women were confined from exerting significant political influence at a national level. However, their superior position in the household gave women the power to boycott slave-grown produce and create informal pressure groups which highlighted the sexual exploitation of slave women by their masters. Transatlantic correspondence networks linked Quakers in North America to those in Britain, forming an important medium for the discussion of aggressive anti-slavery politics.

The 2007 commemorations also diminished the role of African agency in the Abolition process. The impact of the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) on British Abolitionists, and the subsequent formation of the first black republic in the New World, should not be underestimated. Enslaved Africans put further pressure on West Indian planters and metropolitan legislators through a series of devastating rebellions across the Caribbean in 1795. Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were ex-slaves who played a prominent role in the British Abolition debate by publishing personal and emotive accounts of their experience of enslavement.

Although the British abolition of the transatlantic slave trade was a significant piece of legislation, it is important to emphasise that Atlantic slavery did not end in 1807. Britain was only one nation among many which transported Africans to the New World and utilised their labour as slaves. This meant that the exchange of slaves continued in strength to Brazil and Cuba until the 1860s, despite British efforts to use their naval supremacy to suppress this trade.

Data from the Transatlantic slave trade database (TSTD) reveals that from 1807-1866, an era after British abolition, a further 3 million African slaves were transported to the Americas, a figure larger than the trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries combined. Furthermore, the use of slave labour in the British Caribbean continued until the Abolition of Slavery in 1833, and Britain continued to purchase cheap sugar from Caribbean slave societies long after this decision. It is also important to highlight that Britain was not the first nation to abolish the transatlantic slave trade: Denmark passed legislation in 1792 outlawing the practice, which came into effect in 1803.

A formal apology for Britain’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade has yet to be given, probably because an admission of guilt opens the door for financial reparations to be made to Caribbean nations. This is resisted by most European governments, who argue that they are not legally accountable for historical crimes.

Correctly understanding and remembering historical slave trading remains important in the twenty-first century. This is because of the enduring legacies of Atlantic slavery in British society today. To give just one example, the products of African slave labour contributed to the formation of daily consumer rituals in the eighteenth century, such as tea drinking with sugar, that remain part of British cultural life. Historical memory is intensely and inherently political, especially when commemorative events are administered by government departments. A constructed narrative is often developed, which highlights what the organisers and funders want people to remember, and does not always prioritise portraying historical events accurately.

Michael Bennett is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral research studies the merchants in the City of London who financed the expansion of the plantation system and African slavery on Barbados in the mid-seventeenth century.

Further Reading:

Christopher L. Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism, (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England (CUP, 2003)

James Walvin, ‘The Slave Trade, Abolition and Public Memory’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 19 (2009), pp. 139-149.

Forum on ‘Remembering Slave Trade Abolitions: Reflections on 2007 in International Perspective’, in Slavery & Abolition, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2009).

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database (TSTD) https://www.slavevoyages.org/ (accessed 17/03/2019).

 

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