Symposium: Powerful Stuff

Powerful Stuff: Colonial Objects in a Decolonising World

1pm-6:30pm, Thursday 5 December 2019
Sydney Smith Lecture Theatre, Doorway 1, Old Medical School, Teviot Place, Edinburgh EH8 9AG.
Convened by Stephen McDowall

Attendance is free but registration is essential.

The artefacts in our great museums are once again the focus of scrutiny. At a moment in which so much of Britain’s imperial past is being publically contested, demands for the return of colonial-era acquisitions are becoming ever louder. Across the Channel, such calls were given renewed impetus by French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement that ‘African heritage can no longer be the prisoner of European museums’, but Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, still wants us to re-imagine the encyclopaedic museum as ‘a new medium for multicultural understanding’.

There is no doubt that the landscape is changing. The declaration signed by the directors of 18 prominent museums in 2002, stating that ‘over time, objects so acquired—whether by purchase, gift, or portage—have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them’, now seems hopelessly naïve. Yet no consensus has emerged as to how collectors, museums and governments should deal with restitution demands. Ahdaf Soueif’s high-profile resignation from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees, citing among other things the museum’s silence over restitution, demonstrates how contentious such issues remain.

Under what circumstances should restitution demands be met? When should they be refused? How do the circumstances of the acquisition affect the debate? Is it possible to display colonial-era acquisitions in a manner that addresses some of the issues of decolonisation? How do collections beyond the public museum context—such as those of universities or the National Trust—fit in to the debate? What about human remains? What are our obligations as educators? Is it simply time to rethink the very existence of our Victorian-era institutions? And how will the study of material cultures adapt to a decolonising world?

This symposium, which marks the first anniversary of the founding of the Edinburgh Centre for Global History, brings together academics and museum professionals to think through these issues and more. Participants include:

Tom Cunningham (University of Edinburgh; African Studies)
Lawrence Dritsas (University of Edinburgh; History of Science)
Sarah Easterby-Smith (University of St Andrews)
Linda Fibiger (University of Edinburgh; Human Osteoarchaeology)
Corinne Fowler (University of Leicester/National Trust)
John Harries (University of Edinburgh; Social Anthropology)
Dan Hicks (Pitt Rivers, Oxford)
Kate Hill (University of Glasgow)
Sarah Longair (University of Lincoln)
Jennifer Melville (National Trust for Scotland)
Andy Mills (Hunterian, Glasgow)
Kalathmika Natarajan (University of Edinburgh; History)
Stana Nenadic (University of Edinburgh; History)
Raj Pal (National Trust)
Joan Smith (University of Edinburgh College of Art)
Giovanna Vitelli (Hunterian, Glasgow)

Tea and coffee will be served, and the symposium will conclude with a short drinks reception.