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Seminar sparks discourse on decolonizing museums

Academics discuss methods for restitution, reparation of African art in Western museums

University community members packed the Joukowsky Forum last Wednesday to attend “Decolonizing the Museum: A Teach in,” which saw academics and University-affiliated museum directors give lectures on Felwin Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy’s report to the French government that addressed “the nature and future of looted art held in public museum,” according to a press release for the event.

The event specifically focused on the restitution of African cultural heritages to the continent.

Organized by Ariella Azoulay, a professor of comparative literature and modern culture and media, Yannis Hamilakis, a professor of archaeology and modern greek studies and Vazira Zamindar, an associate professor of history, the event featured 14 lectures. Speakers presented their unique perspectives on the report and its implications for museum practices.

Released November 2018, the report criticizes the French government for looting art from sub-saharan Africa and offers methods to return the items to their original homes.

“This report should not only be read, it should also be used to engage with existing claims, to initiate others and to negotiate people’s rights to and in objects,” Azoulay said in her opening speech.

During the event, speakers noted how the report challenges government relationships with objects housed in museums. For instance, Sheila Bonde, a professor of history of art and architecture, said “governments would have to change existing laws and change attitudes toward property.”

“Who is authorized to study the legacy (of specific cultures), to tell stories about it, to make art about these issues? These questions are embedded in art historical practice,” she added.

Itohan Osayimwese, a professor of history of art and architecture, spoke about an ancestral shrine from Benin City, Nigeria and further advocated for the restitution and repatriation of stolen art from African countries. “Reliance on foreign expertise limits the potential that academic scholarship on African art can contribute productively to local African knowledge of these histories and the heritage,” she said.

Q&A sessions were offered between lectures, and many evolved into lively conversations about privilege, reparative measures and methods to initiate dialogue between Western institutions and “claimant groups,” or groups of people whose objects were plundered by imperial powers.

The event was part of the Pembroke Research Seminar, a research opportunity where University faculty members, postdoctoral fellows and students gather to engage with its annual themes, according the center’s website. This year’s theme touches on human rights and imperial origins. Pembroke faculty fellows, Azoulay, Hamilakis and Zamindar felt inspired to organize the event on the report after it was published last fall. “There was tremendous excitement and energy and we knew we had to have a conversation about the report,” said Zamindar.

While the three organizers hail from different fields, Azoulay said that they have been invested in the question of restitution “separately and together in the last couple of years.”

To incorporate more perspectives in the forum, they issued an open call for speakers and received a positive response from the wider academic community, Hamilakis said. While most of the event’s speakers were University-affiliated, the Rhode Island School of Design and Yale also sent representatives. Hamilakis emphasized that it was important to include them in the conversation. “The point was not to each echo one shared conclusion, … but to continue the discussion further,” he said.

“Deconstructing the Western power structures within the museum is really crucial to the entire issue … (but) we don’t really know what the best way is to achieve these goals. I think this open dialogue between professors and students is really important in kind of trying to create a path or direction in which the museum and the institutions need to go, and how academia can assist in that,” said Brenna Pisanelli GS, a graduate student in the American Studies program and an attendee of the event on Wednesday afternoon. 

All three organizers expressed hope that this event would advance a conversation around restitution following the report’s publication. “This is not the first instance where such demand for restitution for African heritage has been made. Yet all three us of felt this: The report is an opening and it’s now up to us to generate a conversation, to think together, to mobilize and be able to act together,” Zamindar said.



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