White Redemption Rituals Remixed?

Last week news broke that the chair of trustees at Royal Museums Greenwich had resigned, reportedly because the government blocked the reappointment of Aminul Hoque as a trustee because of his focus on “decolonisation”. RMG includes the National Maritime Museum which is the closest thing the UK has to a museum of national/imperial history, so this is no small thing.

For me, this brought back memories of the time I spent in Australia during 2003 when the government placed the National Museum of Australia under review. Arriving from a Blairite Britain on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, I was struck by how polarised positions had become as a result of Australia’s ‘History Wars’ (‘black armbands’ v ‘white blindfolds’) , and just how much scrutiny this had placed on the work of museums.

Stung by his characterisation as a left wing activist by Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A and former New Labour politician, Dan Hicks has recently claimed that ‘Decolonising museums isn’t part of a ‘culture war‘. While much of the position Dan outlined in the piece makes sense, I’m afraid that when museum trustees are being sacked, such denials ring pretty hollow.

This is especially the case since Dan has done more than most to escalate this particular conflict, through the forceful promotion of his book, the Brutish Museums, both on Twitter and off. Dan is a fighter by nature, and I’m sure he feels on secure ground, but I fear that all the sturm und drang has turned museums and their ongoing attempts to grapple with colonial legacies into a legitimate political target. The thing about all wars, culture wars included, is that no one ever really wins, but almost everyone gets hurt.

Having worked in museums for two decades, including at the Pitt Rivers – Dan and I were the first members of staff to move into the new research centre, sharing it briefly with the builders in 2006 – I know that most people working in them are pretty liberal or left-leaning and struggle with the idea of being complicit with colonialism and its contemporary legacies. But the overwhelming desire to resolve this discomfort poses a series of traps, particularly when decolonisation is pursued primarily in terms of repatriation in an exculpatory mode.

One of the most honest and thoughtful contributions to reflect on Australia’s History wars and its impact on museums is a largely uncited paper by the Melbourne Museum curator and anthropologist Philip Batty. It is called White Redemption Rituals: Reflections on the Repatriation of Aboriginal Secret-Sacred Objects – incidentally presented at a Pitt Rivers research seminar about fifteen years ago. Batty, whose job it had been to return secret-sacred objects to indigenous communities in Central Australia as part of a government programme, found that many of those to whom repatriation was made were profoundly ambivalent about the process – a pretty low priority compared to the major social and health issues they faced. One young Aboriginal man pointedly told Batty ‘I’m glad you brought these things back, now we can sell them’.

In at least one case, the process stoked underlying tensions between competing claimants, prompting someone to memorably say that returning the particular object was ‘like lobbing a grenade into the community’. Batty’s conclusion was that the national project of repatriation could be primarily attributed to chronic moral dilemmas within white Australia and a broader desire for redemption, without much real interest or investment in the lives of the country’s Aboriginal people.

As a white South African, born into apartheid, I understand the profound discomfort that comes from being what Michael Rothberg has called an ‘implicated subject‘. But I also know that there is no quick and easy path to redemption – personal, institutional or national.

In his book, Dan suggests that it was African thinking that shattered the complacency of the Pitt Rivers museum – a 2015 #RhodesMustFall Oxford tweet described it as one of the most violent places in Oxford. But the forms of African thinking adopted in the UK museum sector have been pretty partial.

One of the major intellectual influences on the #RhodesMustFall movement was the South African Black Consciousness thinker Steve Biko, and key here is his critique of white liberalism. According to Derek Hooks, Biko identified four modes of disingenuous white anti-racism:

  1. A fetishistic preoccupation with disproving one’s racism
  2. Ostentatious forms of antiracism that function as a means of self-promotion
  3. The consolidation and extension of agency through redemptive gestures of ‘heroic white antiracism’
  4. ‘Charitable antiracism’ which positions tolerance within a model of charity, as an act of generosity that reiterates the status and role of an antiracist benefactor

Gary Younge pointed out that the reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd was ‘almost like teenagers discovering sex where everybody wants to do it very urgently and not particularly very well’. I can’t help feeling that the enthusiasm with which ‘decolonisation’ has been adopted within the museum sector over the past year regularly risks falling into many, if not all of Biko’s modes of white anti-racism.

Dan Hicks’ book has been read by some as an attack on the museum as an institution, but is ultimately premised on a project of redemption – he defines the work of restitution as ‘the physical dismantling of the white infrastructure of every anthropology and “world culture” museum’ and suggests that he wants his book ‘to be read as a kind of defence of the unfinished project of the anthropological museum’. What is absent from this conception is any sense of how the proposed restitution responds to the needs and desires of people in Africa, who are grappling with a range of other more immediate colonial legacies, not least the continued political and economic impacts of both colonial indirect rule and extractive mineral economies.

If restitution is to be connected with decolonisation as a project, then surely it has to be twinned with a willingness to listen to other points of view, and attempt to resist the colonial tendency to control the terms of the conversation and determine its outcomes. Steve Biko suggested that ‘white liberals always knew what was good for blacks and told them so’.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, admittedly now an elite philosopher in New York, has said that he doesn’t think Africans should demand everything back, even everything that was stolen, because he wants museums in Europe to be able to show the riches of the society they plundered in the years when his grandfather was a young man. His suggestion is that a negotiated restitution should include not just the major objects of significance from African history, but a decent collection of art from around the world – something lost as a consequence of the sacking of Kumasi in 1874.

Achille Mbembe, who Dan quotes approvingly on Necropolitics, has suggested that in an ideal world the objects in which we recognise the best of human creativity should be granted the right of radical mobility and free circulation – unlike the mobility of Africans which is increasingly restricted by the immigration policies of fortress Europe. Indeed, Mbembe has probingly asked what the relationship is between the technologies of deportation for people from Europe and the desired return of African objects.

Mbembe has suggested that the losses caused by colonial occupation are so radical that there can ultimately be no adequate form of restitution. Instead, Africans have to learn to live with that loss and Europeans will have to learn with what their ancestors did. The first part of this process is surely learning to live with the discomfort of being implicated, without seeking immediate redemption on our own terms. The second is learning to be quiet enough to hear when people tell us what they actually want.

Care is Not Enough: Moving Museums Beyond Humiliation

Bristol’s Benin Bronze

In the week since the Edward Colston fell into Bristol harbour, and statues of confederates and even Christopher Columbus have come down across the Atlantic, many people across the UK museums sector have been struck by a feeling that they are probably next. When the British Museum tweeted their support for #BlackLivesMatter movement, they were met with over 1000 hostile responses drawing attention to unresolved cases of restitution and repatriation relating to the museum’s collections.

My former colleague Dan Hicks (who was the first to respond on Twitter) has drawn attention to the fact that the Colston statue was erected in 1895, a moment in Britain’s history when an intensification of military violence underpinned imperial expansion in Africa, marked by a quest for exploitable natural resources, and underpinned by an ideology of white supremacy.

Echoing Sethembile Msezane’s performance of Chapungu at the fall of Rhodes in Cape Town in 2015, which alluded to the ongoing presence in Cape Town of a stone bird belonging to Rhodes, that was stolen from the hilltop enclosure at Great Zimbabwe in 1889, Dan connected Colston’s statue to the ongoing display in Bristol Museum of a Bronze sculpture looted from Benin City in 1897.

Dan ends his ArtReview article by suggesting that:

As the parallel demands of the Fallism and Restitution movements grow, it is the duty of Britain’s arts and heritage sector to no longer care for and protect objects more than we care for and protect people.

The reorientation of museum ethics around the notion of care, with humans prioritised over objects, has arguably been under way for some time. It is important, but on its own may not provide a way out of the impasse around restitution in which many museums find themselves.

I was prompted by reading Dan’s article to get out a piece of writing I have been working on over the last couple of years, and which has only been tried out so far at a couple of conferences, since it speaks to current concerns.

#BlackLivesMatter and Benevolent Paternalism

Medallion produced around 1787 by Josiah Wedgwood and Sons for the Society for the Abolition of Slavery: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O79580/medallion-hackwood-william/

As someone who has studied the history of British missionary engagements with Africa over the past two centuries, I am painfully aware that the current moment is not the first time that liberal and radical people in Britain have publicly committed themselves to Black lives. In the nineteenth century, it was more often Black souls than Black lives, but there is a long history of British expressions of sympathy of this kind, with roots in the antislavery movement.

Many of these movements, however, were deeply rooted in a model of benevolent paternalism that remained deeply racist – it was ‘our’ duty to do something to help ‘them’. Africa was frequently imagined as a destitute women, or orphaned child in need of charity. But charity elevates the giver over the receiver, creating an obligation not only to receive the gift that is offered, but to appear to be grateful.

It is critical that the British museum and heritage sector finds a way to approach restitution and repatriation that avoids framing this as a form of charity or benevolent paternalism. ‘We’ have inherited a problem, and need the help of African partners. ‘They’ can help us, and we can try to find ways of helping them in return, but this exchange must be framed around the notion of mutual aid rather than as charity. Anything less risks perpetuating the ongoing humiliation of Africa and Africans, which arguably reached something of a zenith in 1897.

Kgosi Luka Jantjie, leader of the Batlhaping, after his death in battle, 1897.

1897: Depictions of Humiliation

In the section that follows, I apologise for any offence or upset that results from my use of these images. They are powerful and shocking, but my intention is not to contribute to any ongoing sense of humiliation, but rather to highlight the underlying dignity of those who were depicted in this way. These images are freely available on the internet, and form part of the way in which we continue to see these important African leaders.

Mbuya Nehanda, spiritual leader of Zimbabwe’s first Chimurenga, following her capture in 1897

On 30th July 1897, Kgosi Luka Jantjie, leader of the Batlhaping, a Tswana group in South Africa, was killed in battle with colonial troops. In the hours after the battle, his body was propped up for a photograph. This, while somewhat unusual in featuring a corpse, forms part of a genre. In Zimbabwe, during the same year, the captured rebel leader of the first Chimurenga, Mbuya Nehanda was photographed, shackled and flanked by barefoot African military troops, as well as a European in riding boots, prior to her execution.

The Oba of Benin, Ovonramwen, following his capture by British forces, 1897

Following his capture and removal from Benin City in Nigeria during the same year, Oba Ovonramwen was photographed, shackled and flanked by barefoot African troops. The inclusion of African military personnel was perhaps intended to suggest the emergence of new forms of African modernity in contrast to these representatives of resistant African tradition, but it may also have owed something to contemporary photographic conventions which owed as much to hunting as to conquest.

In his book on Dark Trophies, Simon Harrison has convincingly argued that nineteenth century colonial wars with non-European peoples were frequently conceptualised in terms of hunting expeditions, and that this enabled European soldiers to engage in trophy taking practices that included the removal of body parts, and particularly heads – a fate that ultimately befell both Luka Jantjie and Mbuya Nehanda, as well as quite a few other African leaders who faced down expanding imperial armies, from at least the 1820s onwards in southern Africa.

The taking of trophies continues to form a part of the performances of assertive masculinity that are associated with big game hunting, as demonstrated in these photographs of Donald Trump junior and his brother Eric on safari in Zimbabwe in 2012. But the trophy taking associated with colonial conquest was not confined to the body parts of victims, and photographs of soldiers standing with looted objects from the royal palace in Benin City clearly have a great deal in common the staging of photographs intended to display the spoils of the hunt.

British Officers pose with loot following the sacking of the Royal Palace, Benin City Nigeria, 1897

It is perhaps unsurprising then that the forms of trophy display associated with hunting lodges and military messes came to be a feature of many museum displays during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, including, as I have suggested elsewhere, at the Museum of the London Missionary Society, where the remains of hunted animals were displayed alongside ‘trophies of the gospel’ given up by converts to Christianity.

Museum of the London Missionary Society, from the London Illustrated News, 20 May 1843.

Humiliation and Injustice

Luka Jantjie, drawn from a photograph of him visiting his people at the diamond mines in Kimberley

What is perhaps also unusual about the fate of Luka Jantjie is that he was a literate Christian, educated at a mission school, and a successful businessman in the context of South Africa’s diamond mining boom of the 1870s. Kevin Shillington, who has written Jantjie’s biography, suggested that what white settlers in South Africa found most offensive about Jantjie was his determined dignity, and his expectation that he would be treated with respect as an educated Christian man who was also the hereditary leader of a significant local kingdom. Jantjie’s refusal to bow to colonial demands for subservience generated a determination among local whites to “teach him a lesson”, which manifested in his post-mortem treatment – both the photography and the removal of body parts as trophies. This violent treatment forcefully denied, in death, the dignity and respect Jantjie had assumed in life.

The deliberate humiliation of Jantjie, the man, was followed by the humiliation of his followers, whose land was taken, while men, women and children were force marched to the nearest railway station, where they were sold into indentured labour on the farms of the Cape colony. Humiliation has been defined in the psychological literature as the deliberate exercise of power that serves to demonstrate the inequality between those with power and those without, involving the stripping of status, forms of rejection or exclusion, unpredictability or arbitrariness and is experienced by those on the receiving end as extreme injustice. 

As the three examples above, from the same year in different parts of Africa, suggest, humiliation formed a fairly routine dimension of the military implementation of conquest, particularly where episodes of resistance created a desire to teach local leaders “a lesson”. Simon Harrison has suggested that a belief that they were fighting a less civilized enemy manifested in the taking of human body parts as dark trophies – something that did not happen as frequently during conflicts with other European armies. The case of Luka Jantjie suggests that it may also have been a way for colonial troops to assert the essential difference in status between themselves and their black enemies, even, and perhaps especially, when their opponents behaved in ways that suggested they believed themselves to be equal, or even superior to the standard run of white colonists in South Africa.

The Cross of Humiliation

In his 1979 Reith Lectures on the African Condition, Ali Mazrui gave one lecture the title ‘The Cross of Humiliation’. Mazrui argued that ‘Africans are not necessarily the most brutalised of peoples, but they are almost certainly the most humiliated in modern history’. He suggested that this condition arose from three interrelated systems of humiliation – the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the European colonisation of Africa, and continuing racial discrimination, wherever black people live with white people. One feature of the final system, he suggested, was the insidious uncertainty people like him experienced about whether the treatment they received was the result of racial discrimination or not – manifesting through incidents that might be described in the language of contemporary activists as micro-aggressions. 

As institutions with roots in high imperialism, when the European colonisation of Africa reached its maximum extent, is it even possible for contemporary museums to transcend the frameworks of humiliation from which they derived a great deal of their institutional logics? Is it possible for museums to generate displays that are not experienced by Africans and people of African-descent as ongoing micro-humiliations, suggesting arbitrariness, exclusion, and the denial of status? In short, is it possible to move beyond humiliation – as a feature of the colonial encounter – but also a resurgent feature of various forms of social and political engagement in the present? Or are Africans and their descendants condemned to continue to have to bear the cross of humiliation, identified by Mazrui forty years ago.

Psychologists are increasingly recognising that the consequences of humiliation are far from trivial, on both an individual and societal level. Significantly, experiencing humiliation frequently leads to the loss of trust in the world. Victims of humiliating acts frequently experience feelings of resentment, rage, a sense of powerlessness, but also in some cases an understandable desire to retaliate and inflict humiliation in revenge. There are undoubtedly deep evolutionary roots to these feelings, as well as to practices of humiliation themselves, and primatologists have described similar forms of behaviour in non-human primates, particularly in relation to the establishment of hierarchy and power by males.  

Throughout history, episodes of national humiliation have prompted assertive nationalistic movements in response. While it is recognised that the perceived humiliation of Germany at the Treaty of Versailles led to the subsequent rise of National Socialism during the 1920s and 30s, it is less widely acknowledged that it was the humiliation of the Afrikaners during the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902), that seeded a drive for national self-assertion that found its ultimate focus in South Africa’s apartheid state after 1948. An article by Matt Schiavenza in the Atlantic in October 2013 argued that the deliberate humiliation wrought on China by the sacking of the summer palace by Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War in 1860 was central to the founding mythology of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Indeed, the period between 1840 and 1949 is still referred to in China as the Century of Humiliation and the narrative of national humiliation is still recalled by contemporary political leaders such as Xi Jinping. Without particularly wishing to comment on the controversial political situation in Israel/Palestine, it is perhaps instructive that an article in the Israel News in November 2018 had the headline ‘Zionism is about Letting Jews Live (and die) Without Humiliation’.

In his 2017 book, The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra has attempted to trace the roots of contemporary forms of violence and political anger, taking in the motivations of Islamic as well as white supremacist terrorists, through the political torments of the twentieth century, right back to the contradictions inherent in forms of individual and political identity ushered in by the enlightenment. He has suggested that to make sense of this history, and of its contemporary consequences, it is necessary to focus on the fears, drives and resentments experienced in human lives, and the unstable relationship between inner and public selves. Indeed, he has argued that many of the forms of politics with which he is concerned arise from the actions and aspirations of frustrated and humiliated young men:

Then as now, the sense of being humiliated by arrogant and deceptive elites was widespread, cutting across national, religious and racial lines. 

Mishra’s book is fundamentally about tracing the history of the:

existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.

Although Mishra’s book does not dwell on the political circumstances of contemporary Africa, he does describe the ways in which the European conquest of Africa during the 1890s formed part of a response to political pressures at home – an attempt to provide an outlet for the anger of assertive but frustrated young men. Mishra argues that:

the unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteenth century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century, is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations

The glorification of violence and militarism that characterised movements such as Futurism in the early twentieth century was accompanied by a contempt for museums, libraries and academies, a position potentially echoed by the fictional character of Eric Killmonger in the 2018 marvel movie, Black Panther. His character and storyline embody a fantasy of violent revenge in the face of the micro-humiliations inflicted by the institution, its security guards and white curator, and the forceful repatriation of artefacts looted by British forces from the royal palace of Benin in 1897.

New Zealand artist Jason Hall’s 2006 work ‘The do-it-yourself repatriation kit

Although there is suspicion that some of the thefts from European museums of Chinese material that originated in Beijing’s summer palace may have been condoned and even unofficially orchestrated by the Chinese government, in many cases repatriation remains a revenge fantasy, as recognised by Teju Adisa-Farrar in her opinion piece in the Guardian from April 2018. If, as she argued, the continued holding of African material by European and American museums is inherently violent and neo-colonial, is restitution the only way of moving museums beyond humiliation? This is certainly the implication of the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report, which tends to shift towards a presumption of return. But on what political basis should this project of restitution proceed?

Dialogue and its shortcomings

I would like to briefly consider the events that arose in Cambridge following a student vote at Jesus College to repatriate a bronze cockerel, Okukor, which had adorned the college dining room for nearly 100 years (a fuller account, written with my former colleague Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp is available). The cockerel was a gift to the College, whose heraldic emblem is also a cockerel, but its ongoing display functioned as a trophy, complete with bronze plaque describing the details of its removal from the ancient city of Benin in Latin.

When the decision of the college’s fellows to remove the cockerel from display prompted a series of opinion pieces in national newspapers, the University panicked, and rapidly convened a Benin Working Group, including representatives from University Museums, some meetings of which I was invited to attend. The major proposal made by this group was to host a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group, at that stage largely defunct, which would include representatives of the royal palace in Benin City, the National Council of Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, as well as various other European Museums.

The Benin Dialogue Group at Trinity College, April 2017

This took place at Trinity College in April 2017. Alongside fairy nebulous proposals for capacity building and digital sharing initiatives, the declared intention of the meeting was to reopen dialogue around the issue of repatriation. However, no representatives of Jesus College attended the meeting, and members of University Museum staff, such as myself, were explicitly told that they should not discuss the potential repatriation of the Jesus College cockerel, even though it was obvious to everyone at the meeting that it was the reason why the meeting was taking place at all.

One might draw some pretty cynical conclusions about what the meeting was intended to achieve, at least from the perspective of Jesus College, but I don’t actually believe that all those who participated in the discussions can be accused of acting in bad faith. Instead, I want to suggest the organisation of this meeting was driven by an optimistic commitment to dialogue as a form of political engagement. Indeed, it has been argued that commitment to dialogue is a key characteristic of the liberal rational mood, which arose following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. As Pankaj Mishra puts it:

Over the last two decades, elites, even in many formerly socialist countries, came to uphold an ideal of cosmopolitan liberalism: the universal commercial society of self-interested rational individuals that was originally advocated in the eighteenth century by such Enlightenment thinkers as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire, and Kant.

Nevertheless, a commitment to rational forms of engagement, such as dialogue, fails to recognise the important part that human emotions and passions play in political actions and orientations, tacitly assuming that consensus can be arrived at through dialogue and compromise. 

Care and Justice

In her classic feminist work on Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan identified two different ways of thinking and talking about moral problems, characterising them as an ethics of justice and an ethics of care. While she argued that the majority of psychological and philosophical literature by male authors had concentrated on moral development towards an ethics of universal justice, this failed to recognise the ways in which an ethics of care was a recurrent feature of women’s moral development.

She connected these modes of ethics with the different ways in which men and women are often socialised, linking these to modes of play in children. Boys, she suggested, often play games with complex rules, such as football, where interactions frequently involve lengthy disputation around the interpretation of the rules, but adherence to the rules and maintenance of the game is valued above all else. Girls, on the other hand, often play in ways that prioritise the maintenance of relationships, and will abandon games when tensions arise.

I would argue that in parallel with a shift towards dialogue and assumptions of liberal consensus, museum ethics, at least in the ethnographic museums with which I am most familiar, have shifted over the period since Gilligan published her book, perhaps in line with the shifting demographics of the curatorial profession, towards prioritising an ethics of care over an ethics of justice. The principle of avoiding violence, and prioritising the establishment and maintenance of relationships has become the standard curatorial orthodoxy.

What an exclusive focus on dialogue, relationships, and an ethics of care fails to recognise is that many forms of political contestation and conflict are driven by potentially irreconcilable interests. As we are increasingly aware in the UK, political disagreement is an inevitable feature of human life, which can’t always be resolved simply through discussion. Indeed, the assertion that rational self-interest should enable people to see that they are in fact wrong in their views has led in the case of Brexit to amplified forms of antagonism, and a corresponding desire to humiliate one’s opponents, particularly online (and I would suggest particularly on Twitter).

The political and emotional drive to repatriate material in the face of ongoing humiliations will not ultimately be resolved through the compromise of online access and long-term loans that was arrived at by participants in the Benin Dialogue Group meeting, even if this offers a tangible and achievable first step. By retaining control of the debate, and the ultimate power to make the decisions, the University of Cambridge, delivered another micro-humiliation to Nigerian participants in the dialogue, who were expected to agree that acting rationally would entail being grateful for the offer to build their capacity for rational museum practice – something not lost on student activists, who responded angrily to the outcome of the meeting in the student press.

Transformative Thinking?

Pankaj Mishra’s book accomplishes a remarkable dissection of the anatomy of our contemporary predicament and its apocalyptic mood. He suggests that underlying this global political situation is a world in which: 

Billions of the world’s poorest are locked into a Social Darwinist nightmare. But even in advanced democracies a managerial form of politics and neo-liberal economics has torn up the social contract. In the regime of privatization, commodification, deregulation and militarization it is barely possible to speak without inviting sarcasm about those qualities that distinguish humans from other predatory animals – trust, co-operation, community, dialogue and solidarity.

What is the scope then for attempting to talk about these things without falling into the same traps, established by the liberal assumptions of many of us engaged in the conversation. Mishra is unclear about the prescription necessary to shape a future that does not involve more cycles of violence, humiliation and reprisal. The final sentence of the book suggests the need for some truly transformative thinking about both the self and the world. But what should that involve?

One person who has attempted to think about different ways of doing politics is the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who suggested that the belief in the possibility of a universal rational consensus has put democratic thinking on the wrong track. Like Mishra, Mouffe is concerned about the liberal political discourse that accompanied the managerial politics that arose in the 90s, but has argued that this has created a moralistic tendency, whereby political antagonisms are increasingly played out in a moral register, whereby the struggle between ‘right and left’ has been reframed in terms of ‘right and wrong’.

For Mouffe, who derives her understanding of ‘the Political’ from Carl Schmitt, a German critic of liberalism, all forms of identity are relational and derive from a constitutive other. Every ‘we’ requires a ‘they’, and this carries within it a tendency towards antagonism, but for this not to fall into a friend/enemy relation some form of common bond must exist between the parties in conflict – a ‘taming’ of the relation which Mouffe has called agonism. The difference between antagonism and agonism is the difference between warfare and sport, or between violence and the rules of a parliamentary system designed to prevent the deterioration of conflict into violence.

Mouffe suggests that instead of trying to design the institutions which, through supposedly ‘impartial’ procedure, would reconcile all conflicting interests and values, the task for democratic theorists and politicians should be to envisage the creation of a vibrant ‘agonistic’ public sphere of contestation where different hegemonic political projects can be confronted. She argues that when channels are not available through which conflicts can take an ‘agonistic’ form, they tend to emerge in the antagonistic mode, so that instead of being regarded as a political confrontation between ‘adversaries’, they are framed as a moral confrontation between ‘good and evil’. The consequence is that the adversary is regarded as an enemy to be destroyed and humiliated – and this inherent tendency is, as Mishra points out, embodied both in the terrifying acts of terrorists, but also the interactions of Twitter mobs and trolls. 

In returning to museums, it is probably important to suggest that the optimistic liberal ideals of celebratory multiculturalism which accompanied the social inclusion agenda of the New Labour government after 1997 have had their day, as yet another example of British benevolent paternalism. A true commitment to pluralism recognises that the variety of positions occupied by participants in society, shaped by a range of historical inheritances, inevitably embody a range of conflicting interests, but also political identifications and passions.

The challenge, in attempting to move beyond humiliation, is whether museums, as essentially liberal institutions, described by Mouffe as linked to the construction of bourgeois hegemony, can find ways of channeling, taming and presenting these conflicts in an agonistic way, so that a common bond is retained between adversaries, rather than moralising them or suggesting that they can be resolved through rational consensus. In the context of museum collections derived from military violence and acts of humiliation, is it possible to ‘tame’ former antagonistic relations so that former enemy ‘theys’ come to be regarded as integral to an expanded ‘we’.

The inherent danger, is that this proceeds in a paternalistic manner, whereby those in charge of institutions – like it or not, generally members of the liberal elite – attempt to retain control of the terms of argument and the debate (with the inherent assumption that ‘we’ are right, rational, and beyond having interests of our own). This is certainly a direction taken by some contributions to the debate around reparations, and will continue as long as ‘we’ attempt to remain the primary arbiters of repatriation decisions involving ‘them’.

An important dimension of the Sarr-Savoy report commissioned by Emmanuel Macron was the suggestion that decision making should be removed from the hands of museums and their trustees, and provided an institutional structure that embodied a ‘we’ that included representatives from both sides of the friend/enemy conflict that operated during the colonial period. Moving ‘beyond humiliation’ to forge a common future entails being able to imagine a ‘we’ which is not immune to disagreement or conflict, but which is nevertheless committed to the development of common forms of decision making as a means of resolving these.

For Gilligan, ultimately it was the integration of the ethics of justice and the ethics of care that marked the achievement of maturity in moral thinking in both men and women, and would, she argued, lead to a more generative view of human life. The reparation debate cannot then be resolved simply by an emphasis on care and relationships, important though these are, but must also start to think about justice – developing a set of procedures for adjudicating repatriation/reparation cases – the rules for the game – which will be recognised as just and fair by all sides.

I want to suggest that the challenge now facing museums is that of integrating an ethics of justice with an ethics of care, through the careful design of an approach to arbitration that avoids perpetuating the humiliations rooted in violent colonial encounters. It is important that museum directors, as well as their boards of trustees, recognise that while they may have good arguments for, or against, repatriation in particular cases, that they are far from impartial commentators, regardless of where they come from or the colour of their skin. Achieving a form of justice that will ultimately be respected by all sides involves situating decisions about repatriation and reparation within agonistic structures that are independent of museums or the institutions of which they form part.

Now that is a challenge to the Institute of Art and Law, appointed by Arts Council England in March to produce new guidance on restitution and repatriation for museums…