by Ariella Azoulay
Artifacts preserved in European museums are not just exemplary masterpieces but also congealed forms of imperial violence. The simultaneous publication of Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy’s report recommending the restitution of stolen African objects from Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly to their countries of origin, and the approach of what is called a “migrant caravan” from Honduras toward the US is not a coincidence: it is a story as old as the invention of the “new world.” The report, commissioned by the French president and submitted several days ago, uncompromisingly recommends the restitution of 40,000 objects that France plundered from Africa during the colonial era. A similar official study and report from museums in the United States, pertaining to the looting of objects from Honduras (and from Central and South America more generally) has not been commissioned yet, but we should recognize the thousands of people heading now toward the US as legitimate claimants seeking reparation and restitution as well. Both the plundered objects and people forced from their homes (some now by their own governments) continue to bear the burden of imperial plunder and imperial dispossession.
It is no secret that millions of objects, never intended for museal display, have been looted from all over the world by different imperial powers. It is no secret that many of them have been carefully preserved in pristine museums and are now seen as precious art objects. At the same time, it is no secret that millions of people, stripped bare of many of the objects of which their world was constituted — tools, ornaments, objects in which their rights are still inscribed — continue to seek a place where they can rebuild their homes again.
This essay is adapted from the author’s book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, forthcoming from Verso in 2019. Read the full article on Hyperallergic.