The question is simple: should items with a colonial past be returned to their country of origin?
The answer, however, is more difficult than you might imagine. A new exhibition at Vienna’s Weltmuseum offers some illumination on the topic.
- Uses the stories behind objects to cleverly highlight the issues around colonialism and the repatriation of museum items
- Runs December 5th, 2019 to Sept 6th, 2020
- Just requires a ticket to the Weltmuseum to view
- See also: Weltmuseum visitor and ticket tips
To return or not?
(Exhibition view © KHM-Museumsverband)
The A Colonial Thing exhibition does not seek to provide answers to questions around repatriation of items. Instead, it uses a handful of objects to illustrate the nuances surrounding those same questions.
The display cabinets act as prompts, the text within a reminder that the story behind an object’s acquisition and the issues raised by that story also sit at the heart of the debate on provenance and legitimacy.
To properly appreciate that story, pick up the small handbook (in English) that accompanies the exhibition. It provides guidelines and recommendations for the treatment of colonial items, and presents each exhibit from three perspectives:
- The collector, for example through diary entries from explorers
- The source, giving a voice to the local population
- The scientist, offering a curatorial and research view
With that information at hand, you can begin to understand the complexity of the topic.
Viewing the objects and reading the text encourages two core insights in particular.
First, that colonialism is not just the simplistic case where some seafarer plants a flag, claims some distant country for the Queen, then disappears off with a chest full of local artefacts.
For example, one display case holds a mobile phone, reminding us of the imbalance in political and economic relationships that still prevails today, as evidenced by exploitation of natural resources for “western” needs.
Second, that the issues are indeed very nuanced.
Take the example of a carrying strap for children from 19th-century Brazil. A diary entry describes the transaction that led to the acqusition. The owner did not want to sell the item at first. But when the colonial (Portuguese) village overseer added tobacco to the price offered, the local relented.
Can the acquisition be considered a fair transactional exchange? Or was the sale made under duress, given the presence of the colonial administration during purchase negotiations?
Even when an item might be considered fairly bought, what about selling replicas in the museum shop?
Or consider tattoo designs based on Maori cultural art. When does inspiration become cultural appropriation and copyright theft?
Each question often leads to wider issues and more questions. As such, A Colonial Thing encourages the viewer to reflect, learn, consider, and think. Not bad for a one-room exhibition.
Dates and tickets
A Colonial Thing runs from December 5th, 2019 to September 6th, 2020. The exhibition requires no extra ticket – just buy a ticket or use a sightseeing pass for the Weltmuseum.
How to get to the exhibition
Tips for reaching the Weltmuseum are here. The permanent displays also tackle issues relevant to colonialism, so be sure to take a look once you’re inside.
Address: Heldenplatz, 1010 Vienna