This essay was originally published in Hyperallergic and is adapted from the author’s book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, forthcoming from Verso in 2019.
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 reportrecommending 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.
Here is one example of museum records of objects taken from Honduras. From its shape and symbols, one can see that this hollow stone in which grains were ground is irreducible to its alimentary function and is rather part of a world of meanings, skills, rights, which people used to recognize themselves and feel at home. When residents of Honduras seek to escape the devastated conditions imperialism created in their country, they appear at the borders and are captured in photographs as objectless and worldless migrants. Centuries of imperialism have taught armed, imperial actors that they have a license to shoot those carrying only small bundles with only enough to provide for their immediate needs. Since the forced migration of their communities’ objects was achieved through imperial expeditions — no less than the forced migration they themselves feel they have no choice but to undertake toward the United States — it is time to refuse the “undocumented” status forced on these people by imperial regimes. It is time to recognize in their movement a counter-expedition of people refusing to be separated from the world they see as their own. These two intertwined regimes of treatment and maltreatment of objects and people — appropriated objects are well documented and taken care of by museums’ experts, and people are declared “undocumented” and subjected to maltreatment by border patrol police protocols. These people are not threatening the sovereign countries in which they seek asylum; they are key actors in a political reality that they aspire to generate. In this transformed, potential world, the borders and legal systems that were conceived to keep people and objects separated will be abolished.
After the looting in Benin, Congo, Honduras or Palestine, and elsewhere across the colonized world, the plundered objects were made inaccessible to the people who had created and used them. It is time to abolish this breach between colonized people, who for decades and centuries were dispossessed of the objects they and their ancestors made, and which museums, archives, and libraries now handle according to imperial principles and classification procedures. It is time to reject the authority of international cultural organizations such as UNESCO or ICOM, whose standardized language and regulations are foreign to the local dialects of the people who created these objects and documents and inherited the knowledge and rights integral to them. These international institutions excuse the looting through institutionalizing, standardizing and internationally propagating the neutral regime of taking care of objects — salvage, conservation, and preservation. We should see imperial practices of preservation and archiving as what they are: crimes.
The significance of Sarr and Savoy’s report cannot be reduced to an argument that restitution is overdue. People from whom these objects were expropriated always knew this, from the moment of initial dispossession onward. These people’s ongoing refusal has made the report possible. The importance of the report is in its call for the abolition of nation-states’ laws that protected the practice of plunder and made justice illegal by proclaiming plundered objects inalienable, so they could never leave French imperial institutions. In this sense, the restitution of the first set of objects, 23 pieces looted from Benin — which the French president announced will begin with “no delay” — should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a beginning of the abolition of the imperial cultural-legal system.
Nor is it a simple reform seeking a better future as a separated tense. Rather, it is an attempt to reverse the origins of imperial dispossession itself by returning to the 1492 moment. 1492 is at one and the same time the chronological and ontological origins of imperialism as well as of non-imperial potentialities. If 1492 is the date when the “new world” was both invaded and invented, when it was made permissible to enslave non-white people, and Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain, it also has different instantiations in different places. The 1492 of Palestine, for example, is 1948. For Honduras it is 1524.
The restitution of stolen objects alone cannot exonerate imperial powers of their debts, nor absolve them of the ongoing devastation they wreak on these regions through international military interventions, corporate powers, and banks. Imperial violence is a regime, and hence cannot be absolved, sealed in the past, transcended by an imagined better future. It should rather be unlearned, reversed, and repaired. People running away from political regimes in ex-colonies and seeking asylum in Europe, the US, and Israel are not perceived as connected to the precious cultural objects of their cultures brought to US and European museums long ago, but they are. The forced migration of peoples and objects rendered each a kind of migrant.
In parallel with processes of restitution, “we” communities of scholars, students, and artists have to recognize our position as the constituents of museums and archives, and demand the disowning of looted objects. Disowning is a first step in the liberation of these objects from the imperial yoke, moving toward making them available to others, toward allowing their rightful claimants to determine these objects’ future. European citizens are already acting here and there against their governments to smuggle in migrants and assist them, and are switching from a tourists-are-welcome policy to a migrants-are-welcome one. In so doing, they are effectively arguing that migrants represent a pristine opportunity for citizens to transform the legacy of imperial violence into a different contract between descendants of the colonized and of the colonizers.
To imagine a shared life carved out of the imperial condition should prompt the revision of Hannah Arendt’s well-known formulation of “the right to have rights” into “the right to have one’s rights restored through one’s objects.” Together with hundreds of millions of “well documented” objects and “undocumented” people of all sorts, we can anticipate the abolition of borders and the laws that sustain them, that produce illegal immigrants and legally looted objects.
The right to live where one’s culture was preserved in a pristine museum should not be forgotten in the rightful celebrations over Sarr and Savoy’s report.