A “Safe Space” to Debate Colonial Legacy

The University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Campaign to Return a Looted Benin Altarpiece to Nigeria

in Museum Worlds
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  • 1 Horniman Museum; Goldsmiths, University of London jzetterstrom-sharp@horniman.ac.uk
  • 2 University of East Anglia chris.wingfield@uea.ac.uk
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Abstract

In February 2016, students at Jesus College, Cambridge voted unanimously to repatriate to Nigeria a bronze cockerel looted during the violent British expedition into Benin City in 1897. The college, however, decided to temporarily relocate Okukor to the University's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. This article outlines the discussions that occurred during this process, exploring how the Museum was positioned as a safe space in which uncomfortable colonial legacies, including institutionalized racism and cultural patrimony rights, could be debated. We explore how a stated commitment to postcolonial dialogue ultimately worked to circumvent a call for postcolonial action. Drawing on Ann Stoler's and Elizabeth Edwards's discussions of colonial aphasia, this article argues that anthropology museums risk enabling such circumvention despite confronting their own institutional colonial legacies.

Contributor Notes

JOHANNA ZETTERSTROM-SHARP is Deputy Keeper of Anthropology at the Horniman Museum in South London, as well as Lecturer of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has previously worked at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, as a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow. Her current research focuses on collections amassed at the end of the British Empire in Africa, and she has previously worked on postcolonial heritage-making in Sierra Leone, including a focus on the intersection of heritage with Pentecostal Christianity. Email: jzetterstrom-sharp@horniman.ac.uk

CHRIS WINGFIELD is Associate Professor in the Arts of Africa at the Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia. He has previously worked at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in curatorial positions and at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, as a researcher. His current research concerns British collections from early-nineteenth-century Southern Africa and the ways in which these can have an impact on our understandings of colonial pasts. Email: chris.wingfield@uea.ac.uk

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