Seeking Repatriation: If You’re So Apologetic that Colonisation Occurred, then Why Have Artefacts Similar to the Asante Goldweights Not Been Returned to Their Rightful Countries?

Goldweight, Asante (Ashanti), Ghana, 19th century. Museum no. CIRC.236–1971. Weight in the form of a plain rectangular block of brass with a worn raised geometrical pattern.

Established in 1857 as the ‘South Kensington Museum’, the renamed Victorian and Albert Museum is self-defined as “the world’s leading museum of art and design”. Since its establishment, the museum has been synonymously described as a house for third world artefacts. With the first Director of the museum — Sir Henry Cole — describing the museum as a “refuge for destitute collections.” It is the use of semantics such as “destitute” when referring to artefacts belonging to indigenous peoples and/or African and Asian countries that have sparked the discourse on paving the way for decolonizing museums. This discourse centers around the argument of whether repatriation should be sought for these artefacts and more importantly, whether such artefacts should have been in European museums such as the Victoria and Albert (V&A) in the first place. As Olga Viso (director of Minnesota’s Walker Art Centre) makes good to note, museums risk becoming home to culturally irrelevant artefacts when they fail to source the collections properly. In other words, museums should refrain from collecting any random items especially if they hold no significance in the museum or to its visitors.

Currently, the V&A is home to a wide range of collections, exploring European to South Asian and some African histories. This museum review will explore the recently launched display that is the Asante Gold Weights, launched in October 2019. In researching about this collection, it becomes clear that the V&A museum website presents a more compelling impression of the display than what the display itself shows to the typical museum visitor. This raises some questions that relate to historians John Giblin, Imma Ramos, Nikki Grout and Katherine Prior’s separate arguments that the curatorial involvement behind an exhibit/display can shape how the typical visitor experiences it. Associate professor, Margaret Lindauer’s categories of the three types of museum visitors (ideal, typical and critical) offer a deeper analysis into the experience of the visitor. This museum review will explore the existence of the Asante Gold Weights from Ghana’s Asante (Ashanti) peoples in the V&A museum and how this display compares to previous galleries holding the Asante Gold Weights. Within that discussion, the review will evaluate how the current display could be improved to refrain from becoming one of the irrelevant artefacts that merely places the V&A museum as a collector rather than a place for learning about the controversies of colonial Africa. As such, it is worth considering the V&A’s current director, Tristram Hunt’s, argument that European museums serve a nuanced purpose and should not automatically bow to calls to return artworks plundered by 19th-century. A statement that feeds into the popular narrative that European museums have a duty to present ‘destitute’ collections since the countries they derive from cannot do so themselves.

Historian, M.D. McLeod exerted that “behind the rise & expansion of the West African kingdom of Asante (Ashanti) lay the exploitation of massive gold resources”. The gold and silver items that accompany the weights on display at the V&A museum derive from the Asante royal regalia. The V&A museum briefly historicizes the Asante Gold Weights and how it came to be in the hands of the British; this was a result of “a series of conflict” (the Asante Wars) between the British and the Asante state capital. Such conflict involved the stringent raid that occurred in 1874 by order of Major General Sir Garnet Wolseley. The issue with the museum’s brief description of the Asante Gold Weights is that it informs visitors that the conflict was centered around trade and gaining Britons access to trading ports. Prior to the Asante Wars, Asante rulers such as Kofi Karikari benefitted from the financial value(s) that came with minerals such as gold. Therefore, the removal of the royal regalia by the Britons in 1874 was an act executed in the hope of stripping Asante rulers of their symbols of government & ultimately denying them of their authority to govern. Whilst this gives us some insight as to how the Asante Gold Weights came to exist in Britain, it raises the question of why the collection has not been returned to its owners in Ghana. Although the British both from the colonial age and decolonizing period (Tristram Hunt included) are aware that Wolseley and his troop stole the artefacts at the royal regalia to undermine the status of the Asante people, to ask why they did not restitute the artefacts today would be redundant. This all comes down to accountability and admitting such a thing would make Britain financially liable for the repatriation process.

What’s more, when news circulated about the raid in 1874, British reporters were eager to cover the story that would allow Wolseley to be welcomed as a conquering hero upon his return to Britain. Consequently, the exhibition of A Collection of Gold and Other Objects from Ashanti at the South Kensington Museum launched in 1874. This display generated a flock of what Margaret Lindauer would call the ‘typical’ visitor. Such visitors were, at this time, drawn by the Collection of Gold and Other Objects from Ashanti because they visited the exhibition in the hope of extending their knowledge on the powerful British empire. As such, when the A Collection of Gold and Other Objects from Ashanti first launched in 1874, this particular collection attracted large crowds who viewed it with a mixture of triumphant imperialism combined with artistic curiosity. This is a striking contrast to the display that is in the V&A museum today. This small display would fail to attract such large crowds because, even after asking the museum staff to help you locate it in the Metalwork Gallery, the typical visitor would still walk past it a few times before realizing that the display was there, it just is not noticeable. This only suggests the curators’ failure to explore contentious histories of, not just Asante peoples, but those belonging to sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike the ‘South and South-east Asia’ gallery that holds such collections in the museum, the V&A currently do not have a gallery solely dedicated to the African collections that they display.

Though there have been whispers about erecting a potential gallery in Stratford, London for African Diaspora art and design, nothing has been set in stone. As Giblin, Ramos and Grout argue in Dismantling the Master’s House, although the “master’s tools may never dismantle the master’s house”, it is crucial that museums delve deeper into their research of their public collections. Consequently, if the V&A museum will not be creating a gallery solely for the African Diaspora art and design that they collect (some exhibitions from previous years being V&A Africa: Exploring Hidden Histories, Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography and the display of Ethiopian Sacred Art in 2010 to name a few), then the least they could do is make a better effort to accurately contextualize the history of African diaspora. This means contextualizing the objects in its histories of looting, economic exploitation (in this case, gold trading), and racism. Unfortunately, the V&A museum fails to do this in depth with the Asante Gold Weights display, rather, the display focuses more on how some of the objects in the collection — such as the sword, war horn, gold pendant, gold pectoral group for example, were made. The curators of this display would have done well to inform visitors of how children in the Asante state were taught the names and trade values of gold weights, and also informed on each subjects’ symbolic significance. For instance, some weights referred to individual, universally understood proverbs, while others invited the application of a handful of pithy sayings, but the typical visitor would not know this from visiting the V&A.

The 2019 Asante Gold Weights collection should also be perceived as a redisplay of the objects shown in the same display case in 2007 to mark both the bicentenary of the Parliamentary abolition of the slave trade and the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s Independence. However, Angus Patterson (the Senior Curator for the Department of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glass) argues that the difference between the displays is that 12 years on, the recently launched redisplay of the Asante Gold Weights collection has a better grasp of semantics that explains the ownership history of this material. This change should be perceived as a reflection and influence of the conversation to decolonize the museum that initially began in 2007. A conversation that the United Nations (UN) kickstarted with article 11 of its declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. The intentions behind this article was to encourage European and American museums to restore “cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property” that had been taken from indigenous peoples without their “free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs”. This was later followed by the Sarr Savoy report in 2018 which undoubtedly intensified the discussion on the restitution of artefacts to indigenous peoples, but failed to encourage institutions to take action.

Of course, not everyone responded well to this discourse, including the current V&A Director, Tristram Hunt. In response to the 2018 report, Hunt stated that he was “taken aback” by the “intensity” of the repatriation debate. On the one hand, such a response from the Director of the V&A museum should be encountered with concern because it implied that Hunt could not comprehend the gravity of the debate or why the restitution of illegally acquired artefacts should occur. This interpretation is further strengthened by Hunt’s argument that since the V&A museum was born of the imperial moment, the question of provenance and ownership in a post-colonial age is “particularly germane”. This suggests that artefacts taken from indigenous peoples during the colonial period no longer belonged to them. Furthermore, Hunt concedes that in this new age of Brexit, we need to be “more like the Victorians” and “go forward, not as another empire, but as a success admired around the world”. Such ideologies are evident in how the Asante Gold Weights collection is presented in the Metalwork Gallery. Firstly, the display only conveys a short sighted history of the Asante kingdom. This contradicts the V&A website’s description of the display, which claimed to expect visitors to have the display highlight the “contested heritage” of the items which were taken by the British troops when Wolseley ordered the raid in Kumasi, Asante. Alternatively, without saying so itself, simply put, the display is useful for allowing visitors the opportunity to reflect on the beauty of the objects from the royal regalia. Historians, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have expanded on this when they argued that the desire to “decolonize our schools” and museums is what turns decolonization into a metaphor.

In conclusion, the Asante Gold Weights display collection appears to exist in the V&A museum to paint Britain as an empire that should still be “admired around the world” as Hunt wanted. Though its existence was symbolic in 2007, the same cannot be said for the 2019 redisplay. This is evidenced by the invisibility of the display in the V&A museum and how the curators preferred to repeat the texts describing how each object was made on each side of the display, rather than using one side to historicize the significance of the gold weights to Asante peoples and especially children. To some degree, it is agreeable that politicizing every indigenous display at European museums takes away from the beauty and appreciation of their arts and designs. Yet, turning a blind eye to the curation of such displays is exactly how decolonization within the museum risks becoming a metaphor as Tuck and Wayne Yang argue. Especially when the intentions behind publicization of the displays are superficial.

Note

This is an old essay that I wrote in March 2020 for an assignment. The assignment itself was a Museum Review for my Decolonising Public History module. I got a first on this essay in the end so it has been marked.

Bibliography

Books/Journals

· Eve Tuck & K. Wayne Yang, ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol 1, No 1 (University of California & State University of New York, 2012)

· M.D McLeod, ‘Goldweights of Asante’, African Arts, Vol. 5, №1 (UCLA, 1971)

· Margaret Lindauer, ‘The Critical Museum Visitor’ in Janet Marstine (ed.), New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006)

Articles

· Tristam Hunt, (2020). Should museums return their colonial artefacts? [Accessed 2 Mar. 2020].

· Felwine Sarr & Bénédicte Savoy, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relations Ethics (Ministère de la Culture, Université Paris Nanterre, Nov 2018)

Websites/Museum

· C., J. (2020). Asante Goldweights — Cambridge University Library Special Collections. [online] Specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk. Available at: [Accessed 4 Mar. 2020].

· Patterson, A. and Patterson, A. (2020). Asante Goldweights: A new display highlighting contested heritage in museums • V&A Blog %. [online] V&A Blog. Available at: [Accessed 3 Mar. 2020].

· V&A Museum, ‘Asante Gold Weights’ Collection Description, [Visited: 27 Feb 2020]

· Vam.ac.uk. (2020). 100 Facts about the V&A — Victoria and Albert Museum. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Mar. 2020].

· Victoria and Albert Museum. (2020). V&A · About us. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Mar. 2020].

Victoria and Albert Museum. (2020). V&A · Asante Goldweights. [online] Available at:

Actual Footnotes

Victoria and Albert Museum. (2020). V&A · About us. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Mar. 2020].

Vam.ac.uk. (2020). 100 Facts about the V&A — Victoria and Albert Museum. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Mar. 2020].

Katherine Prior, ‘Commemorating Slavery 2007: A Personal View from Inside the Museums’, History Workshop Journal, 64, (2007), pp. 201

John Giblin, Imma Ramos & Nikki Grout, Dismantling the Master’s House, Third (Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2019), p. 16

Margaret Lindauer, ‘The Critical Museum Visitor’ in Janet Marstine (ed.), New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), p. 203

Tristam Hunt, (2020). Should museums return their colonial artefacts? | Museums | The Guardian. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Mar. 2020].

Ibid

Goldweights of Asante — M.D McLeod, ‘Goldweights of Asante’, African Arts, Vol. 5, №1 (UCLA, 1971) p. 8

V&A Museum, ‘Asante Gold Weights’ Collection Description, [Visited: 27 Feb 2020]

Vam.ac.uk. (2020). V&A and Africa — Victoria and Albert Museum. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Feb. 2020].

C., J. (2020). Asante Goldweights — Cambridge University Library Special Collections. [online] Specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk. Available at: [Accessed 4 Mar. 2020].

Patterson, A. and Patterson, A. (2020). Asante Goldweights: A new display highlighting contested heritage in museums • V&A Blog %. [online] V&A Blog. Available at: [Accessed 3 Mar. 2020].

Tristam Hunt, (2020). Should museums return their colonial artefacts? [Accessed 2 Mar. 2020].

Felwine Sarr & Bénédicte Savoy, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relations Ethics (Ministère de la Culture, Université Paris Nanterre, Nov 2018)

Tristam Hunt, (2020). Should museums return their colonial artefacts? [Accessed 2 Mar. 2020].

Ibid

Ibid

Victoria and Albert Museum. (2020). V&A · Asante Goldweights. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Mar. 2020].

Eve Tuck & K. Wayne Yang, ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol 1, No 1 (University of California & State University of New York, 2012), p. 1

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