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Accepted Paper:

Decolonizing the Decolonization of the Maqdala Collection: How Restitution Debates Have Shaped the Significance of the Maqdala 1868 Expedition  
Sabrina Illiano (Oxford University)

Paper Short Abstract:

This paper discusses the debates about the restitution of the “Maqdala Collection.” I argue that these debates have shaped how the history of this expedition is represented according to a sociopolitical landscape where African restitution is almost inseparable from decolonization.

Paper Abstract:

As the demands for the cultural restitution of African artifacts taken during imperial and colonial contexts continue to dominate conversations about decolonization, reparations, and postcolonial African development, it is necessary to be reflective and intentional about the ways that we apply so-called decolonial or anticolonial frameworks and to avoid uncritical reliance on these categories as lenses through which to approach African case studies. Due to the ways that European museums and cultural institutions have been increasingly pressured to confront their colonial pasts, there have been many attempts to link cases of restitution in order to establish patterns of imperial harm and support the large-scale return of African artifacts. Within this context, the process of re-thinking the histories and futures of collections with competing claims of ownership has become essentially synonymous with “decolonizing” institutions. But is “decolonizing” always the best way to think about addressing the issues related to these collections, or can applying its assumptions in broad strokes obscure important nuances and dynamics that are unique to different case studies? What new understandings emerge when we set aside these assumptions? Without minimizing the importance of encouraging cultural institutions to reckon with the uncomfortable and often violent histories of their collections, this paper uses the debates about the “Maqdala Collection,” a diverse assortment of cultural and religious objects taken from Ethiopia during a British military expedition in 1868, to explore these questions. I argue that debates about the cultural restitution of African artifacts do not just respond to historical realities that are “revealed,” but actively contribute to the writing and re-writing of histories. I show that the Maqdala Collection has been assimilated into a dominant discourse of decolonization which has changed how the history of this collection is represented – including in ways that, while well-intended, are not necessarily consistent with Ethiopian historiography, originating as it does from a country which prides itself on having not been colonized. In particular, assumptions based on the British historical narrative of Maqdala, particularly those that seek to characterize the Maqdala artifacts as a collection that needs to be “decolonized,” may actually impose imperial connotations in a way that, ironically, privileges the British history over the Ethiopian history of Maqdala. I then explore the alternative representations that have emerged in these debates in order to show that there is a place in this arena for narratives that seek to repair historical and imperial injustices that do not rely on the decolonial framework. Ultimately, I hope to demonstrate the importance of respecting that decolonization is not a “one size fits all” concept for anthropological research and thus, we must be prepared to listen to and accept new ways of theorizing and pursuing justice when they emerge.

Panel P172
What’s in a name? A reality check on recent claims and practices of decolonising anthropology
  Session 2 Thursday 25 July, 2024, -