- "This was a great, big room full of dead things"British Children's Literature and the Museums Debate
Earlier in 2020, as part of post-Brexit trade negotiations with Britain, the European Union raised the issue of the return of "unlawfully removed cultural objects" (Baczynska and Chalmers), an act widely interpreted as a reference to Britain's continued possession of the Parthenon marbles that were removed from Greece under dubious circumstances by the Earl of Elgin at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This was the latest in a series of recent events that have drawn public attention to the extent to which Britain's museums symbolize a history of cultural plunder, particularly of Britain's former colonies.
Article 11(2) of the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides the right to redress, including restitution, with respect to their "cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property" taken without free and informed consent; however, in the last five years in particular there has been a rise in activism calling for a restructuring of Britain's heritage spaces. Describing the shift in priorities of Britain's Museum Detox network toward "the international project to decolonize museums," Sara Wajid and Rachel Minott note that this was "part of a growing swell of action both within and beyond the museum sector," citing the Brexit referendum and the rise of far-right nationalism across the world as reasons why "a political activism that had become dormant seemed to be regenerated" (Wajid and Minott 27). During this period, debates over how museums in Western Europe should deal with their imperial collections, and more broadly how Britain should memorialize its history of imperial violence, have raged. In addition to the global, student-led Rhodes Must Fall campaign,1 these years saw the rise of the Museum Detox network, the Countering Colston campaign at the University of Bristol, and individual projects such as Alice [End Page 153] A. Procter's Uncomfortable Art Tours and the Untold Histories tours run by a group of Cambridge academics.2 The summer of 2020 saw the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston, a merchant heavily involved in the British slave trade, by antiracist activists in his native city of Bristol. This action brought even wider public interest to the lingering presence and glorification of empire in Britain's public spaces. The "museums debate" has even received acknowledgement from Hollywood: in a scene in the film Black Panther (2018), the character Erik Killmonger first correctly identifies and then takes a misidentified Wakandan ancestral weapon from a fictional British museum, condemning the theft through which the museum acquired it in the first place. These contemporary social and political challenges to the imperial authority of European museums have taken place alongside ongoing demands for the return of imperial loot. Particularly significant have been calls for the British Museum to return the ancestral figure Hoa Hakananai'a to Rapa Nui (Bartlett) and the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria (Akwagyiram, Hicks). Several of the movements mentioned above are youth-led, and children's and youth culture has a major stake in these questions of heritage, history, and the UK's national story. So it's unsurprising that recent British children's literature has begun to engage more directly with this ongoing debate, albeit, as I will show, with only partial success.
In a 1999 keynote speech, presented at a conference on heritage and cultural diversity, Stuart Hall describes "National Heritage" in the British context as:
the whole complex of organisations, institutions and practices devoted to the preservation and presentation of culture and the arts—art galleries, specialist collections, public and private, museums of all kinds (general, survey or themed, historical or scientific, national or local) and sites of special historical interest.(3)
For Hall, the emphasis on the past and on tradition makes the national heritage a discursive practice, in which a shared "national story" and social memory are constructed and disseminated to the public.3 Culture, and children's culture in particular, plays a significant role within this discourse. Valerie Krips has described the turn toward the development of heritage in twentieth century Britain in the wake of the two World...