As I read this week’s cover story, a curious image kept coming to mind: the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games. The curious bit is that this week’s cover story is about African art and the ethics of European museums holding on to their colonial haul. What does that have to do with the London Olympics? Let me explain.
When I sat in the media section of the Olympic stadium hours before the beginning of the opening ceremony, the scene before me on the floor of the stadium was almost heartbreakingly endearing. It was a scene of pastoral England – of stone houses and village squares, of courting couples in barley fields and country boys lounging on the grass during a game of cricket on a pleasant summer’s day. It was unlike any opening ceremony I had ever seen. It was alive, inhabited in a way that Disney’s Epcot center could only dream about. Quietly and intimately, the idyll of rural England was unfolding below us.
Then everything changed. As the ceremony began in earnest, the scene was steadily chewed by the gears of industry. This was the Industrial Revolution, and the result was awesome and terrifying: the five Olympic rings forged from a new dystopian vision of grime and grease.
True, the scene suffered from no small amount of romantic revisionism. Rural life in Georgian England was hardly idyllic, and the Industrial Revolution was an essential element of a quantum leap forward for humanity in wealth, innovation, and knowledge.
Yet the message was more effective than a branding iron: Here, in London’s crowning moment, it had chosen to embrace the ambivalent nature of its own glorious history. For once, an opening ceremony had not skated over the sticky parts of the past but instead sought a reforged sense of identity in the acknowledgment and, on some level, the atonement for them. This was, for me, a hint of a new post-colonial order. Perhaps the advancing understanding of power involves making right and being honest, not the pursuit of wealth or conquest. The national maturity required to make that statement at that moment was remarkable.
The former colonial powers that hold troves of African art now face a similar moment of introspection. As with the dystopian vision of the Industrial Revolution, it is easy to caricature this decision too. Having African collections in European museums has not been universally evil. They have spread an understanding and interest in African culture to a more global audience.
But one historian puts it this way: “The question is, do you keep objects which are stolen, or not?” More deeply, he adds: “A colonial context is a context of injustice.”
This era is clearly asking former colonial nations how they will choose to think of that legacy. The question is perhaps an Olympic one: Can countries craft a new sense of pride and purpose by directly addressing the checkered parts of their past? The goal is not revisionism but a better foundation on which to build.