Standing in the British Museum’s Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt gallery in 2013, I wondered if I was doing the right thing: paying money to see items that the country of origin asserted were acquired illegally. It was my birthday, and I was decked out in a navy dress with sequins, proud of the way I looked. But I could only manage an uneasy smile as my mama took a picture of me beside a statue of Pharaoh Senusret III.
The critiques that would evolve into a crisis about the state of museums today were well formed and convincing even then. Many objects that filled the halls of the world’s preeminent museums had been pilfered from their home countries—looted and trafficked—as an act of imperialism or in the name of scientific discovery.
Since 1983, Greece has formally requested that pieces of the Parthenon be sent back to the country, asserting they belong to the nation. Pope Francis agreed in 2022 to return the three that were in the Vatican Museums’ possession; the British Museum—which has 247 feet of the original frieze—has returned nothing. Egypt asked the Louvre to give back four archaeological reliefs stolen from the tomb of a noble in the 1980s, and when its request was denied, the country severed ties with the museum in 2009. And for nearly a century, the more than 150 institutions with Benin Bronzes—thousands of objects taken by British troops in 1897 from what is now Nigeria—have faced calls to repatriate the items. Progress, however, has been slow.
As I make my way through galleries, I ask myself, ‘Where are the absences? Whose voice is missing?’
Though it has been almost a decade since my visit to the British Museum, I still frequent these kinds of cultural institutions. In fact, I’ve visited more than 40 museums in the past year. Many of them are expansive, formidable, and backed by powerful donors. But now more than ever, I’m aware of my responsibility for how I engage with them. I am more active, less passive—before, during, and after my visit.
To get a feel for the type of museum experience I’m headed into, I check the website for language: If the museum is named after a family, does it tell the truth about how that family got their money and how this place came to be? In details about exhibits, are there words like “primitive,” “native,” and “discovered”?
As I make my way through galleries, I ask myself, “Where are the absences? Whose voice is missing?” When I’m moved by a piece, I jot down the descriptive data so I can research its journey when I’m at my computer. I seek more information about its origins, the political situation when it was crafted, and current social conditions in the country. If an institution offers guided tours, I take them, knowing I’ll get stories about the artifacts that go beyond what’s on the placard. Tours also give me the opportunity to learn more about an institution’s own history, acquisition processes, and present practices.
When I can, I try to visit smaller regional museums, which often have more emphasis on the first people of an area. While working on an assignment involving Mount Rushmore in 2016, for example, I skipped museums that focused on the power of the presidents fixed in stone and the white supremacist sculptor who created them. Instead, I visited the Journey Museum & Learning Center in Rapid City, South Dakota, which focuses on the story of the Indigenous peoples of the Black Hills, their traditions, and why the landscape is sacred to these communities. And when people ask my counsel about which museums to visit in places I’ve traveled to, I guide them to those I believe are doing a good job.
Outside of physical museums, social media can be a valuable meeting place. I participate in virtual talks and guided workshops alongside artists, historians, and curators, and my Instagram feed includes art lovers who share the beautiful side of what they see while using captions and voice-overs to examine relevant historical, societal, and cultural issues outside the frame. Lively discussions happen in the comments, and following these threads allows me to better understand the challenges that come with art appreciation and museum ethics.
Today, we have more tools at our disposal to learn about parts of the world that we may never see. And while we can’t change the story of how an object arrived at its current resting place, we do have the power to alter the way we engage with things in the present—to ask questions and to keep asking.