Restitution and repatriation of objects looted (from the Hindi lūṭ, or ‘to rob’) by European imperial powers has been a key aim of decolonisation campaigns across the planet, with the focus on pressuring European countries like Britain and France to return stolen colonial items to their home countries. Tracing the afterlives of colonial statues, however, reveals a different and little-known history of repatriation: that of colonial statues themselves. This blog post is about the history of Britain’s attempts to recover and repatriate statues from its former colonies as imperial rule began to crumble.
I finally found time in January this year 2024 to take myself to Reading, to explore the Tweed archive, the collection of private papers, sketchbooks and artefacts deposited by the daughters of the sculptor John Tweed in Reading Museum in 1968. I received a wonderful welcome from the art curator and her team, as she gave up an entire day in order to accompany me to the museum store and literally walk me through the materials. This of course, is the reality of research in smaller, regional archives and museums, there is rarely dedicated staff available to facilitate research and access depends on the generosity of very busy staff with many other things to do. However, when one does secure the time of such colleagues, the depth of knowledge that they can offer about the area is a resource in its own right.
Roman-style statues are frequently at the forefront of toppling campaigns and contemporary conversations about the role of monuments in upholding or glorifying colonial, Confederate, or capitalist values and ideology. However, the actual style of these statues, and their relationship to other monuments and architecture in their built environment, is rarely cited as a reason for removal. Yet the choice to render colonial statues in a Roman style speaks to the values and ideologies those statues are meant to represent, and reflects a broader tradition of using Classically-inspired or Roman-style architecture and monuments to demonstrate where power lies, and with whom.