Museums and heritage in 2021: pandemic woes and African treasures

We look back on a year of museums commandeered as Covid-19 vaccine centres, masterpieces sold as NFTs and much talk over the Benin bronzes

As Covid-19 restrictions eased, mega-museum openings were back on the agenda, including Berlin’s Humboldt Forum this summer David von Becker

As Covid-19 restrictions eased, mega-museum openings were back on the agenda, including Berlin’s Humboldt Forum this summer David von Becker

In a sign of the times, museums around the world spent a few months this year being temporarily transformed into Covid-19 vaccination centres. Castello di Rivoli and Capodimonte in Italy, the UK’s Thackray Museum of Medicine and Science Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York all handed over their spaces to health workers administering the jab.

As winter lockdowns dragged on, frustrated museum directors in Switzerland and France petitioned governments to reopen museums—in recognition of their “essential” roles to educate and boost mental wellbeing, as well as their capacity to implement social distancing measures safely. Swiss institutions emerged early from the second wave of European closures on 1 March, but their French counterparts had to wait until 19 May, two days after museums in England. These were classed alongside saunas in “step three” of the UK government’s reopening strategy—and five weeks behind “non-essential retail”, including commercial galleries—to the dismay of cultural leaders.

An outlier in the US, California only gave museums in Los Angeles County the green light to reopen at 25% capacity in March—after a full year of shutdown. The California Association of Museums estimated the closures to have cost the county’s museums, zoos and aquariums $5bn in revenue. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art freed up funds by scrapping a housing perk for its director Michael Govan, putting his $2.4m residence on the market mere months after he downsized from his previous rent-free $6.6m property, which was sold last year.

The British Museum’s Hokusai NFT shop © The Trustees of the British Museum

Meanwhile, the Louvre launched a slick e-boutique leveraging its proliferating brand partnerships with the likes of Japanese fast-fashion giant Uniqlo. And faced with a “dramatic” deficit after being closed without box-office income for six months, Amsterdam’s independent branch of Russia’s State Hermitage Museum kept afloat thanks to a €1m crowdfunding appeal that received more than 10,000 donations. The original Hermitage, the Uffizi and the British Museum even ventured into the murky market for NFTs to raise much-needed cash, respectively tokenising digital editions of masterpieces by Leonardo, Michelangelo and Hokusai.

Despite concerns that mandatory Covid-19 health passes could lead to discrimination, several countries introduced schemes regulating entry to public events and venues, including museums. Denmark led the way, with France and Italy following in the summer, when Israel also extended its “green pass” to museums that had initially been exempt. Amid public protests against the passes, one Italian museum director, Fabrizio Masucci of the Museo Cappella Sansevero in Naples, resigned from his post with an open letter stating that “museums are by vocation places of inclusion”.

The easing meant mega-museum openings were finally back on the agenda. After a fallow 2020 came the delayed launches of François Pinault’s Bourse de Commerce in Paris’s circular former grain exchange; the twisting steel-clad tower designed by Frank Gehry for the Luma Arles campus; Oslo’s new waterside home for the Munch museum; and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, which opened with an appropriately star-studded Hollywood gala. Not to mention the newly-opened M+ in Hong Kong and GES-2 in Moscow.

Inaugurated virtually in late 2020 but only open since July, Berlin’s Humboldt Forum is among Europe’s most costly cultural developments, with a final price tag exceeding €680m. It is also perhaps the most contested museum project of the lot—a revival of the German imperial palace that has been incongruously built to house the city’s non-Western art collections. In March, its director, Hartmut Dorgerloh, let slip to German media that he expected Berlin’s Benin bronzes—most of which can be traced to an 1897 attack by British troops on the West African kingdom—to be permanently returned to Nigeria. “The Benin bronzes were largely acquired illegally,” he said. “I share the conviction that there must and will be restitutions.”

The University of Aberdeen returned its Benin bronze to Nigeria this year Courtesy of the University of Aberdeen

The German government and directors of the major ethnological museums soon announced a national plan to return hundreds of artefacts to Nigeria in 2022 as part of a broader bilateral deal, which will also see Germany contributing to the construction of the new Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City. The German foreign minister Heiko Maas called it “a turning point in our approach to colonial history”.

The question is whether Germany’s proactive policy will prove a turning point for other Western museums in possession of looted Benin bronzes? Momentum certainly seems to be building. In November, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York repatriated two brass plaques that were donated in the 1990s (the Met holds around 160 Benin objects in total). The University of Aberdeen and Jesus College at the University of Cambridge each handed over a sculpture to Nigerian dignitaries. The Fowler Museum at UCLA (with 18 items), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (with 16 of 42 objects traced to the 1897 British raid) and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC have voiced commitments to repatriation.

All eyes are on the British Museum, with 900 Benin treasures in London, which recently received a repatriation request from Nigeria but remains barred by law from disposing of objects. (It has promised to lend to the future Edo Museum.) Nor is the UK’s culture-warmongering Conservative government likely to adopt Germany’s line of “moral responsibility”. In one of his last pronouncements as culture secretary before a cabinet reshuffle, Oliver Dowden said the Benin bronzes “properly reside” in the British Museum.

Another movement picking up steam is the US unionising drive. Many American museums made sweeping layoffs to balance budgets during the pandemic, and depleted workforces are fighting back against insecurity, stagnant wages and poor health and safety conditions. In 2021 alone, staff at Mass MoCA, the Hispanic Society of America, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum have voted to unionise. They join the unions formed last year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where staff held a one-day strike in November over “painfully slow” negotiations with senior management. The surge looks set to continue, with employees at the Art Institute of Chicago and its school due to vote this month on a union election with the National Labor Relations Board.