Museums are caught in the crossfire of our increasingly toxic political debates around Empire, race and the past. Writer at Large Neil Mackay talks to Professor Christopher Breward, the director of National Museums Scotland, as he charts a path through rage towards reason

YOU’VE got to hand it to Professor Christopher Breward. While just about every part of society and public figure has been engulfed in endless, often pointless, culture war battles, he’s determined to keep Scotland’s museums above the fray.

As director of National Museums Scotland (NMS), Breward has no time for the performative grandstanding of either the left or right. Politicisation of culture by both progressives and traditionalists leaves him cold. All he wants is to concentrate on the work: the role museums play in Scottish life.

Breward fits in no simple, definable box - after all, what thinking person can be categorised so easily. So, while he may dismiss terms like ‘decolonisation’, he’s also set on doing what he sees as the right thing: if necessary, returning museum objects looted during Empire should overseas nations want their artefacts back.

It’s a hard course Breward is steering when everything from public statues to literature in schools is caught up in the Culture War. Breward’s skill lies in taking the heat out of such conversations and looking at matters with the dispassionate eye of a thoughtful academic. At just 55, he’s now one of the most significant figures in Scottish cultural life. His previous roles include the National Galleries of Scotland’s director of collections, Edinburgh College of Art principal, and head of research at London’s V&A.


With the culture war toxifying almost every debate, Breward wants to make clear NMS policy on handing back looted objects or objects of disputed ownership - the best known example of which is the Elgin Marbles in the British museum: a collection of classical Greek sculptures removed from the Parthenon in the early 1800s by the Earl of Elgin.

Breward doesn’t want any “misunderstandings” around NMS policy “in the context of the not too helpful culture war”.

“We’ve always been able to consider requests for the transfer of objects back to other countries where there’s a clear case to be made, on a carefully judged case by case basis,” he says. The Scottish government is also consulted about any possible repatriation.


At the moment NMS is deep in deliberation over the future of ‘the Benin objects’ - a series of artworks, like bronzes and ivory sculptures, looted by British soldiers from Benin, a city in Nigeria, in the late 1800s. NMS holds more than 70 objects, such as masks and altar pieces. The ‘Benin Dialogue Group’ has been set up so discussion can take place between museums in both Scotland and Benin, Nigeria, as well as other museums around the world which also hold artefacts from the area.

“We’ve made it much clearer, simpler, and more transparent about the process by which governments of other countries or communities of interest can put forward a claim if they feel there’s a case to be made for the return of an object,” he says. Each object must be considered “from a legal, ethical and moral position”.

The Dialogue Group, Breward explains, “has been thinking about ways in which that dispersed collection can come back together again in Benin … through loan, through exchange, potentially through return where there’s contention around how those objects were aquired”.


Ensuring objects are well looked after, ethically displayed, and seen by as many people as possible is the primary concern for Breward rather than “getting pulled down into particular political objectives of particular governments”.

Breward is wary of political involvement in museums. George Osborne, former Conservative Chancellor, was recently appointed chair of the British Museum’s trustees. “I think an arm’s length principle is really important,” he says. “The politicisation of boards and museum agendas isn’t helpful … We’re trusted and it’s really important we’re not swayed by particular political agendas.”


On the issue of repatriating objects, Breward believes “the broader debate has become unhelpfully distorted or politicised in some ways”. He diplomatically sidesteps the issue of the Elgin marbles, but does point to the way NMS is handling the Benin Objects. “I won’t tread into what’s an issue for the trustees of the British Museum and the UK and Greek governments, but I think let’s have some more dialogue, some more thinking around that.”

The issue of disputed ownership around any museum artefact is “very troubling”, he says, but he insists: “We’ve come a long way as an organisation in terms of the way we talk about and consider issues of ownership and what we represent.”

However, if there’s anywhere this toxic debate about the past can be sensibly conducted it’s within museums, Breward says. “Museums are essentially a force for good, a force for expanding people’s horizons, a force for allowing people to understand the very complex histories we’ve come through, the way our identities are often very contested and confusing, and troubling things in relation to objects from history.”


Breward, who took over at NMS in April last year, adds: “Over the past year, we’ve been thinking about the way we bring those debates safely to the fore and don’t shy away from them.”

He sees the current ‘Legacies of Empire’ exhibition at the National Museum in Edinburgh - which examines the history of ‘objects brought back from colonial conflict by the military forces of the British empire’ - as central to the debate over contested art and loot.

Understanding “that rich, troubling history … makes the world a more equitable place”. Breward believes museums can lead a way through the divisive culture war by just honestly appraising the past - sometimes that will upset the liberal left, other times it will upset the traditional right.


“I don’t like the term ‘culture war’, I don’t like the context of the culture war,” says Breward. “It represents polarised positions from right and left. What we can offer as museums is a space to listen to those concerns, from whatever political position … and actually bring some sense to these debates so that they become productive and lead somewhere that’s better for society, rather than divides opinion, but that does mean sometimes having difficult conversations and we shouldn’t shy away from that.”

He adds: “When I read some of the more politicised stuff about ‘woke culture’ or culture wars or museums becoming places that are only associated with the left, or in some rarer cases with the right, it depresses me. We’re bigger than that - better than that. If people want to focus on issues like that then look outside museums. We offer something that’s valuable and should be respected and cherished rather than pulled apart.”

Breward, and curators and directors like him, are trying to redefine what museums mean in the 21st century. “If I was to describe myself using one loaded political phrase then I’m a ‘citizen of the world’,” he says. “I see that as a really positive badge. National museums are there to talk to other national museums and to represent the way that we’re connected rather than divided through our collections.”


NMS has taken advantage of lockdown to appraise ‘objects of contested heritage’ in collections. Breward is acutely aware that many of these artefacts “have special power and are deeply tied with a sense of identity” to the communities overseas which lost them. Perhaps one of the best examples in recent Scottish history was the Lakota Sioux Ghost Dance Shirt, held by Kelvingrove Museum and believed to have been worn by a warrior who died at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. A huge debate raged over the artefact until it was repatriated in 1999.

Today many such artefacts now have clear labelling explaining their origins. “We’re doing a lot of work thinking through the way we tell those stories,” Breward says. The histories of objects taken as loot by Britain during the Chinese Opium Wars, for example, have been clearly explained on new labels. The National Museum's Discoveries Gallery “is a way of talking about the museum as a 19th century institution. Objects came from across the world when Scotland was very much part of a broader story of Empire … We’ve been carefully reviewing all labelling to make sure we’re telling transparent stories.”


Breward baulks at Culture War slogans like ‘decolonisation’, however. “We don’t use that term,” he says. “I don’t think it’s possible to change the history of an organisation. It’s important that organisations are honest about their institutional roots.”

The British Museum recently removed a bust of its founder, Hans Sloane, a slave owner. With ongoing research discovering many objects in museums linked to slavery, Breward says NMS “would be up front. We would represent that research on the label”. NMS labelling on items relating to James Watt, the inventor of steam power, now explains that his family was involved in the slave trade.

The idea of ‘decolonisation’, however, Breward believes, “releases institutions from the obligation to be transparent and open about their own histories. It’s not such a helpful term.” He adds: “I think we acknowledge that colonisation happened, and we have to account for that process and how that’s represented in terms of the material culture that it is part of our duty to represent now in our collections. So to ‘decolonise’ seems to take away the obligation to tell those rigorous stories.”


On the issue of a Scottish slavery museum to commemorate the past as some have suggested, Breward says: “I don’t think its an either or situation. I think if there’s particular collections, particular communities who require a museum, and there’s examples of that across the world, that’s fine and good. It shouldn’t take the obligation away, though, from other museums to think about the way their collections represent those stories.”

He believes if museums do their jobs correctly a dedicated slavery museum isn’t necessarily required. “It’s the responsibility of all organisations to show the relevance of their collections and be transparent.”

This ongoing debate within museums about the provenance of objects and the legacy of empire, Breward believes, shouldn’t be conflated with the row that’s been raging over public art, such as the statue of slave trader Edward Colston, pulled down recently in Bristol. Trying to link debates about objects in museums to contested statues “confuses the issue,” says Breward. “There’s been a vigorous debate in terms of the memorialisation of individuals through public statuary. I think museums fulfil a different function and are repositories of sometimes quite difficult stories - that’s a different thing to memorialising individuals out in a broader public space and giving priority to one rather than to another. Public art is a very different thing.”

Museums, Breward says, “tend to be able to deal with the zeitgeist more adeptly, more sensitively, than the statue that’s been in a square for a hundred years”.


There’s a movement around the world currently among anthropologists called ‘propatriation’ - creating and finding new objects which reflect contemporary life. It’s a much less uncomfortable, and more positive, subject than repatriation. Breward’s team is working with artists and scientists “to commission new works that represents where we are now as a society”.

One piece, which highlights the effect of climate change on modern life in Scotland, is a column of granite from under ‘the Sphinx’ - on Braeriach mountain in the Cairngorms - the most isolated and longest-lasting of Scotland’s snow patches, which are the closest the UK has to glaciers.

Another contemporary piece making a pointed comment about modern life, this time consumerism, is a necklace by the artist Veronika Fabian made from “a deconstructed coffee machine” and called ‘Love Machine’.

These pieces are curated for the generations yet to come. Such objects, Breward says, “have enormous power, once you tell the surrounding story, for the future. They’re often the most ephemeral, seemingly without monetary value, but say so much about the human race and its relationship to the environment and society”.


Of course, the past keeps spilling its secrets too. The Galloway Hoard, a collection of 9th century objects, is casting new light on the so-called late ‘Dark Ages’ and the Viking period. Curators have been puzzling over the discovery of little ‘dirt-balls’ which were found alongside gold and silver artefacts. It turns out that the dirt-balls are souvenirs brought back from religious pilgrimages around Britain - keepsakes of soil from holy sites. Such pieces disprove the idea that life in this period was unsophisticated.

The Galloway Hoard, and a plethora of recent Pictish discoveries, “make us realise that everything we thought we understood is up for grabs. We were highly connected in ways we never understood before. Perhaps those sorts of 19th century imperial stories of war, division, chaos - the Dark Ages and all those terms - need pulling apart; that actually the mystery of those earlier periods is one of discovery, travel, people living alongside each other producing objects of great richness.”


There’s a growing sense of discomfort about human remains in museums. Breward says his colleagues in Egyptology are exploring this at the moment. “We’ve always had a very strong policy for the return of human remains back to those communities where they are sanctified,” he explains. “There’s been a shift from the museums of our childhood.”

In the past, “morbid fascination was one of the reasons we might’ve gone to museums to come face to face with a sense of mortality. It’s what museums do - they’re places of memory, where we connect with the past. But we now understand much better the sensitivity we need to take, and the reverence, for those objects however ancient they might be.”


So what does Breward see as the main purpose of museums in 2021? “I often think that museums are secular - I almost don’t want to use the term ‘cathedrals’ because that’s associated with one particular denomination - but they are certainly spaces where we can consider humankind’s place in the world and find our moral compass … We’re able to find some of the answers to the most pressing questions that face society, in the future, around the climate crisis, how we deal with shifting identities, around geopolitics. It’s all there to be unlocked in our collections.

“We’re contributing towards a better understanding of how to protect biodiversity, how we bring communities together, and that’s perhaps something that religious institutions used to do in the past. Without giving a sermon on this, we give people the freedom through a transparent interpretation of objects to find truths. We need to cherish museums and support them.”


With that in mind, since the austerity programme after the financial crash, budgets for art and culture across the UK have been slashed. “It’s been tough times,” Breward says, and that’s been exacerbated by lockdown. “We’re in a pretty perilous position.”

But he’s optimistic museums will spring back as the world reopens, and furlough and other government support has softened the ravages of pandemic. He’s sure there won’t be any redundancies - and one thing will never be on the table: charging for admission to museums. Under the Conservatives, in the 80s and 90s when museums charged, visitor numbers crashed. “It’s a dead end,” Breward says.

Breward would rather look to the future - and the next big event for museums in Scotland will be the opening of the revamped Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Scottish cultural life is abuzz with expectation. He says the opening won’t disappoint - and the new Burrell, filled as it is with objects from around the world collected during Empire, will reflect that spirit of the 21st century which Breward is so busily forging though his passion for the past.