Cresa L. Pugh

Cresa L. Pugh

Cresa Pugh

(Sociology & Social Policy)
Ph.D. Date: May 2022 (Expected)

Dissertation Title: ‘Guardians of Beautiful Things’: The Politics of Postcolonial Cultural Theft, Refusal and Repair
Dissertation Committee: Orlando Patterson (Co-Chair), Jocelyn Viterna (Co-Chair), Peggy Levitt (Wellesley College), and Zine Magubane (Boston College)
Research/Teaching Interests: Historical, postcolonial and transnational sociology; archival and historical research methods; British imperial studies; postcolonial sub-Saharan Africa; museums, art, and aesthetics; migration and refugee studies; repair and reparations

Dissertation Abstract:
An estimated 90 to 95 percent of Africa’s ancient cultural artefacts are held outside the continent, primarily in Western museums, galleries and private collections, a large share of which were looted during colonial-era raids. My dissertation project examines a half century of debates between African governments and citizens advocating for the restitution of their ancestral heritage, on the one hand, and ‘world culture’ museums which are increasingly being called upon to ‘decolonize’ their collections and practices, on the other. Drawing on the case of Benin bronzes in British museums--a collection of pre-colonial artifacts looted from the Benin Kingdom (modern day Nigeria) by British forces in 1897--I argue that contemporary struggles over artefact restitution reveal a form of neoimperial domination often overlooked in studies of the endurance of colonial hegemony.

My project examines the ways in which the withholding of imperial plunder by British museums represents a form of racial capitalism that continues to impoverish ex-colonies economically through profits made through the sale and display of the objects; politically through the utilization of the objects as an inducement to adhere to British forms of governance in the postcolonial period; and culturally through the deprivation of ancestral wisdom, scientific knowledge, and historical memory for descendants of the Kingdom. Yet organizing in ex-colonies and across the African diaspora mounted against such forms of imperial control constitutes a unique form of anticolonial resistance that has largely gone understudied as a cohesive movement. As such, this project traces the efforts of a transnational network of politicians, artists, activists, museum professionals and citizens fighting for the restitution of the bronzes as a means through which to understand the contemporary landscape of decolonial movements. Furthermore, recent compromises on the restitution of artifacts between African and European states—from long-term loans, to ‘digital repatriation’, to full unconditional return—suggests the emergence of a new relational ethic of repair which I evaluate against prior forms of postcolonial cultural interaction.

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