WCMA must reckon with colonialism beyond the legal requirements

Two Neo-Assyrian bas-reliefs hang on the walls of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), each one nearly 3,000 years old and weighing over 1,300 pounds. The reliefs depict apkallu, or guardian spirits — one is shown with wings and a bird’s head, and the other resembles a human. Both originally lined the walls of Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II’s Northwest Palace around 800 BCE. 

When our history class, “HIST 430: Postcolonial Reparations,” visited WCMA last month, Curator of Mellon Academic Programs Liz Gallerani helped us understand the connection of the College’s acquisition of the reliefs to acts of colonial theft. The College came into possession of these objects when Dwight W. Marsh, a member of the Class of 1842, donated them in 1851. Marsh lived in Diyarbakır (modern-day Turkey) during the 1850s as a Christian missionary and obtained the reliefs from Sir Austen Henry Layard for the purposes of donating them to his alma mater. Layard was a British archaeologist who excavated many sites across the Middle East despite local resistance to the European encroachment on historic and cultural sites. In recent years, discussion around Layard’s excavation projects in colonized countries has cast him as a controversial figure. 

How does WCMA’s wall text address this complex history of Christian missions and British excavation in the acquisition of the Neo-Assyrian reliefs? It doesn’t. The label accompanying the reliefs reads, “A Williams alumnus procured the reliefs in 1851 from the British archaeologist who excavated the palace.”

The casual WCMA visitor would see the reliefs and leave completely unaware of this history because the panel next to the objects fails to mention, let alone reckon with the colonial and missionary past that led these ancient artifacts to end up in Williamstown. 

Without Gallerani’s guidance, our group of three history students would have left without any knowledge of the reliefs’ connection to it. WCMA is working hard to uncover the colonial realities of how it acquired its art — this is clear through Gallerani’s deep and nuanced knowledge of the objects’ history that she shared with us in person. If WCMA has this knowledge, why is it not permanently included in the exhibits? 

We believe that WCMA needs to label objects that were obtained through colonial processes as such and go beyond the insufficient domestic and international requirements to build more comprehensive and publicly available cultural restitution policies. 

WCMA and other museums are subject to two sets of rules when it comes to the labeling and return of cultural artifacts: the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which is federal law, and the 1970 United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)  Convention, an international agreement. NAGPRA mandates that institutions document their holdings that are either Native American human remains or objects of spiritual or cultural significance and notify the relevant tribal communities so they may begin the repatriation process. UNESCO applies similar principles of cultural restitution to the international stage, but its power is limited significantly because it only traces an object’s history back to 1970, an insufficient time frame considering the centuries-long history of colonial theft. Therefore, items are the rightful property of whatever entity held the item just before the 1970 cut-off. This means that the UNESCO law does not provide rightful ownership to the many communities who had their art stolen from them over 50 years ago.

Since many cultural artifacts were accumulated in Western museums in the 19th and early 20th centuries, these resolutions do not provide clear guidelines for how institutions should deal with stolen items like WCMA’s Neo-Assyrian reliefs. Additionally, these policies put a significant burden on Indigenous communities to spend money, time, and resources trying to stake a claim to their own art. WCMA’s staff work diligently to comply with these policies — a significant effort that deserves our acknowledgement and respect. However, federal and international mandates should be the floor, not the ceiling of the College’s cultural restitution efforts.

Our class, which has spent the past 12 weeks studying postcolonial reparative measures, including cultural restitution, believes that WCMA must take two steps to reckon with the museum’s and the College’s connections to colonialism. First, all items on display that were obtained by colonial conquest should be labeled as such — to encourage community reflection on how the College is entangled in colonial history, and to pay the utmost respect to the communities responsible for the art. Secondly, WCMA should have a publicly available statement of policy regarding cultural restitution. If someone seeks to make a claim for one of their objects outside of NAGPRA and UNESCO’s limited scope, what is the process? How should they instigate the claim? How are the decisions made at the College? Who is in charge of restitution efforts? We cannot leave the entire burden of restitution on Indigenous communities. WCMA must consider this topic and publish a statement those communities can work off of. 

However, the burden does not just fall on WCMA. When visiting the museum, Williams students must look at the art in front of them critically. We must challenge ourselves to see art in its evolving historical context – only in this way can we begin to grapple with the painful reality that colonial violence is the reason why this incredible art lives in our institution. 

If the College considers itself to be a leader in the world of art history, it must also be a leader on cultural restitution policy — otherwise it is simply hoarding art for the use of its small, elite community. The next steps are clear: Label art obtained through colonial processes as such, and create a public statement of policy on cultural restitution claims that go beyond WCMA’s legal obligations. 

Kitt Urdang ’23.5 is a history major from Stamford, Conn. Lily Napach ’25 is a political science and mathematics major from New City, N.Y. Susanna Niu ’24 is a history and comparative literature major from Honolulu, Hawaii. Urdang is an editor-at-large for the Record’s editorial board.