VICTORIAN museums with substantial colonial collections usually have some serious superiority issues. One of the central issues with repatriation is discrepant ideas around the guardianship of objects. The Museum of Scotland is profiting from this – it’s the only exhibition of its kind in the UK – but there are some serious moral and practical questions that go beyond colonial bureaucratic legislation.

READ MORE: Scots museums told to acknowledge collections' colonial pasts

In this case, it’s not just that a Scottish museum has a piece of Egyptian heritage, but they are adamant about its origin and that they own it. Underlying this debate are a series of emotive questions about who has the right to interpret objects and “other” cultures. What does it mean for the museum to “own” a piece of the pyramid if it was taken during a period of looting and exploitation? Will the exhibition engage at all with the object’s origin and the museum as a colonial enterprise?

This case is reminiscent of the V&A’s choice to exhibition the “Maqdala collection” – treasure plundered from Ethiopia in the 19th century. The Ethiopian government has repeatedly asked for the collection to be returned, only to be told that there is a chance for a “long term loan” – pretty insulting, considering the objects were stolen and are also of religious significance.

Debates around the repatriation of treasured objects and loot should centre on what these objects symbolise today. We need to dislodge the notion we are arguing about the past; this is about power today.

There is an urgent need for historians and curators who understand the necessity to learn, to speak out and to educate about how the present is connected to the past. This is especially important when we think about histories that have been ignored. Scotland’s national identity is often conceived as a region colonised by England, and so we rarely hear about Scotland’s own history as coloniser.

From 2017-2018, I was part of a team of co-curators assembled to contend with Birmingham’s colonial history using Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s (BMAG) existing collections. The resultant exhibition was The Past is Now, an anti-capitalist and anti-colonial exhibition which attempted to bring our knowledge and experience to a building steeped in pale, male and stale interpretation.

Museums like the idea of change and honesty, but only when that is palatable, and only if the change can be controlled. The fact is most white people are brought up believing that not only is the UK an island but all its inhabitants are islands too – disconnected from history and, therefore, from refugees, migrants, the “developing world”, the conflicts and socio-political issues we see in former colonies. Museums still produce exhibitions that centre on providing an educational and entertaining experience for white people that will not disrupt their version of what a (white) nation is.

We are living in a time where museums can be critical sites of debate on what a nation is and what a nation can be. Museums have a choice: either stick to preserving objects, or be dynamic and engage the public in issues central to what made museums and what made Scotland – enslavement, the dehumanisation of Black bodies, and the theft and violence of Scotland’s colonial past. In a time of resurgent far-right nationalism, we need museums to recognise that decolonising can’t be just superficial.

Sumaya Kassim is an independent researcher and fellow at the Research Centre of Material Cultures (RCMC) in Leiden, the Netherlands