Imagine in front of you is a necklace comprising four layers of pearls. Each layer is further studded with pendants and hanging pieces of rubies, emeralds, jade and dangling pearls. The pendants are in the shape of an open bloomed lotus and in its centre is a gemstone.
I stood in front of this necklace for quite a while, mostly because this piece of jewellery reminded me of my mother's wedding jewellery. My grandmother (dadi) passed on similar pieces of jewellery to all the wives of her sons with the hope that her grandchildren would one day inherit them and they would continue to be passed on for generations to come.
Unfortunately for me, my mother's necklace was stolen from her home when I was a little girl, so I would never go on to inherit it like my cousins.
Looking at this piece of jewellery, invoked in me a sense of a loss, which I had not quite realised before. I looked at the piece again, the glittering gemstones, its hand carved gold lotus.
This gorgeous piece of Asian jewellery was not hanging on the window of a jewellery store. It was on display in a museum in a rather posh part of London; it was brought here by a white man who had stolen it from our ancestors.
The museum in question is the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
A museum as posh as it is tone deaf, I thought.
As I stood in front of a display of different pieces of jewellery that had been looted from our subcontinent, I felt a sense of loss.
It was similar to a feeling of loss when I remember being deprived of my grandmother's jewellery – a family heirloom that she intended for me to possess. Just like with my own experience, some undeserving person felt the urge to take something that did not belong to him and rob someone of their heritage.
Of course, the story of the pieces in front of me was far worse than what I personally experienced. The person who looted pieces of our cultural heritage displayed in the museum, did not do so, in any shape or form, from a place of lack but did so from a place of privilege and entitlement.
And so, my feeling of loss translated itself into a feeling of anger at the systems of white supremacy that not only allowed the looting of such personal belongings, but also rage at a system that finds it acceptable to display these pieces with no disclaimer.
I spent the fall of 2021 in Britain, taking seven weeks to visit friends, eat food, take in the cultural activities that the country had to offer and more importantly having access to all of London's famous museums for free.
For those of you who do not know, all of the museums in London are actually free, requiring no tickets to enter. This means you will have access to various artefacts, monuments and incredible pieces of history from around the world at your fingertips to learn about, for free.
In some museums, such as the British Museum (ironically comprising mostly non-British things stolen from across the world), there is a strong disclaimer about Britain's colonial past and the role it played in accumulating the museum's collection.
However, this was not the case for the Victoria and Albert Museum.
I walked into the Victoria and Albert Museum with a Scottish friend of mine and the first section we visited happened to be titled South Asia. And the first piece I saw there was one of a sculpture titled "the crowned Buddha."
The Buddha can be traced back to northeast India or Bangladesh and it is from sometime between 1000-1100 AD. The piece was carved by what seemed like magical hands, the details of the gorgeous artwork spoke of craftsmanship that must have taken months to carve a piece that big and that intricate, and as I stood in front of it admiring its beauty and feeling somewhat grateful that I am able to witness it for free I turned to my friend and asked them "but is this museum really for free?"
The question hung in the air because we had not paid an entrance to enter this museum. It was clearly a rhetorical question.
To get to this free museum, a person from Bangladesh or India would have to apply for a British visa, which would require an immense amount of paperwork and prove that we have, what the white man deems to be sufficient proof, to allow us entry into their lands.
Most would not even move past that stage because the entire process is in English and that is not the most widely spoken language in most parts of our countries. Because while it is "sexy" when a French person only speaks in their mother tongue, it is not quite as alluring when we speak in our non imperialist languages.
If, however, we do manage to get the visa, we would have to pay for the expensive flight, find accommodation close enough to London (which in itself is rather expensive) and manage to get on public transport to come to this free museum – only then you will finally be able to see what should be your right to see for free in the first place.
And this is why I ask – "is it really free?"
Of the many ways in which the coloniser had oppressed us, stolen from us and looted us – one of the most silent ways that they maintain the status quo is perhaps by displaying our heritage in forums that uphold white supremacist agendas for us and for the whole world to see.
Watching those glimmering pieces of jewellery, the many beautifully woven pieces of fabric hanging in those museums reminded me of animals caged in zoos. These pieces were held captive from around the world in an abnormal habitat – not only South Asia but of the other colonial exploits of Britain and Europe alike.
The many pieces that hang across the world in museums that were stolen from people, signs of their art-culture heritage and the most personal things such as pieces of jewellery that were meant to be passed on from one generation to the next were simply taken from them.
In the V&A museum, there are excerpts that boast that they house one of the largest and most important displays of South Asian heritage and it broke my heart to see that.
These were rooms filled with stolen artefacts, literature and art centres of South Asian civilizations. Part and parcel of our history taken from us and then packaged and paraded back to us for "free" in museums that on average would cost us minimum $1,000 to see including visas, accommodation, flights and such.
I walked through the South Asian section with my Scottish friend and explained to them how our history is mistold by the very people who oppressed and colonised us for hundreds of years on the basis that, in their white gaze, we were less than them, and, as were our heritage.
Those very same countries now appropriate our cultures, wear our heritage as costumes and boast the largest collections of intimate objects stolen from these lands.
In the end, are these museums really free, when they are built on ethnic cleansing, colonisation, white supremacy and imperialism? When in the end, who else but brown and black people, pay the cost of white supremacy in every way possible.
Maliha Fairooz is a 31 year-old Bangladeshi travel writer, based in Berlin, Germany. She has travelled to 94 countries on a Bangladeshi passport. Through her blog www.maliharoundtheworld.com, Maliha shares her experience of travelling as a brown, Muslim, Bangladeshi woman while simultaneously encouraging a culture of travel amongst Bangladeshi youth. You can follow Maliha's current adventures on her instagram page: @maliharoundtheworld.