Why Artifacts in Museums Should Be Repatriated

  • Editorials
  • Social Justice
Nidhi Ponkshe

Hello, dear readers! 

This article is an opinion piece written on the argument supporting the repatriation of culturally and historically significant artifacts. There will be another article on the opposing argument soon, but for now, we invite you to consider, do you agree or disagree with this perspective?

 

 

       Artifacts hold symbolic historical and cultural roots in their creations and must be repatriated in order to honour those roots and the people who have evolved from them. Repatriation is the act of returning someone or something to its country of origin, allegiance, or citizenship. It is about making right with the wrongs of the past, and showing respect to those who have been negatively impacted. Colonized communities have gone through great lengths in forming large collections of artifacts, whilst progressing with scientific discovery in western knowledge. Yet, the first parties from which these artifacts are taken give little to no input in the action of harboring and displacing the objects. 

 

       Many officials argue that there is no need nor necessity for artifacts to be returned to their countries of origin, mainly due to the lack of documented provenance and proper maintenance. For example, in May of 2013, the Archeological Institute of America estimated that nearly 85-90% of the artifacts in museums did not have documented provenance. This finding created a cloud of fear among most museums on the sudden rise in artifact ownership, and whether or not to accept countries’ legitimate claims over the objects. It is also the case that museums of colonialist powers, in comparison to developing nations, have extensive resources to better preserve historically and culturally significant objects. If the return of these artifacts cannot guarantee their proper safety and preservation, many museum curators argue that they should not be returned. There is also the bigger concern of private companies and museums that would lose financial opportunities from the loss of artifacts. Bigger names such as the British Museum, for example, made an estimate of about 4.3 million pounds just in 2019/2020, from their vast collections of artifacts during the colonial period. Hence, the majority of reasons for withholding the repatriation of artifacts do not fall under the category of disrespect or ignorance, but rather the risk of wrongful possessions, inefficient maintenance, and economic loss. 

 

       While such concerns are valid, however, it is the independent nations’ right to have control over their own artifacts and how they take care of them. It is a portion of those countries’ heritage and culture which are being stolen, and regardless of whether they can preserve it on their own, it is morally unjust to steal or harbor such artifacts. If preservation remains a concern, more financial support can be given to help such countries build or acquire more resources for their museums. According to a 2018 report by the French government, 90% of Africa's cultural heritage is located in the major museum collections of the West. Unproven ownerships and claims are of course a different situation to consider, but for those nations which have fought for those objects (which are for some, pillars of their culture) to be returned, it should be. Since colonialism was considered the norm between the 15th to 20th centuries, colonialist powers cannot be punished for past crimes or violations as it is no longer relative to the world now as it was back then. However, this does not mean that those powers should unfairly and unlawfully reap the financial and social benefits resulting from the artifacts. The majority of the harboring nations have wrongfully been benefitting from the culture of other nations. It is not their place to be doing so, and if a victim nation demands for the repatriation of their artifacts, there are no grounds upon which the solicitors should have a right to refuse.

 

       There has already been some progress, such as with the collection of the bronze statues from Benin at Paris’ Quai Branly museum, which were returned to Nigeria in early November of last year, after they were looted from Abomey Palace by French forces in 1892. Another example is the 4,250-year-old gold ewer from Turkey that was on a long-term loan by a private collector at Victoria and Albert Museum. This object was returned to Ankara after numerous researchers’ discovery of its illegal looting and smuggling out of the state. However, there are still cases of museums refusing to return artifacts, such as with the British Museum refusing to allow the two halves of the Elgin Marbles to be placed alongside one another in the new Acropolis Museum in Greece, the rightful home of both works. 

 

     Artifacts harbored by museums should be repatriated as a means for restorative justice. While they may simply be sources of education or entertainment to some, to many others, they are of historical, cultural, and personal significance. It is ultimately the latter’s responsibility to decide how to preserve these objects and whether they would like their artifacts to be repatriated.

 

Citations (MLA):

  1. Do, Mai. “Why Artifacts Belong in Museums.” Freely Magazine, 3 Apr. 2019. www.freelymagazine.com/2019/04/03/why-artifacts-belong-in-museums/

  2. Franzen, Carl. “Ill-Gotten Gains: How Many Museums Have Stolen Objects in Their Collections?” The Verge, The Verge, 13 May 2013. www.theverge.com/2013/5/13/4326306/museum-artifacts-looted-repatriation.

  3. Little, Becky. “Will the British Museum Ever Return These Stolen Artifacts?” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 21 Dec. 2018. www.history.com/news/british-museum-stolen-artifacts-nigeria

  4. Porterfield, Carlie. “Europe's Museums, Collectors Are Returning Artifacts to Countries of Origin amid Fresh Scrutiny.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 27 Oct. 2021. www.forbes.com/sites/carlieporterfield/2021/10/27/europes-museums-collectors-are-returning-artifacts-to-countries-of-origin-amid-fresh-scrutiny/?sh=115c18a2675b

  5. “Repatriation Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/repatriation

  6. “Why Is Repatriation Important?” Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, NZ, 7 July 2021. www.tepapa.govt.nz/learn/for-museums-and-galleries/how-guides/collection-management/collection-management-repatriatio-1

  • Repatriation
  • artifacts
  • harboring of artifacts
  • museums
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