Should museums return artifacts taken from other countries?
- The Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece, keeps a space open in their display for England’s British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles, a frieze that adorned the fifth-century Parthenon temple, which Lord Elgin claimed to have legally acquired from Ottoman officials over 200 years ago.
- In 2007, the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples urged countries to restore indigenous peoples’ “...cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.”
- French President Emmanuel Macron pledged in 2017 to work toward returning African artifacts featured in French museums within five years.
- In December 2002, the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, which was signed by leading museum officials from North America and Europe, established that artifacts “...have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them...we should not lose sight of the fact that museums...provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source.”
Museums are beacons of education that require a collaboration of different cultures to educate in a justified manner. For those unaware, repatriation is 'the act or process of restoring or returning someone or something to the country of origin, allegiance, or citizenship.' In the context of museums, repatriation is one of the ways that these establishments can right the associated wrongs that colonialism brought to this form of education. Many museums around the world have taken the first step in doing this. The Canadian Museums Association and the Assembly of First Nations designed a document together to outline this idea in 1992.
Many acts of repatriation incorporate the intention of preserving items in the original communities' museums as a means for families to learn about their ancestors. This way, education is still at the forefront. One country following this model is Norway, which recently pledged to return thousands of artifacts taken from Easter Island by one of its explorers in the 1950s. The items from Oslo's Kon-Tiki Museum are being moved to a 'well-equipped' museum on Easter Island.
However, repatriation doesn't necessarily have to affect the education that museum-goers experience negatively. 3D-printing has come into the conversation as a means to bring important artifacts to the masses. Proponents of this approach say that once an item is reproduced, '...the knowledge the artifact represents is no longer locked up in a single museum and can potentially be accessed by many more people.' While it wouldn't be the original artifact, it's a small price to pay for countries to have what is rightfully theirs in the first place.
Few of us would argue against governments forcing people to give up items fleeced from oppressed people, but what about artifacts from history that might be 1000s of years old? Should museums be forced to repatriate items in their collections? They should not, and here are a couple of reasons why.
Items of interest, especially those of cultural and historical significance, travel with an official set of documents known as Provenance Papers. These papers are records of the history of an item that has changed hands over time, noting where it first came from and proving that an item was acquired legitimately. However, only since a 1970 UNESCO resolution mandate has it been required that museums properly obtain their acquisitions. 85% or more of the classical pieces in the world’s museums do not have proper provenance, according to the Archeology Institute of America. No papers, no proof of where something should be.
The main idea of repatriation is that with the oppressive history of imperialism and colonialism, items were fleeced from subjected peoples, taken as spoils of war and progress. Therefore, those items should be returned to the native peoples who created them. However, the answer is more complicated. If a Hittite frieze in a British museum was obtained during a colonial expedition in Palestine, should it stay in England because they sponsored the dig? Palestine doesn’t exist, so should it go to Israel or Lebanon instead? Or maybe Turkey should have it because that was the Hittite capital?
History is tangled in ways that make repatriation very difficult and not something that should be carelessly prescribed to every museum and artifact.