Museums return artifacts?

Is it time for cultural artifacts to be repatriated?

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Should museums repatriate artifacts?

By Joe Harker

Norway has agreed to return Easter Island artifacts that had previously been on display in Oslo's Kon-Tiki Museum.

Repatriation is the process of returning items to their country origin and there are many thousands more pieces in museums around the world that countries would like to have back.

Many items of cultural heritage made their way into private collections and then European museums during the colonial era where valuable relics and objects were acquired.

The Claim:

Writing for Prospect Magazine, Emma Lundin argues that there is no case to be made against more repatriation from museums.

She believes that in the digital age the loss museums would suffer from returning exhibits to their country of origin is minimal whereas the benefits to nations regaining their cultural heritage is significant. Virtual tours exist, so people can see the objects even if they have been returned to their country of origin.

The museums argue that keeping the artifacts allows millions to see and learn about them each year while also keeping them safe, though Lundin writes that the people for whom the objects are part of cultural history would benefit most if they were repatriated.

Besides, why do museums get to make the argument that sending the artifacts back home would risk damaging them? What are they basing their suggestion of potential damage on?

The Counter Claim:

Museums argue that they keep millions of artifacts safe and available for people to see and learn about. They also claim that mass repatriation would leave so many museums all but empty, as they don't only focus on artwork from their own country. For a museum's collection to be defined by nationality is not exactly the point of them.

James Cuno argues that the phrase "repatriation", also used to mean the return of prisoners of war, is incorrectly used to imply that the objects in museum exhibits have been stolen and are essentially imprisoned.

He believes the phrase is used to elicit an emotional response to pretend there is a connection between something potentially thousands of years old and people living today. What claim does a modern state have over the artifacts of millennia old civilizations that might just happen to have shared the same bit of the world?

Cuno argued that many pieces stashed in museums could never really "go home" because the place they came from no longer existed. He suggested Egyptian artifacts from the times of the Pharaohs did not belong to modern day Egypt as the two civilizations are so radically different, sharing little besides geography.

The Facts:

The Economist cites a study from a pair of French academics who studied the potential repatriation of artifacts stolen during Napoleon Bonaparte's wars. They report that around 95 per cent of items deemed to be African cultural heritage were now located outsite the continent, with most of the objects having been looted during wars centuries ago.

The overarching question behind repatriation is one of ownership of art and culture. If the art belongs to a nation or people that technically no longer exists then do their successors still have a claim on it?

Countries petition to have works of art and culture repatriated all the time. Since 1925 Greece has claimed the Elgin Marbles, looted by the British in the 19th century and now one of the key exhibits in the British Museum. During the Second World War the British planned to return the Elgin Marbles as part of a deal for Greece to join the Allies.

Turkey regularly requests the return of art from the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern half of the Roman Empire that was a predecessor to Greece and ended up being conquered by the Ottoman Empire, predecessors to Turkey. Does the many centuries old art from the empire they conquered belong to them, or is geography more important than which nation occupies the land?

Works of art from indigenous peoples who no longer necessarily have a nation to represent them are another matter. The museum exhibits are tangible parts of their history and culture. Surely their need is greater than the museums?

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Prospect Magazine

There is no longer any excuse for not repatriating museums' colonial art

Generations of museum visitors in Europe have been spoiled by direct access to foreign artefacts, but it is time to give them up.

When Senegal's president Macky Sall opened the Musée des Civilisations Noires (the Museum of Black Civilizations, "MCN") in Dakar in December, he brought a new weapon into the arsenal of activists fighting for the repatriation of treasured objects from foreign collections. The MCN has all the mod-cons and knowledge needed to protect and preserve ancient treasures-and that might prove to be its most radical feature.

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