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Should Artefacts Looted During Colonial Regimes Be Returned?

Should Artefacts Looted During Colonial Regimes Be Returned?

In 2017, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, gave a speech at the Ouagadougou University in Burkina Faso, where he addressed the issue that a large part of African heritage has been stored in European museums for decades. Macron said that in the next five years, he wanted to create conditions that would allow the temporary or permanent restitution of African patrimony to their corresponding African nations. This intervention opened up an already existing dialogue on the repatriation of looted artefacts by Western countries in colonial times.

The UN  kickstarted this conversation in 2007 with an article published as part of its declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. The resolution urged states to restore the cultural, intellectual, and religious property that was taken from indigenous people in violation of their laws and traditions or without their free and informed consent. 

With a similar objective in mind, the Benin Dialogue Group was established the same year to bring together curators from European museums and political and cultural representatives in Nigeria. This multi-lateral collaborative working group aims to establish a museum in Benin City that will facilitate the return and safekeeping of the Benin bronzes that were looted during the 19th century.

In the next few years, other African nations followed this action. Egypt asked the Louvre Museum to return five fragments of a wall painting from the tomb of Tetaki. In 2012, Nigeria demanded the return of 32 artefacts acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Only a few months before Macron’s speech, the president of Benin officially requested the return of the artefacts that were looted during the French colonial rule of the region.

A mounting pressure was placed over European museums after Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy were asked by Macron to write a report on the restitution of African cultural heritage. The study was published in November 2018 and it recommended the repatriation of any objects that were taken by force or acquired through inequitable conditions during the French colonial period in Africa.

The report was published a month after the announcement that major European museums would loan looted items to the Royal Museum in Nigeria. The agreement was made between European museum officials and Nigeran representatives, and it marked a significant step in the repatriation of looted artefacts. However, Sarr and Savoy strongly criticised The British Museum for simply loaning the items and not addressing the issue correctly. They argued that a loan means that ownership was left unchanged, and therefore the museum maintained a transparent role in the dialogue but still imposed its own conditions.

University museums in the UK have the lead in the repatriation of stolen artefacts. In 2019, Edinburgh University returned tribal human remains to Sri Lanka, while Manchester University repatriated 43 objects to Australian Aboriginal groups. A year later, The University of Oxford announced that they would be restoring several artefacts stored in the Pitt Rivers Museum to the Maasai communities in Kenya and Tanzania.

Repatriation work has not only been carried out by cultural and educational institutions; Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. has been dedicated to restoring over 2,500 artefacts linked to the former antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor. In April, it was announced that the DA returned to Afghan officials more than 33 looted objects during a repatriation ceremony in New York. The antiquities are valued at around $1.8 million.

Three years after Macron’s speech, French MPs took a unanimous vote to return looted artefacts to Benin and Senegal. The issue with the Benin bronzes took a further step when Germany announced that they would begin the restitution of the Benin bronzes kept in German museums, starting in 2022.

The return of the Benin bronzes will occur in parallel to the opening of the Edo Museum of West African Art in Nigeria. 

Advisory committees have recommended European governments numerous times since Macron’s intervention that looted art should be returned to the former colonies. However, while in theory the principle is very positive and appropriate, there is a general worry about how the restitution of stolen artefacts can be executed. 

What are people so worried about?

Advocates for the retention of artefacts in Western museums argue that culture is universal and that museums provide a cosmopolitan overview of the world’s history. Historian and curator James Cuno published an article in 2014, where he presented a case against repatriation arguing that ‘encyclopaedic’ museums provide knowledge and encourage curiosity by presenting a cultural timeline that belongs to ‘the legacy of humankind and not to the modern nation-state, subject to the political agenda of its current ruling elite’.

A similar argument has been defended by art critic Jonathan Jones, who believes that in our post-modern reality we must celebrate hybridity and cultural diversity. The concept of a universal culture means that one ethnic group cannot claim ownership of a certain object – however, it would be interesting to see what the reaction would be if the Statue of Liberty was suddenly taken to Cairo’s Tahir Square.

Another major issue that pushes back the repatriation process is the possibility that antiquities are damaged in politically unstable countries when returned. Fear about the destruction of cultural heritage arose in the early 2000s, after the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the looting of the Iraq Museum

In March 2001, the Taliban demolished the 6th Century AD Bamiyan Buddhas, after declaring them idols. The destruction process lasted 25 days and holes were drilled in the statues to plant dynamite which was later blown. The UNESCO denounced this deliberate act of destruction as a weapon of violence motivated by extremist ideology and argued the need to safeguard cultural and natural heritage sites.

During the arrival of US troops in Iraq in 2003, the Iraq Museum in Baghdad was looted, with an estimate of 15,000 artefacts being stolen. Archaeologists warned of the museum’s vulnerability before the US occupation, but neither Iraqi nor US officials were prepared for such actions (even though the US State Department and the Pentagon claimed that damage to archaeological and cultural sites would be avoided). It has been 15 years since these events, and there are still 8,000 items that have not been returned

The negligence or responsibility was not pinpointed to any institution in particular, but the US Immigration and Customs offices did take the role of actively repatriating objects; around 1,200 artefacts between 2008 and 2015. They were also able to trace back items to American government employees, such as military members or contractors, who brought looted artefacts from the Iraq Museum back to the US.

The ‘War on Terror’ that took place in Iraq not only led to the looting of the museum, but also caused the damage of archaeological sites in the southern areas of the country. Statistics show that the looting of heritage sites rose from 13% (prior to the invasion) to 41% at the end of 2003. 

How should we address the future of previously looted artefacts?

The destruction of cultural sites and the looting of archaeological artefacts are appalling acts of vandalism, damaging unique historical resources and traces of past civilisations. These actions must not only be condemned but also dealt with. Western governments and museums cannot deem these acts as barbaric and solve them by storing the cultural items themselves. 

This cultural desecration occurs as a result of political and ideological conflicts, and if we are sufficiently globalised and united to share a world heritage, shouldn’t we be able to also aid each other in instances of violence?

Arguments have shown that the issues surrounding cultural artefacts run deeper than questions of historical value, preservation, or ownership. Coinciding with the Bamiyan Buddhas, anthropologist Paul Bernard argues that Western nations are prepared to protect the statues but remain unconcerned about the suffering of Afghan people. When put into perspective, it should be questioned how one can decide that cultural remains are more important than living people.

While this argument can be regarded as controversial, as measures such as the UN’s World Food Program have been placed by West to aid the Afghan population, it is also valid when backing up the idea that Western governments have neglected African and Middle Eastern countries.

Understanding this issue from simply one point of view can be problematic. The excuse is that these artefacts are world heritage and must be seen by everyone but can only be seen in one half of the world. It is a very cynical argument. By claiming that cultural heritage acquired during colonial regimes should be in Western countries to educate people on colonial and world history, it also means that they are denying other communities the opportunity to experience their cultural past.

Many museums in ‘non-West’ nations have been damaged due to conflict or do not have the facilities to hold collections securely. However, initiatives such as the construction of the Edo Museum of West African Art suggest that a change in the responsibility for cultural artefacts can occur. 

If Western museums argue that colonial artefacts are world heritage, then why not also help other nations to promote their heritage by aiding in the preservation of artefacts. Why hide economic profits behind moral protection?

Some attempts to restore African museums have been launched to share the responsibility of guarding and storing archaeological and historical artefacts. However, this task is too big to only be performed by a few. 

Colonial power dynamics should not be reinforced by controlling items that were previously stolen and taken away from cultures. And while some nations’ political instability can mean that cultural items are often in danger of being destroyed, we should aim to protect these, rather than take them away for the ‘sake of history’. 

Regardless, the West shouldn’t intervene only when it is beneficial for them and neglect the half of the world with whom they share that cultural heritage.


Written by Eugenia Pacheco Aisa.

Illustration by Gregory Segal.

Looking for more art content? Check out Mouthing Off’s Art Section.

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