Western museums are compounding the wrongs of the past by clinging to looted artifacts

The debate over repatriation of ancient artifacts scattered across museums and private collections across the United Kingdom and other Western countries has intensified in recent months, as many countries have renewed their calls for the return of pieces to where they belong.

In August, Horniman Museum and Gardens in London announced it will return to Nigeria dozens of artifacts looted by British forces from Benin City in 1897, a move experts say shows that former colonizing countries are finding it untenable to hold on to stolen artifacts.

This follows reports in the same month that Cambridge University and the University of Oxford had agreed to return hundreds of Benin Bronzes following a request from Nigerian officials.

The request to return the artifacts was made earlier this year to Oxford’s Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean museums and Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Many museums in countries with a colonial history, such as the UK, France and the Netherlands, are examining the cultural significance of their artifacts and possible restitution.

In 2018, economist Felwine Sarr and art historian Benedicte Savoy published a 252-page report commissioned by France’s President Emmanuel Macron, which recommended the restitution of African artifacts in French museums.

The report, “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, toward a New Relational Ethics”, estimated that some 90 to 95 percent of African heritage can be found outside the continent in major world museums.

Sarr and Savoy’s report suggested that the”best approach and method for the restitution of African cultural objects is to establish another relational ethics”.

A looted Benin Bronze known as the Okukur is returned to Nigeria during a ceremony at Jesus College in Cambridge, the United Kingdom, on Oct 27, 2021. 

“The restitution of African cultural items will therefore initiate a new economy of relations whose effects will not be limited to cultural spaces or those of museographical exchange,” the report said.

After publication of the report, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to “do everything possible” to return some of Africa’s looted cultural heritage.

In 2021, France returned 26 artifacts to Benin that had been stolen by the French army in the 19th century and housed in Musee du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, a large ethnographic museum in Paris.

“The last few years have certainly seen an increased interest from museums to address the problematic narratives attached to the cultural objects in their collections. This has included revising object descriptions and information labels, releasing ethical statements, but also repatriating objects that are found to be looted or stolen,” said Emiline Smith, lecturer in art crime and criminology at the University of Glasgow.

The report divided opinion, but in the aftermath the Netherlands released a report saying the country must be “willing to return unconditionally any cultural objects looted in former Dutch colonies if the source country so requests”.

Germany also released a framework principle for dealing with collections from colonial contexts in a “responsible manner in close coordination with the respective countries and societies of origin”.

A man photographs the ceremonial throne of King Ghezo, one of the artifacts looted by French colonial soldiers returned and displayed for public viewing, during an exhibition in Benin’s capital Cotonou, on Feb 20.

“A pressing issue”

Catalina Tejero, vice dean of IE University Arts & Humanities Division, said the debate over restitution and repatriation must be discussed no matter how complex.

“This has become a pressing issue for any cultural institution that possesses objects whose provenance may be in question. Many institutions are now making an effort at transparency by reviewing the origin and conditions of acquisition of their pieces,” she said.

Tejero added:”It is important that museums are able to explain how and why things are there or maybe even why they are not there. This stands as a unique opportunity to build bridges between countries and cultures and open dialogues. Museums are places that naturally trigger our critical thinking from all angles, not just aesthetically. This is why they are particularly sensitive to this subject matter.”

The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum are other high-profile artifacts caught up in a long-running dispute.

The sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, were taken by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who oversaw their excavation from the ancient Acropolis in the early 1800s. He sold them to the British government and the collection has been in the British Museum since 1816.

Greece is demanding the sculptures be returned and claimed it has already set up a space for their display at the Acropolis Museum, should they ever go back.

Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis even offered to loan his country’s other treasures to the British Museum in exchange.

The British Museum said the first formal request for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures was made in 1983, and there have been various meetings and discussions since then.

“Media coverage has referred to Greek government requests to borrow the sculptures, but a loan request has never been received,” the museum says on its website.

Earlier this year, the British Museum’s deputy director, Jonathan Williams, told the Sunday Times Culture magazine of a “Parthenon partnership” with Greece, which could see the Marbles return to Athens after more than 200 years.

In the interview, Williams said the British Museum wanted to “change the temperature of the debate” around the Marbles.

He added that all sides need to “find a way forward around cultural exchange of a level, intensity and dynamism which has not been conceived hitherto”.

According to a survey by YouGov, a research and data analytics company in the UK, public opinion in Britain is increasing in favor of returning the Marbles with 59 percent of respondents saying that the Marbles belong to Greece in a recent poll, compared to 37 percent in 2014.

Charlotte Woodhead, an assistant professor at Warwick University’s School of Law, previously told the media that some national museums in Britain are prevented from returning objects due to specific statutory governance, “even where they consider themselves under a moral obligation to do so”.

“This was tested in a legal case in 2002, and while this prohibition on transfer has been lifted in the case of certain human remains and Nazilooted cultural objects, it remains for many other objects in national museums,” Woodhead explained.

The fate of many objects is also subject to existing conventions.

“Where an object has been wrongfully taken and has been in England or Wales since before the 1980s, a legal claim in court is unlikely to succeed because, usually, the effect of the statute of limitation would be to extinguish the original owner’s legal title to the object after six years,” Woodhead said.

She said items that arrived in England or Wales after 1981 also would not likely be the subject of a successful claim from the original owner if they were bought in good faith.

But she added that museums are obliged under the UK Museums Association Code of Ethics of 2015 not to acquire items that were “wrongfully taken during a time of conflict” and also to deal “sensitively and promptly with requests for repatriation”.

A museum conservator holds a ceremonial sword during a transfer of ownership ceremony at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow on Aug 19, as Scotland prepares to repatriate Indian artifacts.

Safekeeping or theft?

There are some who argue that such artifacts should stay in Western museums as it is best way of conserving the historical artifacts and educating the public.

Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, United States, told The New York Times that the cultural atrocities committed by the Islamic State, which destroyed ancient relics and sites in Syria, Iraq and Libya, “will put an end to the excess piety in favor of the repatriation model” and argued that institutions in the West help preserve the world’s cultural heritage.

In an article in The Guardian newspaper, Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, or V&A, in London, said the restitution of objects will take away the educational value and history for visitors.

“For a museum like the V&A, to decolonize is to decontextualize: the history of empire is embedded in its meaning and collections, and the question is how that is interpreted,” he wrote. “Perhaps the real challenge is how we create more, rather than fewer, universal museums -not in Europe and the West, but across Africa, India and the Global South. Our aim should be to detach the universal, encyclopedic museum from its colonial preconditions and reimagine it as a new medium for multicultural understanding.”

But others say such arguments are flawed and by holding on to the artifacts Western museums dispossess people of their culture.

Mark Horton, professor in archaeology at the University of Bristol, said in an article published by the World Economic Forum: “The argument is often advanced that by coming to the West, these objects were preserved for posterity – if they were left in Africa they simply would have rotted away. This is a specious argument, rooted in racist attitudes that somehow indigenous people can’t be trusted to curate their own cultural heritage. It is also a product of the corrosive impact of colonialism.”

Smith of Glasgow University said: “There are no justifications to keep a looted cultural object outside of its community of origin when this object is claimed by said community. There are no justifications for the looting and exploitation of one culture for the’education’ of another.”

Meanwhile, IE University’s Tejero said: “Museums have several missions, and many have done an extraordinary task regarding the conservation of these pieces and have fostered research around them. These artifacts may stand as a very powerful pedagogical tool to open questions and advance society as a whole.”

She added:”It is crucial to have a developed understanding on the details of each artifact: How did it arrive? Where is it at present? How is the piece presented and explained? What does it mean to the community of origin? … These questions need to open conversations that lead to a consensus where the different stakeholders are reasonably comfortable.”