Western museums should repatriate cultural artefacts

INTRODUCTION

In January 2023 it was revealed that the British Museum has been in talks with Greek officials about returning some of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece on loan in a ‘cultural exchange’ for other ancient artefacts. Legal ownership of the marbles would, however, remain with the British Museum [Ref: Daily Mail]. 

The news reopened debate about what should happen to the Marbles and other artefacts removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century. Former cabinet minister Lord David Frost wrote in response: ‘My view is that it is time for a grand gesture. Only the government can make it. It is to offer to return the marbles as a one-off gift from this country to Greece, as part of a new wider Anglo-Greek partnership.’ [Ref: Telegraph]

But William Atkinson, the assistant editor of Conservative Home, argued that the loan offer by the British Museum’s chair, George Osborne, ‘should horrify not only his fellow Tories, but anyone with even a passing interest in history. It would be an act of vandalism, based on spurious historical and legal arguments, that would fatally undermine a world-leading museum.’ [Ref: CapX] He cites historian David Abulafia’s argument that the British Museum is ‘one of a select number of what might be called Great Universal Museums’, ‘embrac[ing] the history of all the world’s civilisations’ [Ref: The Telegraph]. Abulafia argues that this allows visitors to experience the Marbles not just in the context of Greek history but informed by, and in the presence of, all the world’s civilisations.

The Parthenon Marbles are just one example of an ongoing debate about artefacts in Western museums. Should they remain where they are, or is it right to return them to their countries of origin?

For example, in November 2018, a report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, caused a stir when it concluded that French museums should return to Africa thousands of artefacts taken during colonialism [Ref: Museums Association]. The report’s authors were frank: continuing to hold such treasures amounts to depriving African people of the ‘spiritual nourishment that is the foundation of their humanity’ where ‘Africans find themselves struggling to recover the thread of an interrupted memory’. Macron endorsed the report and agreed to immediately return 26 artworks to the Kingdom of Benin [Ref: Reuters].

Earlier in 2018, Monika Grutters, Germany’s then minister for culture, published guidelines for dealing with colonial-era artefacts that urged museums to restitute artefacts [Ref: ArtNet]. Indeed, the restitution of Jewish works stolen by the Nazis in many ways set the tone for the debate as a whole [Ref: Washington Post]. Nonetheless, the return of colonial-era artefacts is in many ways more wide-ranging than the question of restitution to Nazi victims.

Although the Parthenon Marbles remain a cause célèbre in the controversy about repatriation of artefacts, there are many other contested objects [Ref: Telegraph].  The governor of Easter Island has appealed to the British Museum to return a statue, arguing the museum ‘has our soul’ [Ref: CNN]. Egypt’s chief archaeologist Zahi Hawass has demanded the return of the Nefertiti bust from the Neues Museum in Berlin, and secured the return of fresco fragments from the Louvre [Ref: Scotsman]. Several years ago, the Scottish National Party argued that the entire set of the Lewis Chessmen [Ref: BBC News] belongs in Scotland and should be returned from the British Museum [Ref: Scotsman].

The importance of preserving the world’s cultural artefacts remains a sensitive issue following the destruction of the ancient Assyrian archaeological site of Nimrud [Ref: Guardian] and then of Palmyra in Syria [Ref: Guardian] by Islamic State (ISIS). Syrian archaeologists are now attempting to restore the ruins at Palmyra [Ref: Telegraph], now reclaimed from ISIS militants by Syrian and Russian forces, and the Syrian government is seeking to reclaim and display antiquities stolen and sold on the black market by ISIS [Ref: Reuters]. 
 
Such events, some argued at the time, should serve as a ‘wake-up call’ to Western museums to be protective of their collections and unapologetic in disputes over contested remains because ’important antiquities should be treated as the common property of mankind’ [Ref: New York Times]. This is a sentiment which runs counter to that expressed in the Macron-backed report, which claims cultural artefacts properly belong to specific cultural groups. Others argue that cultural artefacts are more likely to ‘encounter theft, neglect, or destruction’ if repatriated to less-secure countries of origin ‘where there’s greater likelihood that they’ll be lost forever’ [Ref: History Reclaimed].

So, do cultural artefacts belong in their country of origin, to be viewed and appreciated in the context in which they were made? How does this change if the country in question cannot guarantee their security or preservation? Or are contested artefacts such as the Parthenon Marbles part of a larger tapestry of world culture, which Western museums should keep, and preserve for us all? 

DEBATE IN CONTEXT

This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What is the role of museums? 
Many of the world’s most famous museums were founded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, collecting objects that would offer a comprehensive knowledge of the world. In our post-colonial era, it has been argued that their role is no longer clear and straightforward. Museums find themselves in the middle of a debate about what should take priority. Some advocate for museums on the principles of universal understanding and academic research, where objects are curated together to find ‘common ground’, ‘build bridges and help us … learn from the past’ by providing ‘an insight into the history of humankind’ [Ref: MuseumNext]; others ask whether, in contemporary society, it is proper to remove a work from its original cultural setting, losing its context?’ [Ref: Forbes]. The British Museum and others argue that they exist to promote universal understanding of our shared human history, and that this requires maintaining the integrity of their existing collections [Ref: Guardian]. These encyclopaedic museums, it is argued, transcend national and cultural boundaries and that ‘culture, while it can have deeply rooted, special meanings to specific people, doesn’t belong to anyone in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t stand still.’ [Ref: New York Times] But critics of this outlook challenge the idea that such collections need to be housed in Western museums, because ‘world-class museums are not confined by some act of God to Northern Europe or North America’ [Ref: Guardian].

What are the arguments for the repatriation of cultural artefacts? 
Advocates argue that repatriation of artefacts has ‘become a cornerstone of diplomatic relations between nations … symbolis[ing] a commitment to rectifying historical wrongs’ and ‘a profound healing process’ [Ref: Artlyst]. Ghanaian writer Kwame Opoku argues: ‘Those Western museums and governments that are busy proclaiming their wishes to celebrate with Nigeria and other African states … independence could follow their words with concrete actions by sending some African artefacts back to their countries of origin’ [Ref: Modern Ghana]. Similarly, even some museums believe that successful acts of repatriation can symbolise our common humanity, building relationships with indigenous communities, and righting historical wrongs [Ref: Australian Government].

Writer Helena Smith suggests that disputed artefacts are best understood and appreciated in the context of their place of origin, stating: ‘Every country has the right after all, to the heritage that is an inherent part of its cultural identity’ [Ref: Guardian]. She concludes, in relation to the Parthenon Marbles: ‘Ownership of objects is no longer important, and the Greeks are willing to put that issue aside…what is far more important is context, appreciating artworks in their places of birth’ [Ref: Guardian].

Another aspect to the discussion is that many of the artefacts in question, such as the Benin Bronzes [Ref: Wikipedia], have complex and morally ambiguous histories. Indeed, as author Tiffany Jenkins points out: ‘The objects campaigners want to be returned, to apologise for colonisation… were crafted on the back of the slave trade. Following the logic of righting historical wrongs, aren’t these artworks tainted by that immoral practice?’ [Ref: Guardian]

In contrast, supporters of repatriation contend that by holding on to these ‘spoils of war’ Western museums continue to benefit from, and therefore validate, their colonial legacy, with the Elgin Marbles in particular representing ‘a sad reminder of cultural imperialism’ [Ref: Forbes]. ‘In the end’, as one commentator opines, ‘the defence for hanging onto contested cultural goods boils down to the deeply offensive notion that Britain looks after the Parthenon Marbles, or Benin Heads and plaques better than Greece or Nigeria ever could’ [Ref: Guardian]. More recently, reports of structural issues in the galleries housing the Marbles [Ref: The Telegraph] and the revelation, in August 2023, that over 2,000 items had been stolen from the British Museum’s collection by one of its own employees, have led the Greek culture minister to argue that the Parthenon Marbles would be safer in Greece than they are in the British Museum [Ref: Art News].

On what grounds is the retention of collections defended? 
Historian and curator James Cuno outlines the case against repatriation by arguing that culture is universal, and by mounting a robust defence of Western museum collections. He observes: ‘By presenting the artefacts of one time and culture next to those of other times and cultures, encyclopaedic museums encourage curiosity about the world and its many people’ [Ref: Foreign Affairs]. Art critic Jonathan Jones concurs, noting that placing artefacts in a new context gives them an added significance ‘as part of humanity’s heritage’ [Ref: Guardian] to be enjoyed by everyone. Mark Hudson argues: ‘In our post-modern, post-nationalist world, it’s all about interaction and hybridisation, about celebrating the diverse cultural components that make up each of us…it means that the Parthenon Marbles are as much British as they are Greek.’ [Ref: Telegraph]

For some, arguments for repatriation are directly opposed to a universal understanding of culture – and expose the trend for the explicit politicisation of culture and art, which leads to ‘divisive identity politics’, where it is assumed that ‘certain people have a special relationship to particular objects, owing to their ethnic identity’ [Ref: Scotsman]. Tristram Hunt, director of London’s V&A, calls instead for more museums and universal collections ‘across Africa, India and the global south… [in order] to detach the universal, encyclopaedic museum from its colonial preconditions and reimagine it as a new medium for multicultural understanding.’ [Ref: The Guardian]

Unfortunately, as one commentator laments: ‘Globalisation, it turns out has only intensified, not diminished cultural differences among nations’, as shown by governments now seeking to ‘exploit culture’ for their own political purposes [Ref: New York Times]. ‘The idea that certain objects belong to certain ethnic groups is destructive’, argues Tiffany Jenkins, ‘and obscures the universal nature of mankind, the fact that we can abstract ourselves from our particular circumstances and appreciate the creation of all human civilisations.’ [Ref: Scotsman]

There are also practical problems involved in repatriation – for example, modern Greece is very different from the nation which existed in the nineteenth century, let alone Ancient Greece: so who would we rightfully return artefacts to? American critic Michael Kimmelman asks, ‘why should any objects necessarily reside in the modern nation-state controlling the plot of land where, at one time, perhaps thousands of years earlier, they came from?’ [Ref: New York Times]

Who owns culture? 
Contemporary demands for restitution, some argue, are driven by contemporary political grievances. They claim that giving in to an understandable desire to right the wrongs of the past via the repatriation of objects will distract from, and do little to challenge, the problems historically wronged groups face today [Ref: New York Times]. Arguably, the very meaning and purpose of museums is at stake in this debate, with some arguing that ‘perhaps it is time for museums to start speaking up for civilisation’ [Ref: Guardian], and asking whether humanity’s cultural heritage belongs to just some of us, or all of us, and how we might best protect, share and understand it [Ref: Telegraph].

How should we view cultural artefacts, and how do we decide who owns or displays them? Are they best seen as universal objects housed in predominantly Western museums which embody “openness, tolerance, and inquiry about the world, along with the recognition that culture exists independent of nationalism” [Ref: Foreign Affairs]? Or should these contested artefacts be returned to their points of origin, allowing the works to be housed and perhaps better understood in their original context, because ultimately, “museums need to face up to a reality. Cultural imperialism is dead. They cannot any longer coldly keep hold of artistic treasures that were acquired in dubious circumstances a long time ago” [Ref: Guardian]?

ESSENTIAL READING

It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Sky News Debate: British Museum
Sky
News 26 June 2021

Send them back
Intelligence Squared The Economist 11 June 2012

FOR

Britain should give the Elgin Marbles to Greece
David Frost Telegraph 5 January 2023

Give the Easter Islanders their statue back – it doesn’t belong in the British Museum
Simon Jenkins The Guardian 24 November 2018

Returning looted artefacts will finally restore heritage to the brilliant cultures that made them
Mark Horton The Conversation 23 November 2018

The art world shame: why Britain should give its colonial booty back
Jonathan Jones Guardian 4 November 2014

AGAINST

Why western museums should keep their treasures
Tiffany Jenkins Guardian 25 November 2018

Returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece would be an act of historic vandalism
William Atkinson CapX 6 January 2023

The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artefacts
James Cuno Foreign Affairs December 2014

The Elgin Marbles – Why their home is here
Mark Hudson Telegraph 13 February 2014

LISTEN

The last colonial museum
Behind the Scenes at the Museum Podcast June 7 2019

IN DEPTH

Why Are Ethiopia’s Sacred Treasures Still in London?
Daniel Trilling The Atlantic 9 July 2019

How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles
Juan Pablo Sanchez National Geographic 30 April 2018

Art stolen by the Nazis is still missing. Here’s how we can recover it.
Stuart E. Eizenstat Washington Post 2 January 2018

Who draws the borders of culture?
James Kimmelman New York Times 5 May 2010

BACKGROUNDERS

Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Elgin Marbles could soon be returned to Greece under ‘long-term loan’ deal negotiated by British Museum chairman George Osborne
David Averre Daily Mail 4 January 2023

British Museum to return Benin bronzes to Nigeria
Kieron Monks CNN 14 December 2018

Art repatriation: Colonial ghosts haunt German and other European museums
Various The Local DE 22 November 2018

‘You have our soul’: Easter Island pleads with British for statue’s return
Oscar Holland CNN 22 November 2018

Palmyra priest statue among haul of recovered Syrian relics
Kinda Makieh Reuters 4 October 2018

Syrian archaeologists begin restoring Palmyra artefacts destroyed by Isil
Josie Ensor Telegraph 9 July 2018

Cultural appropriation: compliment or theft?
Battle of Ideas Academy of Ideas 15 April 2018

The sad story behind Egypt’s ugly Nefertiti Statue
Gogo Lidz Newsweek 8 July 2015

We must save Palmyra or the maniacs will raze civilisation
Boris Johnson Telegraph 17 May 2015

Parthenon Marbles: Greece’s claim is nationalism rhetoric and deserves to fail
Jonathan Jones Guardian 14 May 2015

Preservation or plunder? The battle over the British Museum’s Indigenous Australian show
Paul Daley Guardian 9 April 2015

Neil MacGregor saved the British Museum. It’s time to reinvent it again
Jonathan Jones Guardian 8 April 2015

Artefacts as instruments of nationalism
James Cuno New York Times 21 January 2015

The British Museum is right to keep its marbles
David Aaronovitch The Times 8 December 2014

We ask the experts: why do we put things into museums?
University of Cambridge 26 November 2013

Ill-gotten gains: how many museums have stolen objects in their collections?
Carl Franzen The Verge 13 May 2013

Send them back
intelligence Squared The Economist 11 June 2012

IN THE NEWS

Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Greece Offers to Loan the British Museum ‘Important Antiquities’ in Exchange for the Parthenon Marbles
Adam Schrader Artnet 2 January 2024

Parthenon marbles should return to Athens, says Lord Frost
Lanre Bakare Guardian 14 December 2023

Germany Officially Repatriates 22 Looted Artefacts To Nigeria
Voice of Nigeria
20 December 2022

Cambridge University agrees to hand colonial-era African artefacts back to Uganda so the items can ‘live again’
Miriam Kuepper Daily Mail 12 December 2022

France returns 26 artworks to Benin as report urges restitution
Aaron Ross Reuters 23 October 2018

Greece launches fresh bid to reclaim Elgin marbles from Britain
James Tapsfield Daily Mail 22 August 2018

German museum returns stolen artifacts to Native American tribe
Danielle Haynes UPI 11 June 2018

ISIS Releases Photos of Temple Destruction in Palmyra
Algemeiner 25 August 2015

As ISIS smashes history, curators battle to save threatened antiquities
CBC News 14 April 2015

Court sits at British Museum for first time as judge studies looted Libyan sculpture
Telegraph 30 March 2015

Ankara Demands Artifacts from Berlin
Various Spiegel 14 March 2014