Should Stolen Artifacts in Museums be Returned?

Many museums around the world contain works taken from other cultures. While some displays of foreign pieces are without controversy, most of them are a relic of the Western world’s colonial past and the oppression of those they colonized.  Most cases of this stem from European colonialism, especially the Third Wave of Imperialism from the mid nineteenth century to 1914. Hundreds of thousands of works stolen from other cultures are in European and American museums today, with the majority coming from former colonies in Africa and Asia. UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) estimates that “90% of African cultural heritage is located overseas”, with well over 100,000 pieces being in French museums alone.

The most famous examples of stolen artifacts are the Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles. Both are held at the British Museum in London. The Rosetta Stone is inscribed with a royal decree in Ancient Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian Hieroglyphs. The Stone became a key in understanding the Egyptian Hieroglyphic language. It was first unearthed in 1799 by a team of archaeologists and historians brought on Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt. Two years later, the French forces in Egypt were defeated at Alexandria by an Anglo-Ottoman force, and were forced to turn over the Rosetta Stone along with other artifacts collected on the trip, to the British. The Elgin Marbles, on the other hand, were simply taken from the Acropolis in Athens by British explorers under claimed permission from the Ottoman government of Greece, though no evidence of that has been found. Both currently reside in the British Museum in London as remnants of the former British Empire.

There are several points on both sides of the argument on whether these pieces should be repatriated. Those who believe that the works should be returned often cite that this is ‘morally correct’ and follows the moral laws of property; that if someone steals something, no matter how long ago it occurred, the stolen goods should be returned. In addition, many of these objects have a deep significance to the cultures where they are originally from, an example of which are the many statues stolen from temples in Southeast Asia. The retention of these artifacts also continues the ideologies of colonialism, whether it be racism, social darwinism, or other forms of oppressing those that Europeans conquered. In addition, attitudes towards colonialism have been shifting over the past fifty to seventy years, with it now being widely recognized as an awful force in world history.

However, many reasons also exist on the other side of the argument. The main one stems from “universal museums”, such as the Louvre in Paris or British Museum in London. These museums often have massive amounts of resources and the best curators and conservators to keep the pieces intact and maintain their original beauty. Most of these universal museums are in Western Europe, where conflict nowadays is rare, unlike in many of the countries where the pieces originate and if they were returned, there is a much greater threat of damage. Universal museums also allow for visitors to see artifacts from all over the world, which lets more people experience and be educated on different world cultures. Also, universal museums are cheaper to visit as it is far less expensive for one to visit Europe than Africa or Asia. In addition, many artifacts were somewhat legally taken, with leaders of colonized peoples often forced to or tricked into signing away their cultural heritage. Another argument for keeping the artifacts is that many of the ancient kingdoms from which these pieces were taken no longer exist, as well as the fact that their territories often spanned across several countries, making a return difficult and tension-raising.

So far, little progress has been made in returning artifacts to their home countries. Both sides of the argument have compelling points that have merit. While pressures are present from international organizations and the artifacts’ home countries, it is ultimately up to the museums on whether to return parts of their collections, a situation that is possible but very unlikely.

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