Should Museums Return Stolen Artifacts to the Rightful Owners?
Mm. The smell of old dust and new chaos is mixing. We have visited this question again and again. It did not arise in 2022 and the British Museum is not the only museum to hold onto a sculpture that was not created in their country.
The first time I considered this challengingly moral subject was after reading Culture, Artifacts, and Independent Africa: The Cultural Politics of Museums and Heritage by Sarah Van Beurden. A big consumption of African history is far away from the Mother country itself. Every African has to pay to glimpse their own legacy.
A museum is as sacred as a church and as awe-worthy as a treasure underwater. Its value is immense. But, the power it holds per its country is much grander. Travelers from all over the world will visit each house of history to learn. The museums are held in high admiration. Admiration they reserve thanks to the artifacts. A country that has these museums is 10% richer because of sculptures that have nothing to do with its history. A country like that is held to higher standards globally, owning 20% more respect than the underdeveloped country that created the museum’s most prized diamonds. Ain’t that something. . .
But, the rightful owners always come back and knock on the door thrice.
A great example of this is Tipu’s Tiger. The sculpture was created in India but is displayed in London. The NYT had written a great article about it, targeting the label that was given by the Museum. The label for “Tipu’s Tiger” states:
“Tipu Sultan was killed when the East India Company stormed Seringapatam in 1799. As was usual, the royal treasury was then divided up between the army.” And yet the truth was that the British Company acquired the artifacts in the chaos of death, fight, and war. Specifically, corresponded quite insistently for them while the owner was being murdered. Brutal yet true.
Another more personal example is the Parthenon Marbles. They belong with the other pieces, in the Parthenon oíko in Athens. Currently, the British Museum is negotiating to give them back if Greece offers some artifacts in exchange. What do you think, muses?
Knock. Knock. Knock.
From a neutral point of view, I understand. Looking around the foundations of this world, I see the majority of people that visit famous museums happily. The sightseers are happy to maintain their memories in beautiful European metropolitan cities. The city is also happy to have built its value on the pylons of art. Tourism, attractions, class, money, and glory. The employees are happy. They have the artifacts in such good condition. Maybe even the origin country could not have reserved them this well. And perhaps they even protected history. It is true. It is easy to be able to see value gathered in one museum, not have to scatter around the world to see it additionally. For example, the Louvre is recognized highly. You will see a lot of beauty in France. The artifacts are housed in these countries for hundreds of years.
But, the Venus of Milos’ home is Greece, not France. Owning an artifact in your museum for a hundred years or even a thousand, and writing something different on the label, does not transfer the story. The hours a sculptor in 150 BCE put to create this thanks to his country’s influences, thanks to what he saw of his childhood home. It remains in the country’s past. History... can not be altered. No matter how many years an artifact remains at a host-museum, it is still in the wrong place.
The artifacts should return to their original and first home. To pay respect and value to the painter. To be perfectly moral and truly show respect to the creator, it should be sent back home. Because it is tragic to see countries that are not as developed, have pieces of their history scattered around the globe as if they are lego pieces. To them, more than anything, their history, their oppression, and everything they made out of it, is their foundation. You do not get to hold the legs of someone and leave them broken. It is immoral. I am surprised this question is revisited. It should already shock all museums enough to the bone to return the artifacts, the sculptures, and the vases home. Because the admiration they get does not truly belong to them.
Let this be a move forward. Museums changing their ways. All museums. It is not just one or two. It is a big conversation but I believe those who understand, will keep pushing. So many artists are not discovered yet. Funds are best used to search for long-lost treasures of individual countries. Give them attention and unbury them. History should be restored. This is a move that could teach people another wave of the appropriate use of culture. Rightful ownership and true respect of museums. I urge you to support this cause when you are asked about it. To honor art and honor creativity.
Thank you for reading.