Who Owns History? Why Western Museums Can’t Ethically Keep Looted Artifacts

The head of a partial Egyptian statue sits on display inside the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.
Image Source: Arralyn/ Pexels

It’s tempting to take museums at face value as virtuously preserving human history. However, if you trace the origins of the collections in the world’s most prestigious museums, we find a clear picture of subjugation and colonial cultural alienation. As Western governments reckon with their imperial history, calls for the repatriation of stolen artifacts to their place of origin grow. 

“Universal” museums like the Metropolitan in New York, the Louvre, and the British Museum own looted cultural and historical artifacts from different regions. At least 90% of Sub-Saharan African cultural property is now held in non-African institutions (NPR). Art and artifacts were obtained at the expense of their original owners, who were often subjugated or murdered during military expeditions. Conversations surrounding repatriation, the return of cultural objects or human remains to their homeland, regained traction in response to the racial and civil protests of 2020. Museums that were once lauded for their expansive collections were being put to task for showcasing stolen colonial artifacts (TIME). 

TAKE ACTION

Support the repatriation of stolen artifacts by patronizing smaller, local museums rather than well-known encyclopedic museums.

Consider how museums like the MET, the Louvre, and the British Museum continue to profit off the legacy of colonialism.

Understand that cultural objects and artifacts aren’t more valuable because they are in Western museums and that non-white institutions can preserve their cultural heritage.

From Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes to Easter Island’s Hoa Hakananai’a, requests for returning these looted objects, some of which are the only links to lost communities, have fallen on deaf ears (Vox). In particular, the British Museum has stood firm in its decision to refuse the repatriation of stolen artifacts. It instead offers to lend them out to their nations of origin. 

“We don’t restitute, but we are absolutely committed to lending as widely as possible, including to Nigeria. The Museum’s foundational value resides in its breadth, scale, complexity, and unity and as such is a true library of the world” (Vox). 

Is this not colonialism repackaged with a finder’s fee? 

Universal or “encyclopedic” museums say they allow for a global appreciation of humankind’s history. But rather than opening up artifacts for a “global audience,” elite museums prevent people from subjugated regions from learning their history as they don’t always have the means to travel internationally.  

A research group examining the employee demographics of 332 U.S. museums found that in 2018, the number of people of color hired at the institutions was 35%. Leadership and curator roles, which arguably have the most significant impact on what is displayed in museums, were predominantly white, with people of color holding less than 20% of these positions (Mellon). 

Also, patrons of museums tend to be primarily white both in the U.S. and internationally (BlooLoop). Despite being diverse cultural hubs for human history, these white institutions hoard stolen artifacts from people of color for white and European consumption. 

It’s dangerous for institutions whose countries are still grappling with racist ideologies to hoard the symbols and identities of subjugated people. Nor should they determine whether the significance of such a return is fundamentally impactful to said community. 

The magnitude of loss for colonized people might seem insignificant when boiled down to ownership of objects. Still, these symbols are often the only thing left for future generations that saw their culture stripped from them.

In 2018, Tarita Alarcón Rapu, the governor of Easter Island, pleaded with the British Museum to return their Hoa Hakananai’a statue. Stolen back in 1868, the 8-foot-tall figure was carved to commemorate their dead ancestors (CNN).

“We all came here, but we are just the body — England people have our soul,” she told reporters. “And it is the right time to maybe send us back (the statue) for a while, so our sons can see it as I can see it. You have kept him for 150 years, just give us some months.”
 
This isn’t a condemnation against museums or meant to sway you from patronizing the MET or the British Museum altogether. France, the U.S., and the U.K. have slowly been returning objects to their rightful owners (NY Times, Washington Post, Global Times). However, it’s essential to acknowledge the violent legacies attached to the looted objects that they continue to claim ownership over. Keeping stolen artifacts within the halls of white institutions preserves them as trophies of violent western colonialism.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Western museums are predominantly white spaces that profit off stolen artifacts from people of color in the pursuit of the white and European gaze. 

Cultural objects belong with the cultures that created them, not the institutions that benefited from them being stolen.

Keeping artifacts taken during a colonial regime is actively promoting colonialism. 

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