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Should museums return artefacts to the countries they came from?

17th January 2020

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As we’ve covered in previous articles, museums often struggle under the sheer weight of their donations and acquisitions. With many having been open for a hundred years or more, the biggest museums have archives of millions of artefacts, a small percentage of which are on display at any one time. The rest must be kept in storage, often under expensive climate-controlled conditions, and studiously observed and maintained to prevent damage.

The age of many of these museums, particularly those in the UK, also means that they have artefacts dating back to colonial times. Many of these objects were acquired during conflicts or periods of colonial rule over other countries, who now wish to reclaim their history as independent nations. With countries increasingly reflecting on their colonial history and seeking to repatriate these artefacts, museums face a serious question: is it fair or moral to keep historical artefacts that were taken in bad faith?


A lasting legacy

Many of the centrepieces of the UK’s most famous museums are incredible artefacts from its colonial period. From hulking slabs of stone to trinkets from across Africa, Australia and beyond, a range of items were taken from across the world and sent to London for display and study. In some instances, this was the work of explorers and archaeologists who sought out these objects in good faith. In many other cases, these items were taken as war spoils from conquered nations, and have been in the museums ever since.

As former colonies of the UK and other empires reflect on their history, they are increasingly broaching this issue with governments, and enquiring directly with museums. A number of countries have issued requests for objects to be repatriated, seeking to reclaim lost aspects of their history and culture. This has been a thorny issue, however, with many of the requests being denied. In some cases, the objects have instead been loaned by museums to the countries they were taken from, with the expectation that they would be returned afterwards.

Some museums have been more responsive, and are starting to take the initiative in returning objects and healing old wounds. A recent example is Manchester Museum, which announced that it was returning thousands of artefacts to Indigenous Australians, ranging from ornaments to slippers to musical instruments. France meanwhile has been very active in repatriating artefacts, with President Macron looking to draft a law so that museums are forced to acquiesce to any repatriation request.


The argument for repatriation

The fundamental argument for repatriating stolen artefacts is a moral one. Like the artworks which were stolen by Nazi Germany in the Second World War, there is an expectation by many that artefacts taken in wars before that should be returned too. Many people believe that historical items unearthed on the land of other countries remain the property of those countries, regardless of who found them or who controlled that country at the time.

The second argument is a cultural one. The artefacts do not have cultural significance to the countries and museums in which they’re displayed, or what significance they have is detached from the places and times they came from. By returning the artefacts to these countries, they can be displayed for local people to experience aspects of their culture that they have been denied, learning from the past and reflecting on their history and culture.

The third argument is both structural and financial. As mentioned, many museums have catalogues of millions of items, the majority of which are in storage at any given time. If there are artefacts that came from another country and aren’t even on display, there’s an argument that they would be better off being displayed and enjoyed in the country they came from. Maintaining these catalogues is also expensive and time-consuming, and reducing the size of these catalogues could free up money to maintain or even buy other objects.

There’s also the question of whether museums need to outright own artefacts at all. With museums frequently borrowing objects or exhibiting touring collections, there’s no fundamental reason why objects couldn’t be returned to their countries of origin and then loaned back on a periodic basis. While there would be no guarantees about this, it’s not impossible to envisage a future where most museums only own items from their own countries and cultures, and loan foreign items in from other nations.


The arguments against repatriation

It’s not hard to understand why many museums are reluctant to lose many of their artefacts. Some would consider repatriation a slippery slope, given that a large proportion of the collections of many museums come from outside of their own country. It is possible, though unlikely, that a large proportion of a museum’s collection could be requested back by other countries, who may not themselves have the capacity to display these items.

In some cases, there is a legitimate question as to whether the repatriated artefacts would be safe in their new location. There are a number of instances of artefacts being poorly stored or maintained in museums which lack sufficient funding or expertise, as well as examples of items being damaged or stolen due to unrest. The pillaging and destruction of artefacts by Islamic State and the looting of Egypt’s National Museum lead to permanent historical damage, something that is arguably less likely in major institutions.

This is not just a case of ‘western’ countries being safer, either: significant damage has occurred to historic buildings in Greece and Italy (most notably at Pompeii) due to a lack of funding and attention. It’s also not always an issue of war, but simply a lack of attention or expertise in those areas. One great example of the good that can be done by western institutions is the SOAS University of London’s Endangered Languages Archive, which has purchased audio tapes and written materials from dead and extinct languages from around the world, rescuing them from decay and damage that would have rendered them forever lost.

Losing the most prominent artefacts would also undermine the museums’ ability to attract visitors, at a point where many already struggle to sustain themselves through donations, exhibition fees and merchandise. Losing a major piece that’s been in a museum’s collection for hundreds of years would be like the Louvre losing the Mona Lisa; while there are plenty of other attractions, that one painting is the one that gets most people through the door.

Finally, many people would argue that the artefacts being in major museums gives the greatest number of people the best chance to experience them. If the artefacts are spread out across the world, visitor numbers will be equally spread out, and one or two major artefacts may not be enough to entice people to an otherwise unpopular destination. Items which are kept in major tourist cities can be learned from and enjoyed by more people, with the expertise to look after them also being concentrated in one place.

The provenance and ownership of artefacts remains a contentious issue, and not one that is likely to go away anytime soon. There are legitimate arguments on both sides, and complications that require a delicate and negotiated approach. The choice not to repatriate items can’t just be seen as insensitive, but has to be viewed in the light of what those items mean to the institution and its funding, which is often a precarious balancing act.

Recent moves by some institutions to repatriate objects are positive, and point to a future where greater compromises may be met. While museums are always likely to need a large amount of storage space, it seems reasonable to think that less prominent items might be repatriated on a more regular basis, and that major items will be shared and loaned among the institutions that have invested in their maintenance and care. Ultimately, museums are places of research and learning, and this shared spirit of cooperation and advancement should drive the approach to our colonial past.

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