A brief polemic against widespread artifact repatriation.
Museums, especially large institutions in wealthy, stable Western countries, are bastions of cultural exploration, education, and fascination. They inspire awe in the minds of millions of visitors each year, transporting them back in time and across the full breadth of the world. These wonderful institutions hold a special place in my heart, as they are one of the factors that got me interested in history in the first place. I distinctly recall gazing in wonderment as a child at art and relics from the past, hoping to gain a glimpse into a far off time and place. Just by visiting a major museum, I could travel to ancient Rome, Ming China, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Medieval Europe. I could see cultural artifacts from regions as far afield as Africa and Southeast Asia, or explore the heritage of American Natives. I could view beautiful art from 2000 years ago, 200 years ago, or 20 years ago. All of this could be accomplished in an afternoon.
Now, there has been a major push to denude these museums of their globally-sourced artifacts in order to right supposed past wrongs. Activists and governments want Western museums to return foreign relics, regardless of whether those exhibits were acquired fairly. This is a profoundly wrongheaded move that will only hamper cultural exchange and knowledge, reduce the salience and usefulness of physical museums, and undermine the ability of people to understand our shared human past.
A recent article in the New York Times lays out the stakes, as well as the progress activists and foreign governments have made in terms of repatriation. Some instances of clearly looted art, especially works which have been stolen or smuggled in the past 50 years, should absolutely be repatriated at the proper request of either the rightful owner or the nation from which the artifact originated. These cases are relatively uncontroversial. What is controversial, however, is the repatriation of artifacts which were legally acquired prior to 1970.
Many of these artifacts were legally excavated and removed from regions which were either part of colonial empires or were nascent independent states; modern activists claim that these relationships were inherently exploitative and want rectification and reparations through repatriation. This is often of a piece with woke activism which declares that writing from the perspective of anyone but your own race/sex/gender is verboten and starts every meeting with a land acknowledgment. And just like those ridiculous ideas, widespread repatriation will only diminish actual intercultural understanding.
Museums are enriched by their global collections, allowing people to explore different cultures while still in their own; this allows for deeper intercultural ties and a truly global historical imagination. They would be far worse off if they were only allowed to display and explain artifacts from their own region, and this parochialism would make museums even less appealing to the young than they already seem to be. There is absolutely a place for more regional or topical museums (I have written about a few of them!), but broad institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London, and the Louvre in Paris are irreplaceable as cultural landmarks.
Artifacts like the Elgin Marbles (legally procured by the British from the Ottoman Empire, which then legally ruled Greece), the Benin Bronzes (taken from West Africa after the colonial consolidations of the 19th century), and Egyptian sarcophagi were legally excavated and removed from their places of origin for safekeeping, restoration, and public display. These artifacts – and many others – broadened the horizons of generations of visitors to their museum homes and have been properly preserved for posterity. Without these removals, who knows what fates would’ve befallen these priceless artifacts? How many of them would be known at all?
The return of legally-procured artifacts solely because they come from elsewhere is a slippery slope that would permanently undermine the very idea of the museum itself. Curators, having fully imbibed these progressive platitudes in Museum Studies programs, are often leading the repatriation charge. Unfortunately, in their zeal to deconstruct supposed Western cultural hegemonic oppression, they are deconstructing the very institutions which they seek to improve.
The New York Times piece linked above claims that “the Indiana Jones era is over,” as museums should follow the activists’ lead and return global artifacts. But Indiana Jones is not a monster for removing artifacts from their historical surroundings; he’s a hero for broadening the human understanding of our mutual past (and fighting Nazis). To paraphrase the fictional archaeologist, these incredible relics do, indeed, belong in a museum – the ones they’re in now.