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.Read More »