Oliver – Year 12 Student
Editor’s note: Year 12 student Oliver writes here in response to the thought-provoking Art History essay title set for the New College of the Humanities essay competition, 2021. ‘Should the West return cultural artefacts to their former colonial territories?’ – what are your thoughts on this controversial issue? CPD
Touring the British Museum is a delightful experience. Chinese artefacts, African sculptures, Athenian marble, the Rosetta Stone – truly, a cornucopia of the world’s treasures – await the visitor in what is perhaps the most controversial museum of all time. Many of these treasures do not belong there. Over the centuries, the British Museum has acquired all manner of prized cultural icons from their former owners, a kind of ‘side-hustle’ to accompany the building of the largest Empire in history. This is not a problem limited to the UK; similar tales are found all over the Western world, be that New York, Berlin or Paris. The question of whether such artefacts held by the West should be returned to their countries of origin is complex, with powerful moral, legal and cultural points needing to be considered. And because it is a question that defies a simple yes or no answer, what is required is a full audit by national governments to determine which should be returned to their country of origin and which should stay right where they are, and the development of law to impose this judgement on institutions and individuals.
[The] British Museum… a kind of ‘side-hustle’ to accompany the building of the largest Empire in history.
We should start with the big picture. Over the past several centuries, the history of Western relations with the rest of the world, and particularly those with its former colonies, has been characterised by exploitation, racism and cruelty. For many years now, the aggrieved countries have demanded reparations from their former imperial masters, compensation for the supposed damage and violence inflicted upon them. Many, quite rightly, point out the problems with such an argument. Why should the current generation of, say, Spain, pay out of their own pocket for the sins of their ancestors, atrocities often committed hundreds of years ago? Even if this were to be considered, what reparations should be paid; is it possible to put a price on a long history of exploitation mingled with sporadic benevolence? These are powerful objections, but the reparations principle still cries out to be acknowledged. And as we look at the plethora of cultural artefacts that was so often seized as a consequence of Western imperialism, one could say it would be a small gesture of apology that would go a long way if the West returned some treasures to their countries of origin. In other words, the restitution of such pieces of art would act as a long-overdue form of reparation, without seriously harming today’s Western population for crimes they did not commit.
Additionally, of course, we must recognise the inescapable truth that many of these artefacts were not legally acquired. Treasures such as the Benin Bronzes or Madagascan crown jewels, were not purchased, but plundered as the spoils of war. When the British raided the royal palace of Benin in 1897, razing it to the ground and plundering anything valuable, they committed a brazen act of theft. Rather than there being any sort of legal defence for such artefacts to be retained, there is instead a powerful legal argument for such artefacts to be returned at once. It is hypocritical for the West to retain such artefacts, thereby flouting international law, whilst promoting human rights and the rule of law elsewhere around the world. We could try to argue that since the victims of such crimes no longer exist, western museums should have no reason to return them. After all, contemporary Egypt bears no resemblance whatsoever to its ancient predecessors, and its ruling elites are long dead. But this would miss the point. When Napoleon’s Grenadiers looted the Rosetta Stone during his expedition to Egypt, they did not just steal from some long dead Pharaoh, but from the cultural heritage of Egypt itself. Every day the Rosetta Stone remains in the British Museum is a further blow to Egypt today, another day in which its citizens cannot see their country’s heritage for themselves. The West has a legal duty to return all cultural artefacts that were seized unlawfully from their countries of origin.
Moving beyond the moral imperatives of reparation and the rule of law, the return of cultural artefacts can also be seen as necessary for the sake of world culture. It is all well and good for the West to speak of ‘global art history’ and to praise their museums for offering a window into other cultures, but such actions work to the detriment of other nations. In order to benefit global art, all individual countries must be able to examine their own cultural identity, and not through Western lenses. This can only be done through local interactions with national treasures; Italians gazing at Michelangelo’s David are offered glimpses of their national heritage, and former colonial nations must be able to do the same. For too long, Western historians have written the history of individual countries, or even whole continents: it is time for former colonial countries to understand their own story for themselves.
Although the moral and cultural arguments for the return of artefacts are sound, those concerning the rule of law are more complex than first appears. It is relatively straightforward to correct clear-cut acts of theft, but how do we deal with historical transactions conducted on a perfectly legitimate basis? There is no legal ground for the restitution of the bust of Nefertiti, since Germany acquired it in 1912 with permission from the Egyptian government. Not only would a forced restitution of this artefact, and many others like it, be unfair on governments that purchased such treasures legitimately, but it would also be impractical. Compensation would have to paid, but how does one put a price tag on a literally priceless work of art, and could all former colonies afford to pay a fair market price? There undoubtedly are more difficult cases, such as the Rosetta Stone, where the current owner (the British Museum) acquired it after an act of theft by the French. Similar examples include the Benin Bronzes, treasures looted by Britain, but in part now held by various other countries, mainly the United States and Germany, acquired through routine trade and commerce. Considerations of property rights and the rule of law in such cases are trumped by the principle of caveat emptor, with the failure to exercise due diligence and reveal the original theft undermining any claim to continued possession of the artefacts.
The conservation of artefacts for future generations is a final, practical concern. Many museums refusing to return artefacts argue that former colonies do not have the infrastructure or security to look after them. Most of these claims are ridiculous and insulting, but it must be conceded that some are true. It would be pure folly for the French government to return artefacts acquired during their occupation of Syria, since their restitution would put them in grave risk from numerous threats, most notably acts of terror similar to those carried out at Palmyra in 2015. Some would argue that the destiny of such cultural artefacts is ultimately not for Western nations to decide, and whilst there may be some truth in this, it would be unforgiveable in such cases as Syria for the West to preside over the destruction of world treasures simply as a token gesture. Such actions would benefit no one, least of all former colonies.
There is no clear answer to the restitution debate. Various factors, be they moral, legal or practical, make each artefact’s circumstances unique. The moral reasoning behind restitution is sound, but when combined with legal complexity and practical reality, many artefacts become very difficult cases. There can be no blanket response to so complex an issue; what is needed is a thorough and fair examination of every artefact, so that we can determine the appropriate solution for each one. Debate and discussion are necessary, and recent examples of such an approach are encouraging. Last December, the French Senate criticised the lack of transparency and consistency regarding the restitution of artefacts held in France and wants to create a National Council to preside over the restitution debate, enabling a detailed look at the background of each item.
Undoubtedly, there is a debt to be paid by the West to its former colonies, and the restitution of cultural artefacts can help to reduce it. It is also necessary for the West to follow international law, and there should be a clear presumption that artefacts acquired directly as loot, plunder and the spoils of war should be returned. But it is vitally important that such a process does not itself undermine the rule of law, nor result in the destruction of vital works of art, and therefore any audit will certainly identify artefacts that can legitimately remain in the possession of their current owners. Only by realising that neither side is completely right or wrong can we begin to solve such a complex issue and to find a way forward.
Oxford Union (2015). Dr Shashi Tharoor MP – Britain Does Owe Reparations. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7CW7S0zxv4&t=127s
Quartz 2017, British Museum is in talks to return bronze artifacts looted from Benin kingdom 120 years ago, Khanya Mtshali, viewed 21 January 2021https://qz.com/africa/1054364/the-british-museum-will-return-bronze-sculptures-looted-from-benin-nearly-two-centuries-ago/
The Guardian 2020, The Brutish Museums by Dan Hicks review – return everything, Charlotte Lydia Riley, viewed 21 January 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/06/the-brutish-museums-by-dan-hicks-review-colonial-violence-and-cultural-restitution
Institute of Art and Law 2020, Macron, Restitution and French bureaucracy, Alexander Herman, viewed 21 January 2021, https://ial.uk.com/macron-bureaucracy/
Center for art law 2012, Konowaloff v. Met Decision — Met can keep Cezanne, Center for art law, viewed 21 January 2021, https://itsartlaw.org/2012/12/21/konowaloff-v-met-decision-met-can-keep-cezanne/
History Today 2019, Do historical objects belong in their country of origin?, Tiffany Jenkins, Marie Rodet, Ionnis D. Stefanidis, Nicholas Thomas, viewed 21 January 2021, https://www.historytoday.com/archive/head-head/do-historical-objects-belong-their-country-origin