Controversy: Institutions and the Appropriation of Artifacts

Museums are valuable institutions that serve a vital purpose in documenting and preserving history, as well as educating the public about a variety of topics. Being able to step into another community or culture through the works on display in museums is an incredible experience. But what we rarely consider is the irreparable damage that may have been done in order to get those pieces on display. Requests for the return of stolen artwork and artifacts have been made to many notable museums, including the British Museum in London, the Louvre, and the Smithsonian. Many museums have complied and have returned, or are currently orchestrating the return of hundreds of pieces back to the communities and cultures they were originally stolen from.

While this is good progress, there is still much more that needs to be done. The biggest halt in progress seems to come from the ethicality debate surrounding this topic. ,According to Dr. Senta German, arguments in favor of returning the stolen objects have mainly been voiced by people who live in countries where the objects originated. These arguments support the idea that these items were obtained in illegal ways and there is a moral obligation to return them. Not returning these items also contributes to a system that normalizes the heinous actions committed by European colonists and perpetuates their ideologies, which lack value in a supposedly progressive modern world.

Arguments against the return of stolen objects often come from museums and collectors themselves. It’s fair to say that if every single stolen object was returned to its country of origin, a vast majority of museums would be close to, if not completely, empty. There is a tremendous value in having many artworks and artifacts from throughout history gathered in one place. People who may not otherwise care to learn or know about ancient civilizations are able to see these objects and understand more about the cultures and communities where they came from. This argument still does not justify museums’ continued refusal to return stolen artifacts.

In recent years, this important issue has received more attention from the public and is starting to be investigated and covered by more news outlets. It is crucial that more people learn about this issue and take action in order to correct these historical injustices. “Repatriation claims are based on law but, more importantly, represent a fervent desire to right a wrong—a kind of restorative justice—which also requires an admission of guilt and capitulation,” German says. “This is what makes repatriations difficult: nations and institutions seldom concede that they were wrong.” This perfectly encapsulates the root of the problem, which is that the countries holding these artifacts hostage are not willing to acknowledge their own wrongdoings or the wrongdoing of their ancestors. If we cannot own up to this guilt and make attempts at a reparation, we are doomed to repeat these tragic errors all over again.

Samantha Fencil, Editor-In-Chief

Angie Pantaleon, Layout

© 2022 ArtRKL LLC. All rights reserved.

Related articles