There are many forms of cultural appropriation but surely the most stark was the removal of hundreds of thousands of artefacts from countries that were colonized by European nations. Now calls to return what was taken are proving harder to ignore.
Perhaps the most famous case is that of the so-called Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon in Athens by the 7th Lord Elgin at the beginning of the 19th century. Less than 30 years after they were taken, a newly independent Greece began efforts to get them back.
For almost 200 years, the British Museum has rebuffed all attempts to force it to return the sculptures, arguing that the integrity of its collections must be preserved. But some European museums have taken a different approach.
Last month the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo agreed to return thousands of objects collected by the explorer Thor Heyerdahl from Chile’s Easter Island. Heyedahl’s son, also named Thor, said it was honouring his father’s promise to return the items to the island’s Rapa Nui people when they had been analyzed and published.
The importance attached by Norway to the repatriation of the artefacts was underlined by the attendance of King Harald V at the ceremony to sign the return agreement in Santiago. Chile is also seeking the return of Hoa Hakananai'a, a large Easter Island statue among the most popular exhibits at the British Museum.
Returning artefacts of empire
Last year, President Emmanuel Macron commissioned a report into the repatriation of African artifacts from French museums. When it was published, he announced the return of 26 items taken from Benin by French colonial forces, but stopped short of ordering a mass return.
Meanwhile the Netherlands’ National Museum of World Cultures announced last month that it would return all items in its collection stolen during the colonial era. It will work through its 375,000-strong collection to identify which items should be repatriated.
The Elgin Marbles highlight the issue of determining what was stolen. Lord Elgin claimed to have been given permission by the Ottoman government to remove the sculptures. But to many countries, arguments about who paid what to whom miss the point that their culture has been expropriated.
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Professor Mark Horton of Bristol University says European museums should not attempt to argue about how they came by items. Writing about the plight of African artefacts, he said: “The argument is often advanced that by coming to the West, these objects were preserved for posterity – if they were left in Africa they simply would have rotted away.
“This is a specious argument, rooted in racist attitudes that somehow indigenous people can’t be trusted to curate their own cultural heritage. It is also a product of the corrosive impact of colonialism.”
Horton welcomed an offer by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to return Ethiopian treasures that were looted by British troops at the battle of Maqdala in 1868 on long-term loan. Last year the UK National Army Museum also returned a lock of an Ethiopian emperor’s hair.
It’s not always so hard to determine the legal status of artefacts that find their way to the developed world. UNESCO has so far arranged the return of almost 1,000 items to Kabul Museum stolen during years of civil war, some from as far away as Japan.