A Complex Inheritance: Should we return historical artefacts or keep them in museums?

In an era of ever-increasing scrutiny on the colonial past, it is considered whether artefacts should remain in museums or should be repatriated.

Ross Bennett
10th May 2022
Elgin Marbles in the British Museum (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Since the Black Lives Matters protests wherein Edward Colston's statue toppled into Bristol Docks, attention has turned to museum collections. Once revered, people now question whether these historical artefacts belong in museums any more. Should artefacts be returned to their places of origin? Do artefacts belong in museums to be publicly displayed and yet far removed from their original contexts? This article sets out to understand just that.

Calls to repatriate artefacts back to their places of origin have only become more public and more heated - especially in the cases of non-European artefacts. In cases such as the British Museum’s collection of artefacts from places like Egypt and Sudan, there have been repeated accusations that these artefacts were "stolen" whilst these nations were subject to European colonisers. Zahi Hawass, an Egyptian archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities, openly announced during his time in office he would cut ties with any museum "that does not return stolen artefacts to us." More recently, the Greek government have stated they will "turn up the heat" to pressure the British Museum into returning the infamous Elgin Marbles. Such arguments seem strong; surely it makes sense to keep relics from nations such as Egypt and Nigeria in their homeland instead of in a museum thousands of miles away?

One argument to consider comes from Tiffany Jenkins, the author of ‘Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – and Why They Should Stay There’. Jenkins argued that there is simply no point in removing artefacts from museums and returning them given that most artefacts have outlived their original purpose. Some artefacts for example were made to worship kings and rulers now dead and gone whilst others praise deities from long dead mythologies. Modern day Iraq is very different to ancient Assyria whilst fifth century BC Athens is unrecognisable compared to the Greece of the 21st century. What would be the benefit in returning these items to their places of origin when some of these artefacts simply serve no purpose? Surely there is more educational value in placing historical items in a museum, alongside contextual material and other artefacts from the same period than having each individual item reside in the ruins of where it was born.

Some artefacts for example were made to worship kings and rulers now dead and gone whilst others praise deities from long dead mythologies

There is also the stance that a large percentage of these objects hold cultural significance and even religious value in their places of origin – after all, what better way to celebrate your history and culture than to display artefacts created by your ancestors, centuries or even millennia ago? In the cases of some practicing religions today, some of their most important texts and items now reside in museums thousands of miles from home. Consider the artefacts belonging to indigenous American cultures, which were taken and now reside places such as the American Museum of Natural History or The National Museum of the American Indian. Not only did indigenous Americans have their lands taken from them, but their civilisations also were eroded and left to linger on reservations. The descendants of those to discriminate against indigenous Americans now display items from indigenous American culture and talk about how “noble” and “majestic” indigenous American culture was. There is obviously a contradictive nature to the way in which museums celebrate the culture of the artefacts they present yet reduce them at the same time.

What better way to celebrate your history and culture than to display artefacts created by your ancestors, centuries or even millennia ago?

Ultimately, the matter is a complicated and diverse one. As a history student myself, there is obviously a great deal of wonder in visiting galleries and museums that hold artefacts from Ancient Egypt or Greece or pre-Contact America. One cannot deny that there is a complex heritage and history which entangles each object into one greater narrative which is only now being discussed. The journeys travelled by artefacts often involve colonialism and theft, but it cannot be denied that artefacts hold importance to us now as educational tools. Just how do we reconcile the educational value presented by these artefacts as well as the pain that they are born from? I fear there is no simple solution.

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