Words Sarah Bentley Pictured Sphinx of Taharqo, c. 680 BC, Kawa, Sudan. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum
A collection of rare works of art from the Kingdom of Benin, taken during Britain’s Punitive Expedition of 1897, was donated to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in June, reigniting a debate that has raged for decades. The dilemma: should objects in the museums of the West return to their country of origin?
The poster child for this issue is the Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon in Athens in the early 19th century – with the consent of the ruling Ottoman empire – by British ambassador to Constantinople, the Earl of Elgin. The modern Greek state now lobbies for their return. Similarly, Egypt’s former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass has campaigned for the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum and the bust of Queen Nerfertiti from Berlin’s Neues Museum.
For some, however, the issue isn’t so simple. The problem of security in politically unstable regions was highlighted by the looting of Iraq’s National Museum following the US-led invasion of 2003, and again when ancient manuscripts were stolen from an Islamic research institute in Timbuktu during the March coup in Mali. Others, such as James Cuno, author of Who Owns Antiquity?, argue these artefacts are part of a shared human history.
There are also benefits to the country of origin of having these artefacts on display in the West. Not only do they ignite interest and drive tourism, but travelling exhibitions offer a stateless solution: the relics of Tutankhamun have spent most of the past 50 years outside Egypt on exhibition tours of the West. They are the most visited exhibitions in history, and have generated millions of pounds in revenue for the Egyptian government. Profits from the hugely successful 1972-81 The Treasures Of Tutankhamun touring exhibition paid for a multi-million pound refurbishment of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Museums in the West are unsurprisingly nervous of the issue, not wanting to lose their crowd-pulling pieces. “This is a complicated subject and we [don’t want to] commit the museum to answering general questions,” was the response from a spokesperson at
the British Museum. As the UNESCO World Heritage Convention celebrates 40 years of preserving cultural heritage, ARISE asked artists, curators and opinion formers: is it time for artefacts obtained during the colonial era to return to Africa?
Vieux Farka Toure, Musician, Mali
“It’s insulting to all Africans to say that we cannot be responsible for our own possessions. If it gets destroyed or stolen in Africa, OK that can happen, but it is the right of the true owner to possess and protect.”
Georgie Badiel, Model, Burkina Faso/US
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to return African artefacts removed during the colonial era. They’re part of humanity’s history and we need to protect them in a safe, stable location for the world to appreciate them- in places such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum.”
Agree/disagree? Let us know your thoughts on firstname.lastname@example.org , or tweet us your stance @ARISEmagazine. Follow the argument in issue 17 of ARISE magazine, out now.