Cultural Artifacts Must Be Repatriated. Here’s Why:

In 2018, the movie Black Panther came out and its meaningful portrayal of real world issues drove its success. In its opening scene, villain “Kilmonger” is shown observing an artifact in the West African Exhibit at the fictional “Museum of Great Britain.” He asks the museum director to identify the artifact’s origins and when she does, Kilmonger corrects her, proclaiming that the artifact was stolen from Wakanda, the fictional African country. 

Although the story of Black Panther is fiction, Kilmonger is not the first to voice the critical issue of museums housing artifacts stolen from other countries, specifically through colonialism and imperialism. Many have called for the repatriation of stolen artifacts, and they’re right.  

These artifacts hold significant value as they represent the culture and history of the land they derive from. It is within a museums moral obligation to return stolen artifacts to their country of origin. 

The Rosetta Stone is one artifact that thousands of Egyptians want returned. To give some context, the Rosetta Stone was taken from the city Rosetta by French soldiers during Napoleon’s invasion of Europe. Later when British forces defeated the French in Egypt, the Rosetta Stone was given to the British in the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801, along with over a dozen other antiques. The artifact now rests in the British Museum.

Despite the current common return of artifacts to their home countries, the British Museum has yet to return the Rosetta Stone. They stated that the Treaty of Alexandria was signed by a representative of Egypt, therefore justifying their decision to keep the stone. However, this representative was an Ottoman admiral who fought alongside the British against the French; they had no connection to Egyptian citizens whatsoever. Egyptians had no choice in the transfer of their own property, so it is only right that the artifact be returned.

Still, some museums argue that artifacts are safer in their hands because they have the means to protect these relics from damage, whereas countries in armed conflict or political disputes might not be able to.

Yet, a solution to this can be for countries to rent their cultural artifacts to museums. In this way, countries still have ownership over their artifacts and the artifacts are kept safe.

Though in many cases, museums hold on to these artifacts even when the country is not at war and has the proper resources to take care of the artifact (s). Take Greece for example, and the Parthenon Marbles that currently reside in the British Museum. Even though the Greek government has made it clear how essential the Parthenon Marbles are, historically and culturally to Greek heritage, the British Museum has refused to return the artifacts. 

Money is important to consider in this discussion, as it is a leading factor that makes museums hesitant to return stolen cultural artifacts. The fear is that if these artifacts were returned, many museums would lose the majority of the objects they have, resulting in economic consequences for the museums. 

The question is, at what point does money override ethics? These cultural artifacts hold great significance to the countries they were taken from. Not only that, but it is ignorant to assume the only way museums can obtain revenue is by housing stolen cultural artifacts from other countries. There is rich culture in the countries these museums are located in and those artifacts can also be showcased. 

On the other hand, some museums have made actions to return stolen artifacts, such as the return of nearly 11,500 objects to Iraq and Egypt (by The Museum of Bible in Washington, D.C) and a bronze statue of the god Shiva to India (by The National Gallery of Australia). Still, there are many artifacts that have yet to be returned. The Benin (modern day Nigeria) Bronzes looted by British soldiers, that are now spread across museums in America and Europe, the Koh-i-noor diamond that was taken by the British East India Company and are now a part of the British crown, and the Parthenon Marbles. 

The fact that colonization was wrong is apparent, therefore the looting and unethical obtaining of these artifacts should be considered wrong too. Museums need to take the steps to rewrite these wrongdoings or else they become complicit in them.