The koh-i-noor, the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon Marbles, countless Imperial jade jewels, and a whole plethora of other Indian, Asian, Middle-Eastern and African treasures are today housed in the museums of the developed world, the last signs of a global age of conquest and colonization. Despite repeated requests and public campaigns, a lot of them have not made it back home. Why?
Egyptian culture is perhaps one of the most fascinating of the world. Their ideas were so advanced that they are relevant even today. Only their architecture, an uncompromising pyramid of stone set in the middle of a desert, is the Ancient Wonder that has survived to the modern times. Like all developing nations of the world, Egypt has seen colonization, internal strife, a dismissal of its identity and culture as old, barbaric and uncivilized. Yet, it is their artefacts today that are the major pulling forces in some of the most reputed museums of the world.
Rosetta Stone (Source)
The British, on the other hand, have repeatedly rejected requests by Egypt for the repatriation of their artefacts on various grounds. The same has also been the case for India, particularly with respect to the thorny issue of the koh-i-noor – one of the world’s largest diamonds that today is a part of the British crown jewels. Claiming a legal transfer and the cultural importance that the piece of rock has gained since its transfer to British hands, the state has simply refused to part with the priceless jewel.
Parthenon Marbles (Source)
There are many reasons why museums and countries may refuse to give back ancient artefacts taken from other countries, and some of them are indeed valid and worthy of consideration. For example, many of these artefacts are the central pieces of some important museums, and if they are taken away, the museum may be sure of a financial loss due to a drop in visitors. This may further impact important cultural and preservation efforts that the museum till now engaged in.
However, a set of arguments that are much more comprehensive, numerous and morally heavy are present on the other side, one which actively pushes for the return of artefacts to their homes. One major argument is that these artefacts are one of the most poignant, material reminder of all the horrors of colonialism. It does seem unfair that the very civilizations that were once dismissed and even trampled upon by the ‘enlightened’ Europeans are today attractions that they proudly display and earn money from. Giving back these artefacts will not only help the formerly colonized country attract visitors to their own museums, it could also signify an important healing of past wounds as the world continues a speedy trajectory towards complete globalization.
Benin plaques (Source)
Citing issues of ‘legality’ is ridiculous, because who made the laws? Even if the owner countries claim that the host sites gave their artefacts willingly or for a fair price or exchange, one cannot ignore the fact that misbalanced power dynamics surely tipped the scales towards the owner country’s advantage.
Technological advancements today mean that these artefacts can be successfully transported to their place of origin without causing them any untoward damage. And while people in the country the artefacts currently are in may be deprived of viewing them, it may give the people of the native country an important piece of their history back, and perhaps even open up the country to a tourist influx. Since most of these artefacts are today housed in some of the richest countries of the world, they can surely afford to take an occasional trip abroad. If they are so committed to seeing the artefact, wouldn’t seeing it at its original site, surrounded by the geography, history, culture and context that it was developed in and meant for provide a much, much more enriching experience?
Today, there have been some functional solutions to this intense cultural debate. Replicas and interactive and immersive audio-visual shows, along with rotation of artefacts have allowed countries to share their common heritage as humans and civilizations that existed across the boundaries of modern nation-states, and perhaps in time, more innovative solutions would allow us all to enjoy our common past.
By Niharika Rawat