Repatriation of Cultural Artefacts

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Essay: submission deadline 14 December 2011

d) What are the main arguments for and against the repatriation of cultural material? Discuss with reference either to human remains or archaeological artefacts.

The issue of the repatriation of cultural material is a very topical one, with this year seeing a statue of Aphrodite being returned to Sicily by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts re-uniting the statue of the “Weary Herakles” to Turkey (see fig 1 below), the Minneapolis Institute of Arts sending back a Greek krater showing a Dionysian procession to Puglia, Italy, and Berlin’s Pergamon Museum returning the Hattusa Sphinx of Hittite origin to Turkey almost 100 years after German archaeologists had excavated it in Central Turkey and shipped it to Berlin. All bar the Hattusa Sphinx were removed after the 1970 UNESCO convention banning the illicit export of artefacts, and it is hard to argue that- for example- the re-unification of the “weary Herakles” was anything but a positive development.

This essay will cover the arguments for and against repatriation, look to establish a structure of principles and then use as an example the Benin “bronzes (actually brass) held not only in the British Museum but in museums worldwide, including the Pitt Rivers in Oxford.

The key arguments for repatriation are that:-
1. Artefacts are enriched by being viewed in their place of origin 2. They are part of the area's heritage, history and in some cases spiritual beliefs 3. Illegal procurement of the articles, whether knowing or unknowing 4. Economic benefit through tourists visiting to view the artefacts 5. Resources are now in place to properly preserve and conserve the artefacts 6. Where human remains are involved , keeping them in a scientific display or examination area degrades our common humanity 7. Patriotic pride, where the return of culturally important artefacts can symbolise a nation re-building its confidence, especially if the artefacts have been taken as a result of “colonialist oppression” 8. Non-repatriation breaks either local national law, international law, or a UNESCO decree

Linked into these arguments is the proposal that artefacts should be displayed near where they were found- witness the Staffordshire Hoard Museum, with travelling loan exhibitions both in UK and abroad.

Fig 1: The two parts of the “Weary Herakles”, now reunited in Turkey; the top half was “owned “ by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the bottom half was discovered near Antalya in the early 1980s

The key argument s against repatriation are that:-
1. The artefact will be better cared for and protected in situ rather than returned – whether because of civil disorder, pollution, inadequate museum conservation facilities, or corruption which could lead to the sale of the artefact 2. Articles that are important to world heritage are such that the place of origin or finding is no more important than display in the context of a world class museum 3. Important artefacts should be accessible to the largest amount of visitors possible 4. Scientific analysis of the artefacts remains to be carried out and cannot be carried out in its place of origin 5. Safety of the artefact- either too fragile to transport, or in danger once there (e.g. the looting of the Iraq National museums) 6. The artefact was legitimately acquired, and therefore there is no legal or moral requirement to return it. 7. The successor state (e.g. Turkey) has no right to artefacts created by different cultures that happened to be found on their territory (e.g. Greek, Hittite) 8. The trustees are bound to maintain the integrity of the collection (e.g. British Museum) 9. The “mental cross fertilisation “ of artefacts from many cultures and histories is a key part of the educational purpose of major world museums , and counterbalances dangerous myths e.g. racial superiority

The Benin...
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