Should Museums Return Stolen Treasures?

Oct 23, 2020 By Michelle L.
Michelle Lu's picture

When we visit museums, we see cultural artifacts -- from everyday household items to precious carvings and statues, that give us glimpses into the diverse cultures and communities from around the world. 

However, controversy surrounds these artifacts and whether or not countries should return these pieces of culture if they were stolen or forcefully taken during colonization.

On Wednesday, October 7, 2020, the Dutch advisory committee officially released a national report agreeing to the return of cultural artifacts that were stolen from its previous colonies such as Indonesia, Suriname, and islands on the Caribbean. Through these actions, the Dutch government acknowledges the unfair treatment the colonies had previously experienced and demonstrates respect for the culture of these countries. 

Let's look at the issue and the two sides of the debate.

Stolen Artifacts 

By the 18th and 19th centuries, European countries such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands had colonized many African and Asian countries. During their rule, they either seized artifacts or took them as spoils of wars, and brought them to their own countries where they are now displayed in museums.  

Over the years, European museums have received requests for the return of artifacts. In 2009, Egypt demanded that the Louvre Museum of Paris, France return five looted pieces of a wall painting from the tomb of Tekati. In 2012, Nigeria asked for the restoration of thirty-two cultural items from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.

In 2017, the Government of Benin in West Africa negotiated with the British Museum in London to return their renowned Benin Bronzes, a collection of thousands of metal sculptures and plaques, which were previously hung in the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin. 

The debate regarding this issue took a turn in 2018 when under President Emmanuel Macron, a report was released that directed that all heritage objects brought to French museums (without the permission of their original countries) be restored. With the official release of this report, museums all across Europe began reconsidering their previous policies on colonial treasures. 

In France, twenty-seven artifacts had been identified for restoration, but only one -- a traditional sword belonging to Senegal, has been returned. Then, on Tuesday, October 6, 2020, France’s National Assembly officially passed a bill guaranteeing the return of these heritage artifacts, twenty-six of which alone belonged to Benin.

The Debate

Those who propose returning these objects to their original homes argue that with technology enabling virtual museum tours, returning these artifacts to their homeland does not take away the opportunity to learn about them. Furthermore, the country of origin will receive a significant part of their heritage back, and these artifacts will be given a chance to be truly appreciated under proper historical context.

Those against the restoration claim that culture is a shared treasure and the artifacts are in fact "cultural ambassadors" that promote tolerance and understanding. They believe that while stealing them was wrong, history is full of "good" and "bad" actors. Moreover, they feel that keeping the cultural objects in the current museums have kept millions of artifacts safe from disfiguration and damage.

Which side of the debate do you fall on?

Sources: NYTimes, Guardian, Historyextra,


LilNachoPup's picture
LilNachoPup October 26, 2020 - 6:58am
wow. that video is very interesting.