Demands for repatriation of artefacts seized by marauders are becoming hard to resist
Curators and trustees of the world’s great museums are in a state of some agitation. Emmanuel Macron wants to return plundered treasures to France’s former African colonies. The French president, declaring the crimes of European colonisation a “past that needs to pass”, has caught a tide of public feeling. And where France goes, others may be obliged to follow.
This is not a new argument. The vast collections assembled at the British Museum, the Louvre, Berlin’s Museum island, and, further afield, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, have long been a source of controversy as well as knowledge. The Greek government has battled for decades for the return of the Parthenon frieze and Egypt for Nefertiti’s bust. The ground though is shifting. As history’s perspective on Europe’s empires loses some of the rose tint, demands for the repatriation of cultural artefacts seized by the colonial marauders look harder to resist.
This month the Victoria and Albert Museum in London put on a display of items appropriated by British forces after the 1868 Battle of Maqdala, in what was then Abyssinia. The Ethiopian government wants to recover the exquisite items taken from the defeated Emperor Tewodros II — among them a stunning gold crown and chalice, royal jewellery and religious vestments.
The V&A has said no. Why? History, it seems, is double-edged. No one would stand against the restoration of property stolen by, say, the German armies in Europe during the second world war. But riches seized in Africa nearly a century earlier? Apparently, Tewodros’s treasures are fair game.
Mr Macron’s plan seems calibrated to address such cases. African heritage, he says, “cannot be a prisoner of European museums”. He has appointed two experts to come up with a plan. With luck, their proposals will raise the bar for museums everywhere. At the very least, the initiative should apply moral pressure on such institutions to more closely examine their collections.
The case for the great museums is a powerful one. They are truly wondrous places. There is huge worth in “encyclopedic” institutions where mankind’s heritage is assembled, studied and admired across time and space. Cultures are set side by side, the civilisations of Indian and Persia alongside those of ancient Greece and the kingdoms of west Africa. Traditions, habits and skills from different ages and regions become mutually illuminating.
This universalism says, rightly I think, that our cultural legacy cannot be bundled up into neat packages according to lines on maps — boundaries that in any case were often arbitrarily drawn by departing imperial powers. Encyclopedic museums are precious public goods, places that teach us about humanity in the round, free of petty nationalism and conflicts.
In many cases, their collections can be said to have been legitimately acquired. It was common practice for archaeological digs to share “finds” with local authorities. Disentangling ownership is not always possible. Through history art has followed power — the victors have accrued the spoils. Some of the deals struck by the colonialists were undoubtedly dodgy, but it is fiendishly tricky to apply today’s ethical standards to centuries-old bargains.
These caveats, though, are too often stretched beyond reasonable meaning. No one, least of all Mr Macron, is suggesting that the galleries of the Louvre and British Museum should be emptied and each object redistributed to its place of origin. Not every antiquity can be returned to its homeland. The important point is that the claims of encyclopedic museums should be weighed against the rights of peoples whose heritage has been plundered. Even as they celebrate universalism, Europeans understandably cherish their own national stories. Former colonies also have a right to reach back into history.
The panoramic perspective at the V&A comes at the price of denying the vast majority of Ethiopians access to precious emblems of their culture. How many will catch a glimpse in London of the imagination and craftsmanship of their ancestors? They belong in Addis Ababa. The British Museum’s Benin bronzes and caseloads of ethnic art in the Musee de Quai Branly in Paris fall into the same category.
To my mind, it also seems perfectly obvious that Lord Byron was right and the Parthenon sculptures belong to Athens, whatever the deal struck by Lord Elgin and the then Ottoman rulers of Greece. I concede, though, that this is a dispute with some way to run. But “hard” cases should not be allowed to obstruct just settlement in instances of egregious looting. The wider debate may not go away, but restitution in these cases would take the museums on to higher ethical ground.
Some of these institutions, including the V&A, have suggested the circle could be squared through loan agreements. Yes, we stole your treasures, they seem to be saying, but we will now be generous and lend them back to you — that is, as long as we decide you will properly look after them.
I have a better idea. When they return the loot, the museums should seek new agreements with the recipients. They will offer their expertise and assistance in conservation and curation; in return the rightful owners will send back the artefacts from time to time, so they can take their place among encyclopedic displays of history’s great civilisations.