Issue of the Month

THW Return Objects in Museums to their Country of Origin

Background

Throughout history, significant and important objects have been taken from their country of origin by more powerful countries and empires, which have displayed them in their own state museums (e.g. The British Museum in London, or the Louvre in Pairs).

The contested objects range widely from sculptures and paintings, to monuments and human remains. Some examples include: mummies from Egypt, masks from African kingdoms and vases from Greece. Acquired legally or illegally, peacefully or by force, a strong case is now being made for the return of these objects to the countries they were taken from – but what are the arguments for and against this happening?

Important Questions to Think About

Is it better for an object to be in the country it came from, or to be in a prominent museum where lots of tourists can see it?

Returning objects to their original cultural context allows them to be better understood, as it remains within the history of the country. However, some argue that important pieces of art, and historical objects, should be accessible to as many people around the world as possible – does this means leaving them in the biggest museums in popular tourist cities like London?

Should objects be returned if they were taken illegally?

Many of these objects were taken without permission, or during a period of war/political instability – for example during the Second World War, the Nazis raided many museums in the countries they invaded, and stole artefacts. Often objects were owned by individuals but were on display in national museums; many of these have still not been returned to their rightful owners.

However, these events are now part of the object’s past, and throughout history many objects have been moved from country to country – so where do we draw the line? Thousands of years ago, for example, the Roman’s took sculptures from Greece – should we demand their return now?

Should objects be taken if it protects them from destruction?

War-torn countries are a dangerous place for precious and rare historical artefacts. Often they are destroyed by bombs, or stolen and sold. The unrest in Syria over the past few years, and the rise in the illegal trade of historical objects, highlights how destructive political instability can be to cultural heritage. For example, Syria had many unique ancient monuments that, because of the civil unrest, have now been destroyed.

However, it is now being argued that objects that were taken to be preserved from harm decades, or even centuries ago (e.g. the Parthenon Marbles in Greece) could now be returned, because the countries are creating their own state-of-the-art museums to house the objects.

Should these objects only be displayed in their country of origin?

It is part of that country’s cultural heritage, and bringing back the objects would boost tourism, and allow a more complete history of that country to exist – but this would mean that you could only see Egyptian mummies in Egypt, and Greek sculptures in Greece, and this would limit the number of people who could access and see these wonderful object. Is it fairer to return objects to their country of origin where they might be seen by fewer people, or to allow them to remain in a place where more can see them?

Find out more:

Watch Debate Mate’s very own Mia Smith debating this topic in the Oxford Union alongside Dr Zahi Hawass, the ex-Egyptian Minister for Antiquities

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