Art Repatriation and its Essential Role in Post-Colonial Diplomacy

As postcolonial nations grapple with the legacy of colonial rule and assert for themselves a more prominent role in world affairs, they are promoting art from their pre-colonial heritage to rebuild their national cultural identities in the form of paintings, pottery, and more. Despite the fact that the repatriation of art stolen by colonizers plays a crucial role in this rebuilding, pushback against repatriation from the former colonial powers remains strong. Opponents ranging from politicians to museum curators argue that these works are able to be appreciated by a wider audience in museums outside of their native countries, but advocates for repatriation say that it is unfair to let this asymmetrical power balance continue. This ongoing debate has effects that spill outside museum doors, and it’s essential to take steps to address them for ethical, diplomatic, and security reasons. Through the creation of strong legal frameworks, previous colonial powers can fulfill their responsibility to return stolen works, postcolonial nations will regain pieces of their heritage, and both will create global partnerships and strengthen diplomatic relations. 

The Lasting Legacy of Colonialism 

Across the globe, art carries a fundamental importance in affirming cultural identity. It has the ability to preserve a society’s history and values through centuries’ worth of turmoil and change. It’s no surprise, then, that art is often targeted by those who seek to destroy cultural heritage. During Europe’s imperial era, colonial armies intentionally looted art as a way to control colonized territories and subsequently either destroyed it in a condemnation of ‘paganism’ or displayed it as the spoils of conquest. As time passed, many works were sold to buyers who knew about their illegal procurement and simply didn’t care. The works that survived this arduous journey are now held in many of the world’s preeminent museums, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the British Museum in London. As a result of colonial genocide and destruction, it’s estimated that as much as 90 to 95 percent of African artistic heritage is now located outside of its country of origin. 

Over the course of the last few hundred years, the importance of these troves of cultural heritage has been neglected in the world of their colonizers, barely managing a sentence or two on museum plaques. But as their homelands sought independence, the works and their subsequent absence created a missing piece in the national identities of postcolonial nations. Many newly independent states in Africa and Asia had arbitrary borders dating back to the Berlin conference and faced the challenge of uniting diverse peoples within their borders. Confronted with this daunting task, these former colonies realized that they could have used art as an important tool for unification. Consequently, it did not take long for leaders of these new nations to justify the need for recovering missing artworks. A French report published in 2018 found that African leaders have asked for the repatriation of their cultural heritage since the very start of their independence. In 1978, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, the Director-General of UNESCO, wrote A Plea for the Return of an Irreplaceable Cultural Heritage. This plea did not ask for much. It only asked that countries be returned the works “which best represent their culture, which they feel are the most vital and whose absence causes them the greatest anguish.” Thus began the long search for repatriation. 

Renewed Efforts for Art Repatriation 

Since then, global calls for art repatriation have only grown. Scholars and leaders around the world, from Peru to Nigeria, to Greece, have demanded that their countries’ heritage be returned. As asserted by Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, Peru’s vice minister for culture, “We want it back because it is here where it belongs. It is here where it was produced.” There have been a few famous calls for art repatriation. One notable example that has captured media attention is the case of the Elgin Marbles, a set of sculptures and friezes that were pilfered from the Parthenon in Greece and spirited away to Britain by Lord Elgin in 1802, who was supposedly saving the artwork from being damaged. Instead, the artwork has quite literally been split in half. Now, the sculptures sit in the British Museum. In the centuries since, the Greek government has demanded the return of the marbles. 

Controversially, the British Museum has denied this request. The British Museum and the government have stated that the marbles were acquired legally and that the British museum is the best place to house them. The museum’s trustees, and many other opponents of art repatriation, argue that more people would be able to enjoy the work’s artistic value at the museum where it is currently stored. This trend repeats itself in cases across the world. However, authors of the 2018 report succinctly provide the counter-argument that enjoyment and appreciation of art “cannot simply be reserved to the inheritors of an asymmetrical history.” In any case, over 14.5 million people have visited the Acropolis Museum, where the marbles would have been relocated, since its opening. This suggests, despite what the British Museum may want you to believe, that the marbles can indeed be appreciated by a significant number of visitors from around the world in the country of their origin. 

Even considering the nitpicky fights over the metrics of viewership or the technological ability to preserve art that have come to define the debate over the Elgin Marbles, the right of nations to reclaim their own cultural heritage should take precedence. This is the argument of Myanmar, Indonesia, and Cambodia – countries that have successfully negotiated the return of many artifacts stolen during their own periods of colonial ruin. Other Asian powers have taken a different route than Greece. Many wealthy Chinese buyers have sidestepped these debates and simply bought artifacts stolen during China’s “century of humiliation” for millions of dollars at auctions. Notably, however, Vietnam’s government has not pushed for repatriation at all. Quynh Tran of Artnet points out that the country “does not have any national legal framework to handle potential restitutions,” showing a crucial gap in the repatriation process that negotiators must fill. 

Despite continued obstacles, it’s obvious that there has been an overall cultural shift in favor of repatriation. Luis Jaime Castillo Butters writes that “now, what was before a sign of power is a sign of weakness.” Museums recognize the desire for the repatriation of stolen works, and some have been more willing to return them. Last year, two of the Benin Bronzes were returned to the Oba palace in Nigeria. The return of the Benin Bronzes marks a milestone in the repatriation process, as their looting in the British conquest of West Africa was one of the most infamous examples of colonial art theft. Another notable example of successful art repatriation happened in 2010 when Yale University’s Peabody Museum negotiated a deal to return a collection of artifacts to Peru. The deal paved the way for Peru to repatriate many additional artifacts stolen during its colonial era. These successful deals have set precedents for international legal cooperation and begun to open the floodgates for more negotiations to happen in the future. 

American Responsibilities and the Path Forward 

While many of the most egregious examples of stolen artwork are found in Europe, the U.S. is not blameless either and is also responsible for solving this issue. The U.S. has a vested interest in repatriating these artifacts and ensuring that artifacts being sold are authentic for diplomatic purposes. 

Art repatriations provide an opportunity for diplomats to deepen negotiations across country borders and for the U.S. to build goodwill with its diplomatic partners. Situations like that of the Elgin Marbles have demonstrated how debates over art repatriation can strain diplomatic relations; amidst negotiations for the repatriation of the marbles, relations between Greece and the U.K. have been severely tested. In contrast, the Peru deal illustrated both the cultural and diplomatic benefits of successful repatriation negotiations, with institutions agreeing to build a joint research center. Other American museums have followed this trend by creating their own provenance research initiatives to detect works in their collections that were acquired illegally, then returning them to the rightful owners. The U.S. government itself has worked with indigenous groups to rework the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), demonstrating that mutual collaboration in creating legal frameworks can go a long way towards improving diplomatic relations. Additionally, these initiatives demonstrate political will for repatriation, something that is currently lacking in Europe’s museums. Through its domestic efforts and negotiations such as the Yale-Peru deal, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to set global precedents in legal and diplomatic frameworks for repatriation. 

The U.S.’s involvement in the legal enforcement of art repatriation has also had implications past the diplomatic sphere. In a situation more recent than colonial looting, it was discovered that thousands of works were illegally smuggled out of Iraq and Afghanistan during the U.S. invasions to be sold abroad. Concurrently, it was discovered that ISIS was benefiting from sales of looted artwork, while the Taliban was busy destroying priceless cultural heritage sites like the Bamiyan Buddhas. These high-profile incidents and the ensuing public scrutiny prompted the U.S. government to improve its legal enforcement of art repatriation. Renewed efforts led to I.C.E. successfully repatriating over a thousand works to Iraq since 2008, as well as an investigation culminating in the repatriation of almost four thousand objects in 2018. The enforcement of international laws that guide countries in investigations of artifacts’ origin and in repatriation negotiations creates a more tangible legal framework to push for repatriation, which will prove essential as works continue to be returned to their rightful homes. 

The diplomatic and legal precedents the U.S. has set are promising, and it is essential for both museums and diplomats to continue exploring routes to repatriation. Post-colonial nations have demonstrated their need for these important pieces of their national heritage, and have also proven that they are more than able to honor and preserve these priceless pieces in their museums. As these countries take to the global stage, it’s time for countries that were once colonizers to acknowledge their ethical imperative to let go of their colonial spoils. Not only is it a sign of respect to their partners, but it is a diplomatic win-win situation. Countries returning art demonstrate their friendliness on the global stage, and the art returns to its rightful home. Legal routes have proven to be the best option for successful negotiations, and they create partnerships as well. From Yale and Peru to France and Nigeria, there is no doubt that art repatriation has the potential to yield fruitful collaboration.

Categories: Culture, Foreign Affairs

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