TOPIC GUIDE: Cultural Artefacts
"Western museums should agree to requests to repatriate cultural artefacts"
PUBLISHED: 06 May 2010
AUTHOR: David Bowden & James Gledhill
How should we adjudicate between competing claims to cultural artefacts? Advocates of repatriation argue that disputed artefacts are best understood and appreciated in the context of their place of origin and that many artefacts are central to the culture, traditions and identity of indigenous communities. Opponents argue that Western museums must defend their collections, based on the principle that artefacts from diverse cultures should be available to be viewed and studied by the widest possible audience. Prominent artefacts like the Elgin/Parthenon marbles [Ref: BBC], the Benin Bronzes [Ref: BBC News] and the Rosetta Stone [Ref: Independent] have been the focus of longstanding controversy. More recently the focus of attention has expanded to include human remains and sacred objects, initiating a debate about culture as the basis of claims to repatriation. The issues at stake include the role of museums in shaping knowledge and understanding and the extent to which contemporary society can and should right the perceived historical wrongs of the past.
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Cultural Artefacts DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
What is the role of museums?
Many museums were founded in the nineteenth century in order to assemble and curate encyclopaedic collections of objects that would offer comprehensive knowledge of the world. In our post-colonial era it has been argued that this role is no longer so clear and straightforward. Museums have become involved in a debate about which values should take priority: principles of universal understanding and academic research or the need to respect the cultural context and source communities from which artefacts originate.
Who owns culture?
The British Museum and other museums like it argue they exist to promote universal understanding and that this requires maintaining the integrity of their collections [Ref: Guardian]. On this basis, such museums claim to be ‘universal museums’ [Ref: ICOM], which represent the global cultural heritage of humankind and transcend national and cultural boundaries by allowing visitors to compare and contrast artefacts from many different cultures [Ref: Spectator]. Opponents question this idea, which they say is undermined when used as an excuse for dismissing repatriation claims. Local communities should have the right to preserve their own histories and traditions, which was often denied to them under colonial rule [Ref: Museum and Society].
What are the arguments for the repatriation of cultural artefacts?
Advocates argue that repatriation contributes towards making reparations for historical wrongs, that disputed artefacts are best understood and appreciated in the context of their place of origin and that many artefacts are central to the culture, traditions and identity of indigenous communities. In the case of the Parthenon marbles, advocates of repatriation argue that these artefacts have been wrenched from their rightful place and that they need to be seen in the context of the Parthenon to be properly appreciated [Ref: Guardian]. In other instances, it is strongly argued that indigenous communities should choose how their history is shared. Some museums believe that successful acts of repatriation can symbolise our common humanity, building relationships with indigenous communities and right historical wrongs [Ref: Scotsman].
On what grounds is the retention of collections defended?
Opponents of repatriation suggest that the belief that artefacts are best appreciated in their place of origin undermines the very function of a museum. Collecting objects necessarily involves an act of separation. This is valuable since by placing artefacts in a new context they take on an added significance, becoming one thread in the broad tapestry of human civilization [Ref: Guardian]. These artefacts can be vital objects of study into human civilisations, just as research into equally contested human remains provides insights into patterns of migration and evolution, the effects of diet and disease and the influence of climate. Moreover, it is argued, arguments for repatriation imply a narrow and parochial understanding of the human imagination in suggesting that cultural artefacts can only properly be understood by those of that culture, rather than humanity as a whole.
Righting past wrongs?
While there is a technical and legal argument over ownership, it is important to recognise that what is at stake in this discussion are competing interpretations of Enlightenment values. Advocates for repatriation contend that by holding on to these ‘spoils of war’ Western museums continue to benefit from and therefore validate their colonial legacy [Ref: Guardian] and that through repatriation we can offer reparations for past misdeeds [Ref: New Republic]. Yet others contend that the politics of culture are always complex and change as societies develop [Ref: spiked]. Modern Greece is very different from the nation which existed in the nineteenth century, for example, let alone Ancient Greece: so who can we rightfully return these artefacts to? Other critics observe that the contemporary demands for restitution are driven more by contemporary political grievances [Ref: New York Times] and problems and that giving in to an understandable desire to right the wrongs of the past will distract from, and do little to challenge, the current problems various wronged groups face [Ref: Art Newspaper].
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Princeton University Press blog 4 August 2009
Toyin Agbetu Guardian 21 April 2007
Neil MacGregor Guardian 19 April 2007
Jim Gilchrist Scotsman 31 January 2007
Zahi Hawass Asharq Alawsat 17 December 2009
Christopher Hitchens New York Times 18 June 2009
Leo Hickman Guardian Comment is free 3 March 2009
Neal Ascherson Observer 20 June 2004
Michael Kimmelman New York Times 23 October 2009
Sir Norman Rosenthal Art Newspaper December 2008
Tiffany Jenkins Spectator 16 July 2008
Philip Hensher Guardian 24 April 2006
Ingrid D. Rowland New Republic 24 September 2008
David Lowenthal spiked 16 March 2006
Mark O’Neill Museum and Society November 2004
Neil MacGregor Guardian 24 July 2004
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
BBC Radio 4 2010
Cahal Milmo Independent 9 December 2009
Christopher Hitchens Vanity Fair July 2009
Bryan Appleyard The Sunday Times 6 May 2007
British Museum 21 April 2007
BBC News 13 May 2005
Guardian 13 January 2005
BBC Radio 4's Analysis 29 July 2004
Hellenic Ministry of Culture
Guardian Unlimited Special Report
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
China Post 10 April 2010
BBC News 7 April 2010
Scotsman 11 March 2010
The Times 24 February 2010
France 24 15 December 2009
BBC News 13 November 2009
BBC News 21 June 2009
Daily Telegraph 11 May 2009
Guardian 12 May 2007
BBC News 10 May 2007
BBC News 7 May 2007
BBC News 14 March 2006
International Herald Tribune 21 February 2006
BBC News 19 April 2005
Scotsman 22 January 2005
BBC News 21 July 2003
BBC News 9 December 2002
BBC News 27 March 2002
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