Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Artifact Repatriation

A year and a half ago, I wrote a post about "The Restitution of Cultural Property in the Modern Age." It was a post sparked in large part by meeting Dr. Robert Anderson, former director of the British Museum. He spoke at my graduate university that spring and then later joined my classmates and I in our museum studies class. It was supremely interesting to get a perspective on artifacts like the Elgin Marbles from someone who once actually had power over said artifacts.

Last Monday, I came across two stories on Reuters and BBC News detailing more nationalistic conflict in the museum world centering upon the "return" of certain artifacts. From the BBC, "France's Louvre museum returns five frescoes to Egypt." And from Reuters online, "Egypt to ask British Museum for Rosetta Stone."

Now, here's the thing about "returning" objects to countries where they were excavated. On the one hand, I completely understand the desire of a country to have intellectual and physical control over an object - a thing of wood or bone or stone or something else entirely - that hails from their shores. I do.

However, isn't it of some significance that most of these objects were excavated and placed in the stewardship of a museum solely because some first world nation provided the funding and vision to do so? And that most of these objects are better cared for in their current (non-original) countries than they would likely be in their "home" nations?

I understand that this issue often becomes about the White Man and his history of very very bad interactions with poorer nations. And for good reason, I know. However, as a museum professional, I keep coming around to some of the basic tenets of collections care: care & preservation of artifacts and public access to said items. These ideals are painfully practical but, to me at least, incredibly important. I say whoever can care for the collections better and ensure greater public access (the eternal Sophie's choice) - wins them all!

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