After over a century, multiple cities have announced plans to repatriate bronze artifacts to Benin. These Benin bronzes, which currently reside in museums in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and many other countries, were historically used to honor Beninese ancestors and are representative of a rich culture and shared ideology. However, in 1897, British troops invaded the Kingdom of Benin and looted the bronzes amidst the destruction. According to The Collector, the violent British invasion of Benin, the costly massacre it led to, and the subsequent looting of African artifacts all contributed to an erasure of cultural heritage. The looting of the Benin bronzes was not a unique event, but Britain’s continued insistence that the bronzes are British property reveals a much larger issue of assumed ownership, despite cultural origination and significance.
Looting is an inherently violent act. Even if individuals are not being injured, the forced removal of artifacts from museums, places of worship, or archeological sites has painful repercussions for the communities which have respect for the objects being looted. Although historically-held ideas of ownership are different from modern beliefs, and although those ideas vary amongst different communities and cultures, it is generally understood that someone who steals something else is not the rightful owner of that property. Destruction and theft of cultural artifacts have detrimental effects on the communities which experience this form of violence. Institutions and museums which are guilty of looting cultural artifacts, regardless of the way in which those artifacts were obtained, are obligated to repatriate those artifacts.
Unfortunately, looting cultural artifacts and adding them to well-known institutions like the British Museum has had historically racist implications. Colonial and imperial ideologies played a significant part in encouraging those powers to target culturally important artifacts to loot from “natives.” These imperialist ideas encouraged beliefs of superiority, which justified colonial theft by claiming that the people who owned the artifacts were less intelligent, or less human, and therefore did not deserve to have them. In other words, dominant colonial powers like Great Britain were able to rule that their actions were justified when they invaded and removed culturally significant artifacts. The resulting sense of entitlement encouraged violence, leading many artifacts to have a “trail of blood” and allowing artifacts like the Benin bronzes to end up in museums around the world rather than remaining in their places of origin. Although many communities still claim ownership of the artifacts located in places like museums, institutions frequently ignore those claims of ownership, continuing to exercise their perceived right to display the artifacts and perpetuating imperialist ideas of superiority.
More progressive museums are now taking steps to repatriate artifacts that were obtained through violence. In the United States, laws have been passed attempting to return cultural artifacts and human remains to Native American tribes. Some British institutions have worked with archaeologists and museum curators in Benin to return the stolen bronzes. After over a hundred years, these institutions are recognizing that they do not own the looted artifacts.
However, even when artifacts are repatriated, significant tensions remain. Museum curators and institutions which have historically benefitted from looting do not have the same respect for cultural artifacts as the communities to whom the artifacts more properly belong. Consequently, groups which have experienced looting resent how the institutions which received their cultural artifacts have treated them, their lack of respect for the cultural heritage the artifacts represent, and their failure to acknowledge the violent ways in which the artifacts were obtained.
While returning stolen artifacts is an important step in fostering more peaceful relationships between different communities, museums which have a history of looting and theft – especially violent looting and theft – should work with the communities which have been impacted to acknowledge their past actions and improve future relations. One simple way to improve these relationships would be for the museums which stole cultural artifacts to acknowledge that they were never those artifacts’ real owners. This acknowledgement could take many forms, like an educational initiative among museums, or, in a more public form, a mass return of artifacts to their rightful owners. Of course, simply returning artifacts is unlikely to heal the tense relationship between communities which experienced looting and the institutions which claim a right to their cultural heritage on its own, but this acknowledgement of past wrongs is an important step in learning respect for cultural artifacts and advocating for more heritage to be returned in the future.
Furthermore, these institutions should take steps to enact and follow legislation which prevents the looting, especially violent looting, of cultural artifacts in the future. So far, UNESCO has played a part in encouraging laws against looting by laying down groundwork for the returning and ownership of cultural artifacts in their Convention on the Ownership of Cultural Property. Additions to this convention are added consistently, but it can take some time for countries to sign their acceptance of these laws.
Acknowledgement and law are two important factors that can contribute to the return and repatriation of cultural artifacts and can ease the historical tension between looters and communities that have been looted. However, respect is an even more important factor. Institutions and museums that are currently in possession of looted artifacts might understand their historical importance, but it can be difficult for them to respect the cultural significance that those artifacts have for the communities that owned them. As modern laws require looted artifacts to be repatriated, museums and institutions that have to return their collections need to respect the cultural magnitude that this return holds.
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