The Repatriation of Cultural Objects
Leong Yew, Research Fellow, University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore
A large number of the indigenous art and cultural artefacts adorning
Western museums, stately mansions of the European upper class, or
hidden away in the private stashes of businessmen, travelers, tomb
raiders, and soldiers in contact with the colonial world have had
a long and troubled history. Most of these have now come under scrutiny
by a burgeoning postcolonial consciousness that their location in
these places are inherently problematic. At the same time the claims
of ownership by native communities are equally unsettled as issues
of the "right" of ownership, the identity of the owner,
and the circumscription of global capitalism and modern property
law persistently colour these claims. Hence, much like the diasporic
peoples around the world, indigenous art -- once displaced -- becomes
caught in in-between hybrid
spaces, never fully belonging to the countries that host them or
to the places they originated.
Some of the most impassioned movements calling for the restitution
of native art today very much couch their claims on modern legality.
The parties in possession of these cultural objects had wrongfully
acquired -- the terms plunder, looting, and theft are often used
-- them and must under the purview of modern property law return
them to the rightful owners. A number of international organizations
embody such views, for instance UNESCO's convention on the Prevention
of the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural
Property and UNIDROIT's (International Institute for the Unification
of Private Law) Convention
on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. Without doubt
the discrepancy in the meaning of these objects between those who
currently possess them and their claimants cast an enduring shadow
on contemporary imperial discourse. For the museums that acquired
the cultural objects in the heyday of colonialism, the artefacts
were to be put on public display to celebrate the vastness and greatness
of empire while reducing these symbols as mere objects of the imperial
gaze. Today the attitude towards indigenous art may have shifted
to a different register but a similar condescension prevails. Why
repatriate them to some obscure private palace in Africa while millions
of people can see them at the British Museum? Here a persistent
attitude prevails over how the imperial centre values art; art is
meant for public edification and its belonging in a museum really
depicts cosmopolitan ownership.
Amidst these debates there are also a number of issues that must
be considered. Global capitalism has dramatically transformed the
modes of exchange and the use value of objects, and it is through
global capitalism and its colonial antecedent that indigenous art
becomes commodified. This has led to a fair amount of incommensurability
between the original provider and recipient of native art. What
may at one time have been a tribal religious statue may have existed
in a relationship with its native possessors in a way that cannot
be articulated outside of modernity and capitalism. How this transaction
occurs becomes untranslatable; at best interpreted under very violent
forms of physical force. In other words might gives the "new"
owners of indigenous art the right to interpret the circumstances
of the exchange. A similar amount of incommensurability also pervades
the claims for the repatriation of such art. The original communities
that possessed the disputed art have become transformed by colonialism
and capitalism in varying ways. New sovereign states may have superceded
these communities and hybrid notions of ownership -- trapped between
traditional and modern -- may have become the very elements that
propel these claims for artistic repatriation.
All these are not meant to be obstacles for the restitution of
indigenous art but are meant to be issues that must be considered
in light of the claims that are being made. The following selected
links point to a vast array of resources that demonstrate these
debates over "stolen" artistic treasures.
Related External Web Materials
- Art, Antiquity and Law (periodical)
- Graham, Brian, G.J. Ashworth, and J.E. Tunbridge. A Geography
of Heritage: Power, Culture and Economy. London: Arnold, 2000.
- Greenfield, Jeanette. The Return of Cultural Treasures. Cambridge
and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
- Hitchens, Christopher. The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be
Returned to Greece? New York: Verso, 1998.
- Journal of Cultural Heritage (periodical)
- Kowalski, Wojciech W. Art Treasures and War: A Study on the
Restitution of Looted Cultural Property Pursuant to Public International
Law. Ed. Tim Schadla-Hall. London: Institute of Art and Law,
- Messenger, Phyllis Mauch, ed. The Ethics of Collecting Cultural
Property: Whose Culture? Whose Property? Albuquerque: University
of New Mexico Press, 1989.
- Miller, David L., David W. Meyers, and Anne L. Cowe. "Restitution
of Art and Cultural Objects: A Re-Assessment of the Role of Limitation."
Art, Antiquity and Law. 6:1 (2001). 1-17.
- Pal, H. Bhisham. The Plunder of Art. New Delhi: Abhinav
- Palmer, Norman. "Sending Them Home Some Observations on
the Relocation of Cultural Objects from UK Museum Collections."
Art, Antiquity and Law. 5:4 (2000). 343-354.
- Washburn, Wilcomb E. Against the Anthropological Grain. New
Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1998.
- United Nations. Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
Backgrounder: The Protection of World Cultural and Natural
Heritage. Paris, 1983.
- Ziff, Bruce and Pratima V. Rao, eds. Borrowed Power: Essays
on Cultural Appropriation. New Brunswick: Rutgers University