We've touched on the idea of repatriation of museum artefacts before, most notably with reference to the Elgin Marbles, but never really had a proper discussion, and I thought it would be interesting to try to have one.
There are, of course, arguments for and against returning artefacts. A brief look (mostly at these two articles) came up with the following arguments against returning artefacts. I've also put in my counters to them.
The objects were purchased legally
Argument: Many famous objects, such as the Parthenon marbles, were purchased according to the legal requirements of the time. If we start saying that these sales should not be recognised as valid this has potentially significant consequences for all sorts of things.
Counter: Some were purchased legally, but a lot of the sales were dodgy at best and a great deal more was outright looted. For example, the British Museum has objects looted from the Old Summer Palace during the Second Opium War. We are proudly displaying stolen goods. That's not exactly setting a good example.
The countries asking for the return of the objects did not exist when the objects were made
Argument: Asserting ownership based solely on geography is playing into a cultural nationalist agenda.
Counter: So what if the country didn't exist when the objects were made? England didn't exist when the Sutton Hoo burial was made, but that doesn't make them any less relevant or important to the history of our country. While countries can use objects to advance nationalist agendas the object doesn't need to be in that nation, or even unique or interesting, to be used in that way. Look at the fuss around flags that's occurring in the UK right now.
The objects would not have survived had they not been looked by European institutions
Argument: The museums have been good custodians and therefore deserve to retain the objects.
Counter: While there are some objects for which this argument may be valid (it's most commonly cited in reference to the Parthenon marbles), for many object their destruction without intervention does not seem to have been ensured. According to the wikipedia page on the Old Summer Palace, "Many such treasures dated back to the Shang, Zhou and Han dynasties and were up to 3,600 years old". Are we really going to argue that after caring for these objects for 3,600 years the Chinese would have suddenly given up some time in the last 100 years? While that's an extreme example, it's clear that the vast majority of objects would have been just as safe if they had not left their countries of origin.
Culturally significant objects should be displayed where they are most easily accessible to researchers and the public
Argument: Museums such as the British Museum have significantly more visitors than museums in the countries where the objects originated, and the museums have more resources to permit better study by experts.
Counter: The British Museum is a big and powerful museum because it became one of the main receivers of objects brought into Europe from colonisation efforts around the globe. If the objects had been allowed to stay in their countries of origin then who knows, maybe we would all talk about the Nigerian and Egyptian museums with as much reverence as we do the BM. Rather than continue this imbalance that resulted from centuries of colonisation and exploitation museums such as the BM should be working with other museums to ensure their collections are maintained to internationally recognised standards and sharing knowledge.
Additionally, with the growth of virtual collections there is no reason for people to be unable to access a collection due to geography. And seeing the objects in the context of the country in which they were made as it exists today can be hugely valuable.
The objects can be seen in the context of world history which would not be otherwise possible.
Argument: Museums such as the British Museum have a global focus that means you can see objects in relation to other cultures around the world and across time, and see how they have influenced and shaped each other.
Counter: One of the reasons few museums outside the west have little global focus is that Europe has not been pillaged in the same way to provide these museums with artefacts. Rather than say that these museums should therefore get to hold on to everything, surely it's an argument that they should share more of their collections through long-term loans and assisting in the acquisition of objects that can help museums outside Europe to build up collections with a global focus too.
The advent of 3D scanning and printing means that objects can be reproduced to a very high quality. There is little stopping museums outside the west from getting replicas of significant objects to assist in providing this global context without risking the original objects. This method can, of course, be used to provide the European museums replicas and allow the originals to be repatriated where desired.
Returning the objects for political reasons leaves open the possibility that they will become political footballs, forever spending time in transit between museums
Argument: This is a slightly hyperbolic rephrasing of the concern so I'll quote the section it's trying to paraphrase,
Counter: Repatriation has been a topic of debate in the museum sector for decades, the idea that political expediency will result in hasty and ultimately regretted decisions misunderstands how any of this works. While it may be possible that some objects become the focus of nationalist sentiment that may turn them into political footballs in their own countries, there seems little chance of this resulting at an international level. And that can happen regardless of their location. Indeed, it could be argued that by refusing to return them they are more at risk of becoming focal points of nationalism than if returned.Although there may be legitimate arguments for the return of some artefacts, either now or in the future, doing so by political diktat is dangerous. As we all know, politicians tend to focus on the here and now, responding to the pressures of the moment. They are susceptible to putting political expediency above the preservation of cultural heritage and scholarship.
If we start returning objects we will have to return everything and be left with empty museums
Argument: if we start allowing objects to be returned then everyone will start requesting repatriation of objects, however legitimate the museum's ownership of that object is, and the museum collections will be significantly impacted as a result, limiting their use as educational and research institutions.
Counter: museum collections are massive. The BM has 8 million objects [PDF], of which only 1% are on display. While the British museum holds a lot of material that is of dubious origin, only a small percentage of it is subject to requests for repatriation. And most of that is not even on display. Human remains are one area where there is strong demand for repatriation and burial from communities around the world. Museum rules make it almost impossible to deaccession objects, and this is often used as an argument against doing so - "the rules won't let us". Of course, the rules were made by people and can be changed by people if the will is there.
So after than very long-winded introduction, what do people think? Should we return objects? Are replicas sufficient or is there something special that comes from seeing the original objects? Should we be even focusing on the objects when really what needs to be recognised is the huge impact on the culture and history of the countries due to colonisation? Or should we just say the past is the past and move on?