Restitution and Repatriation: Art and Culture in 2021

Art and Culture in 2021: Restitution and Repatriation 

From Benin bronzes to Ancient Fayum portraits, across Europe, repatriation and subsequent decolonisation movements have reinvigorated cultural institutions to introspect and rethink their established exhibits. 

Colonial art and artefacts have long been the treasured displays of many Western museums over the centuries. One of the most treasured possessions of these museums – their collections from Ancient Egypt, have been the subject of great fascination and controversy, perhaps in equal parts; and have been represented in various contemporary mediums through a postcolonial lens. However, decolonisation, art repatriation, and other movements in the Western world have challenged monotonous representation of “othered” cultures within Western societies. Many classical and figurative works, representing the  synchrony of multiple cultures, were historically presented torn from their original context and were usually displayed for aesthetic purposes alone.    

The traditional presentation of colonial art and artefacts has been a process of “othering” (where a person or people are identified as intrinsically different, alien, and “other” to oneself) that has continued well into contemporary times. Ancient Egyptian artefacts have served European museums well over the centuries, attracting crowds from all over the world. However, Egyptomania during the 19th century further contributed to the massive import of sacred artefacts, which were then exhibited to the European public, usually without accurate context or provenance – and, of course, without permission. 

The issues covered in this article, which encompass the established discipline of art and archaeological history, are a response to the rise of modern cultural movements in the Western world. The ever-changing political and social environment has enabled us to look at these acquired art pieces and artefacts through a different lens and have sparked intense debates about ethnicity, race culture, and the legitimacy of European colonialism. This article also aims to highlight new initiatives and policy changes being implemented by cultural institutions around Europe, and especially here in Ireland, to address this issue. Modern society has an increased cultural and social awareness around the legacy of colonialism; and the institutions, which serve as custodians of our heritage, have a duty to reflect on and consider their own role here.

The evaluation of our contemporary cultural institutions remains an important task that has often been overlooked. While they  have adjusted to social liberalisation, many of their present-day displays still rely on paternalistic colonial narratives. Historically, these acquisitions were not exclusively motivated by profit, but the relationship between business and the arts was (and remains) a symbiotic one, wherein scholarly erudition and the accurate representation of displayed objects often came second to commercial considerations. 

Such exhibits interpret history, whether ancient or modern, through a contemporary and regulated lens. They provide evidence of how the past is presented to the public through an established discourse as “settled history”. Exhibits often have great historical significance and provenance, but the reasoning behind the collectors interest in these acquired antiquities is rarely discussed openly in public. Consequently, introspection by our institutions remains vital in order to respect the “othered” cultures, educate the public, and create a truly well informed and ethically aware cultural experience that is inclusive of all. 

Recent initiatives taken by institutions in Ireland

Restitution and Repatriation

The National Museum of Ireland, which was established on 14 August 1877 and included collections from such cultural institutions as the Royal Dublin Society and the Royal Irish Academy, is categorised into four specialised divisions. These are  Archaeology, Decorative Arts and History, Country Life, and Natural History. The Museum of Archaeology boasts a vast array of pre-historic Irish and Ancient Egyptian antiquities; as well as Cypriot and Roman artefacts. The latter exhibits antiquities like Ancient Egyptian mummies and funerary portraits. 

Back then, even though a British colony, it is important to note that Irish archaeologists like R.A.S Macalister (1870-1950) were active excavators in the Middle East. Consequently, imperial institutions and museums in Ireland received and benefitted from the aforementioned artefacts. 

However, on 25 June 2020, the Board of the National Museum of Ireland held a video conference where the issues discussed included “Human Rights and Equality”, “Museum priorities and Community Engagement Strategy”, “Diversity and Equality”, and “Addressing Collection Provenance”. Audrey Whitty, Head of Collections, stated that a working group would be established to scrutinise the provenance of the artefacts. There are an estimated 15,000 objects in the museum’s ethnographic collection, many of which were acquired during the colonial period. These should be considered for repatriation to their country-of-origin to better engage with “multicultural communities”. Interestingly, Irish politicians like Fintan Warfield, a Sinn Fein senator who has previously raised this issue, supports this initiative.

The article pictured above further highlights criticism of major museums like the British Museum in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Geoffrey Roberts, who authored “Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning plundered Treasure,” identifies the trustees of the British Museum as the “world’s largest receivers of stolen property.

With regards to Irish cultural institutions and their acquisition history, the excerpts from the Board meeting of the National Museum of Ireland shown below, are a key indicator of Irish institutions’ openness to implementing substantial changes.

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However, it would be unrealistic to assume that all major cultural institutions will participate in the restitution of stolen artworks and artefacts, especially as artefacts from Ancient Egypt and Africa still serve as some of the most prized exhibits in Europe. Moreover, there is an argument to be made that not every artefact can be categorised as “colonial plunder”: before the establishment of modern Egyptology in the late 19th century, there was a lack of a universal structured acquisitions policy. Today, this process of restitution and repatriation is likely to be lengthy and it will be a while before most of the stolen antiquities are returned to their respective homelands.

The repatriation movement should be a process implemented by all major museums in possession of colonial artefacts, especially since these were usually of sentimental, historical, and cultural value to the claimant country. Additionally, funerary artworks like the Fayum portraits, Egyptian death masks, along with famed mummies excavated from Egypt were part of intricate and sensitive burial rituals, which emphasised the importance of the afterlife. It is therefore imperative that our museums to ensure that colonialist narratives are dismantled and that the displayed exhibits are respectful and inclusive

Increased globalisation and social movements that problematise and challenge prevailing Western narratives and power structures have led to the reinvigoration of the debate surrounding the aforementioned antiquities. Encyclopaedic museums like the British Museum have benefited greatly from subsequent colonial acquisitions and many of these artefacts are exhibited in Western metropolitan cities that are very distant from the lands and cultures that they were appropriated from. Consequently, these artefacts continue to be most easily accessed by Europeans (the general public, local scholars, etc.) whereas the cultures that they belong to have no such access.

The cultural sector could prove itself capable of being more inclusive and representative. In a globalised and connected world with constantly changing paradigms and perspectives, cultural institutions must take into account the background, history, culture, and feelings of its visitors. The constructed “othering” of Ancient Egypt is not a result of contemporary exhibits and policies but a dominant discourse that has existed for centuries.

Moreover, a diplomatic and constructive approach between Western museums and Egypt is paramount. While the return of all antiquities is highly unlikely, the return of some can serve as inspiration for the return of others, improving cultural relations and the representation of these cultures.

The long awaited Grand Egyptian Museum or the Giza Museum in Cairo is set to open later this year, where it will house extensive Egyptian artefacts and the complete relics of Tutankhamun. It is going to be the largest archaeological museum in the world, where the latest technologies, like Virtual Reality, will be utilised, wherein, the local public will be able to experience the history, culture, and magnificence of their ancestors.

Recent initiatives taken by European institutions are a step in the right direction. However, one of the largest receivers of colonial artefacts, the British Museum, is unlikely to return major antiquities like the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone and many more Mesopotamian relics anytime soon. The exhibits bring people from all over the world to the museum, hence, it would be catastrophic for it to acquiesce to the demands of the repatriation movement. 

It can be concluded that it is inevitable that cultural institutions will need to face the historical realities of the objects housed within their premises and rethink the way these artefacts are displayed and portrayed to the public. The coming months or even years will be crucial for the restitution movement. With the re-opening of many galleries and museums across Europe, a much awakened public might expect some drastic changes. 


(Images courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland and The Sunday Times)

Gandharva Joshi
Gandharva Joshi

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