opinion   |   oped

EDITORIAL: Museums should return stolen artifacts


French president Emmanuel Macron in March ordered the return of 26 stolen artifacts to the nation of Benin, which was a colony of France when the artifacts were taken from the palace of the ruler at the time. The artifacts will be placed in national museums of Benin. This should be celebrated, and other countries should follow France’s example.

It is unjust that a country doesn’t have its own historical artifacts because invaded by colonists looking to exploit and pillage. This is especially true now that many of these countries have regained their independence. It is morally wrong to withhold artifacts from the country that they originated from, where they hold far more significant cultural and historical value

Earlier this year, the British Museum returned eight stolen artifacts to Iraq but have not even come close to returning the rest of its looted materials. It has ancient sculptures from Nigeria, but instead of returning them, the museum has only offered to loan them to the country, which is frankly condescending. 

Some recognizable examples of priceless artifacts at museums that have yet to be returned to their home countries include the Rosetta Stone from Egypt, the Koh-i-Noor Diamond from India and the Old Fisherman sculpture from Turkey. There are no plans for the return of these objects, despite repeated efforts from the home countries.

The effects of the imperialist era are still being felt today, and returning artifacts grants more goodwill than withholding them. We will never truly move on unless past misdeeds are rectified and forgiven, and returning these artifacts is one step toward paying the reparations owed. Stealing artifacts might be a minor offense compared to what most colonists did to their colonies, but it is one offense that is easy to fix.

No museum stands to lose anything by giving its stolen artifacts back.  Of course, museums are a wonderful educational resource and a great way to learn about other cultures, but the brief joy of, for example, an American museum-goer is often nowhere near the value these artifacts can hold to the heirs in their original countries.

Some exhibits are lost, but the moral integrity gained is insurmountable. Also, museums in colonist countries have enough of their own historical artifacts to display, not to mention those from other countries that are received legally.

European or American museums don’t have the right to hold the primary sources of another nation’s history. That is a privilege, given with explicit permission from that country as an act of trust and international cooperation. Stolen artifacts put on display disrespect that kind of cooperation which the international community should strive for.

Colonialism was an era of unjust atrocities and horrendous exploitation. Previously colonized nations still feel the effects of past colonial exploits. It is up to those colonists to determine their future relationships with their ex-colonies. Decisions that might seem trivial to some, like giving back stolen artifacts, are in fact vital to how the world will interact with each other in 50 years.

International relations can be improved or further destroyed depending on small actions like this. Forgiveness and reconciliation is possible if a country takes the right steps and holds itself accountable for its actions.

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