Should museums now return Indigenous artifacts that were forcefully taken by colonial forces throughout history?
Museums are educational sites that preserve history and give insight into the values and culture of a given society. Their artifacts serve both purposes. However, considering the colonial legacies behind the obtainment of many museum artifacts, repatriation of them has become a hot debate. Scholars are delving into the evolution of colonialism, how it has shaped the field of archaeology, and what it means to ‘decolonize’ archaeology.
Artifacts and Colonial Legacies
To explore the relationship between artifacts and colonial legacies, I got some insight from Anisa Côté, a recent graduate from the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies (CNERS) at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Côté currently works for Inlailawatash, a Tsleil-Waututh company that operates on Coast Salish land and specializes in environmental resource services, such as vegetation management and community archaeology projects. Her honours thesis explores how some archaeological artifacts have been tied to ‘Western’ ideals. In particular, Côté studied the work of prolific British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard and documentation of his excavations at several ancient Assyrian sites. Layard spent many years excavating the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud, located in the northern region of what is today Iraq.
In 2016, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – also known as ISIS – destroyed the archaeological site of Nimrud. In her work, Côté pointed out how, amidst several other reasons, the militant group targeted the site because it symbolized a strong link to the “Western World.” She argued in her thesis that this association between ancient artifacts and archaeological sites in the Middle East, and around the world, points to the ongoing legacy of colonialism and imperialism, which shaped many archaeological sites and artifacts.
According to Salam Al Quntar, a research fellow from the University of Pennsylvania Museum, “radical Islamists adopt the view that ancient artifacts are particularly associated with an art-worshiping West” and “the destruction of cultural heritage is also done to aggravate the Western enemy.” Côté pointed out that at the site of Nimrud, this “colonial association” originated from the exploits of Layard, who began several excavations at the site of the ancient Assyrian empire in the late 1840s, with support from the British Museum.
The Assyrian Empire
Côté explained that while the capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire was constantly changing, Nimrud was the capital city around 800 BC. She commented that “the Assyrians are depicted as an aggressive, expansionist, and militaristic society,” partly due to foreign descriptions of the ancient people, such as through the work of Layard. The archaeologist came across enormous wall reliefs that depicted militaristic campaigns in graphic detail and described the Assyrians as “a barbaric and uncivilized people with evil and despotic rulers.” This narrative dominated the European view of who the Assyrians really were. Côté found that in today’s world, these harmful narratives – particularly those that depict Iraqi people as violent or evil – still exist in the animosity between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ powers.
In England, the works of Layard became wildly popular and known as the “first archaeological [bestsellers].” Côté added that Layard depicted himself as “a character, like Indiana Jones.” His books were short and easy to read, included many photos, and were sold at local train stations. Layard’s work became massively influential in England because English people were learning about the people of Iraq for the first time. Moreover, his books – filled with racist stereotypes of local people – shaped a popular narrative that still exists to this day.
Why There Has Been Pushback
Layard was incredibly influential in sparking British interest in Assyrian sites and treasures, such as the Nimrud reliefs. He was also largely responsible for perpetuating ideas of rightful British ownership over the artifacts. As Côté explained, Layard strongly believed that the local inhabitants of Iraq were “lazy” and “backward,” creating a justification for stealing important elements of their culture and history. In his point of view, if the locals were incapable of properly caring for and appreciating ancient artifacts, then it was his duty to restore and pay homage to the great ancient civilizations of the Middle East.
Al Quntar demonstrates how this mindset exists in modern society, as he refers to a common argument for why some people favour museums keeping stolen artifacts: “the political instability in the Middle East, which has resulted in the destruction and plundering of museums, supports the proposition that artifacts are perhaps better off being respected and secured in Western museums.” This mindset parallels Layard’s belief that locals were not advanced enough to fully appreciate and take care of ancient artifacts in their homeland. This way of thinking exposes the irony of ISIL’s actions in destroying the ancient site of Nimrud in an attempt to provoke Western powers.
Steps Towards Returning Artifacts?
The British National Museum has yet to return artifacts to their rightful owners, a decision upheld by two Acts by the Parliament of the United Kingdom which essentially ban permanent repatriation – or at least make it extremely difficult. The British Museum Act of 1963 prohibits the National Museum from disposing of its artifacts unless under special circumstances, and the Heritage Act of 1983 does not permit giving away artifacts if it would be a “detriment to the interests of students or other members of the public.”
While the British National Museum does not seem eager to return any items, the government of France has taken tentative measures to repatriate artifacts. In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron commissioned an in-depth report recommending the return of artwork that was stolen from Sub-Saharan African countries during the colonial era. During a speech he gave at Burkina Faso’s University of Ouagadougou in 2017, Macron also promised to prioritize the return of stolen cultural artifacts, stating: “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France. There are historical explanations for that, but there are no valid justifications that are durable and unconditional. African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”
Despite Macron’s strong statements in favour of returning artifacts, very few items have been sent back to former French colonies, such as Benin and Burkina Faso. In France, there are currently over 90,000 looted artifacts from the African continent, mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2020, 26 works known collectively as “The Benin Bronzes” were returned to Benin authorities from France. The Benin Bronzes were plundered in 1897 by the British and displayed in museums across Europe. They are “a group of more than a thousand brass sculptures and plaques” which adorned the palace of the West African Kingdom of Benin (now known as Nigeria) in the late 19th Century.
More recently, Germany has committed to returning its collection of Benin Bronzes beginning in 2022. German Culture Minister Monika Guetters announced in April 2021 that the collection – which is the second largest in the world – will be returned “to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of those whose cultural treasures were stolen during colonisation.”
I asked Côté for her opinion on whether museums should begin the process of returning artifacts and if this was an achievable goal. She said, “Yes it should be done, but many countries don’t want to give back artifacts because of the potential loss in revenue.” She continued by saying that “there is the discussion of ownership[,] but there is also the thought [of] how much institutions[,] such as the British National Museum[,] are making each year from displaying stolen artifacts.” She remarked that an important remnant of colonization is that colonial powers, such as England, are still actively benefiting from their exploits.
What Does ‘Decolonizing Archaeology’ Mean to You?
When asked about what the future of ‘decolonizing archaeology’ meant to her, Côté said that it would not just be the repatriation of artifacts, but also a major shift in scholarship, such as having scholars from Iraq write about their own history. While shifting away from old narratives, there should be more acknowledgement of every human population having the right to own their respective heritage and culture. Overall, she emphasized that decolonization needs to happen through local people having agency over their own cultures and that, in some ways, this approach is more profound than wishy-washy statements from world leaders and empty policy promises.