History experts push museums to return stolen cultural artifacts

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Ngaire Blankenberg has taken his children to museums around the world, and now they expect to hear him point out things that shouldn’t be there.

“They’re always up for a rant,” she laughed.

Blankenberg, who is South African and director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, said seeing items that could have been obtained unethically can make her “tense and uncomfortable”. Objects purchased legally by museums may still have been stolen throughout their history, experts told USA TODAY. .

“Like a lot of Africans, I have a pretty visceral reaction,” she said. “I feel insulted, hurt, I feel like there is violence associated with even this act of posting, no matter how many warnings.”

For decades, individuals and communities have used the legal system to push museums to return stolen cultural objects. Although more institutions have begun to voluntarily review and address the issue over the past five years, requests are still being pushed back, experts said. says USA TODAY.

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Shortly after arriving in Washington to lead the Smithsonian, Blankenberg removed 18 pieces that were or may have been taken from the Kingdom of Benin, in present-day Nigeria, in a British punitive raid in 1897. She replaced the objects with photographs and text explaining that displaying them without resolving the question of ownership is harmful.

Blankenberg said she was working with the Nigerian Council of Museums and Monuments to discuss the return of the works, which Smithsonian Magazine said are just some of the 3,000 looted items collectively known as the Bronzes from the Benin which are now in the collections of museums around the world. the world. The decision must ultimately be approved by the Smithsonian’s board of directors.

“They belong to their rightful owners and creators, the country and the people who produced them,” Blankenberg said.

Objects acquired in an “intense and violent manner”

Progress is being made, but returning stolen cultural objects is not “an area in which museums excel”, said Mike Murawski, museum consultant and author of “Museums as Agents of Change”.

Although it’s not always clear from gallery labels, Western museums hold vast amounts of material that was taken, often in “intense and violent ways,” in the 18th and 19th centuries by military personnel with explicitly nationalist goals, according to Alice Procter, an Australian Art Historian based in London. Merchants, missionaries and individuals who helped with colonization work also took items for their collections, Procter added.

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The objects were then often sold, exchanged or passed on to other owners before being acquired or donated to museums, she said. Often, collections are named after their end donors.

“There are very, very few museums that don’t have at least one object in their collections that raises questions about its history,” Procter said. “They are mirrors of their creators and their creators are mostly very wealthy white men from the 1800s.”

The problem persists.

Arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby was fined $3million for allegedly buying thousands of artifacts smuggled out of Iraq and last year was forced to return the rare Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, which the company planned to display in its Bible Museum, founded by owners Steve and Jackie Green.

In 2018, a report commissioned by the French government estimating that more than 90% of African art is kept outside the continent in major museums attracted international attention.

The report recommended that objects taken from their country of origin without consent be permanently returned upon request, although few of the at least 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa held in France have been returned years later.

A “strong defensive streak”

As colonies gained independence in the mid-20th century, new nations began to press for the return of their sacred cultural artifacts, Procter said.

“Ever since people take things, people resist this process of taking and asking for parts to be returned,” she said.

The demands made little headway until the 1990s, when the United States enacted federal laws requiring that certain Indigenous cultural remains and objects be returned to the tribal lands from which they were removed. Some museums continue to drag their feet over these claims, Murawski noted.

“I really appreciate that museums don’t just use legal requirements to start looking at these things,” Murawski said, adding that the decision to repatriate objects can sometimes take “a decade or two.”

Procter said he noticed an increase in calls for the repatriation of artefacts around a year after he began running “Uncomfortable Art” tours in 2017. The tours examined the role of imperialism and colonialism in several major UK museums.

As she gained media attention, Procter said her audience “grew massively” and the museums she worked in began to take notice. In response, the British Museum launched a series of discussions about how they acquired certain objects to counter the idea that their collections were the product of colonial plunder, the BBC reported.

American museums have also started looking at their own collections, particularly in the wake of the racial justice protest sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

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Last fall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returned three pieces to Nigeria and announced a formal collaboration agreement with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

The Smithsonian is expected to update its item return policy in light of ethical concerns in the spring, the result of a review begun in May led by Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, according to spokeswoman Anne Williams.

Recent campaigns like the push for the return of the Benin Bronzes have received attention online, Procter said.

“The cultural landscape around museums and repatriation has this new aspect online which means there’s a lot more movement and conversation,” she said.

Although museums have become more transparent about repatriation requests, Procter said “there is also a very strong defensiveness.”

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The British Museum, which Murawski called “a shining example of colonialism within a museum”, has repeatedly refused requests to return Parthenon statues, which the Greek government says were illegally sawed off by a diplomat British in the 19th century when the country was under Ottoman rule.

Greece this week obtained a fragment of marble from the Parthenon carved with the foot of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, on loan from an Italian museum, a gesture intended to encourage the British to make a similar gesture.

“For a lot of people who have worked on these subjects before, it’s like nothing has really changed,” Procter said.

More than repatriation required for change

Procter said it was possible for museums to educate the public about objects without displaying them. It’s important to recognize and unpack why a returned item was exposed in the first place, as well as consider what potentially harmful stories the item contributed to, she said.

“We have these institutions that are used as an expression of power and as a way to define and create systems and hierarchies. And we often don’t think of art and museums being used in that way,” he said. she stated.

Museums need to shift their priorities from objects to relationships with the communities to which those objects belong, Murawski said. To do this, museums have replaced repatriated objects with replicas and hired curators who share cultural backgrounds with objects still on display, he said.

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“These are things that can happen without going to the extreme of saying, ‘well, museums shouldn’t have objects,'” he said.

At the Smithsonian, Blankenberg said removing unethically acquired pieces is just part of his broader strategy to create a “place to belong and be inspired by Africans around the world.” . Museums also need to look at their hiring practices, what kind of art they don’t exhibit, who has decision-making power and who has access to exhibits, she said.

“My vision is really to explore the ecosystems of regenerative art and to really move away from this extractive model,” she said.

Blankenberg said Smithsonian management supported the changes, but anticipated “some pushback.”

“This kind of institutional transformation is not easy,” she said. “We have to do it. There is no other way.”

Contribute: The Associated Press

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