Many countries want artefacts returned, but at best, the response to these requests has been only the tiniest trickle, from museums that continue to cling to notions of legitimacy.
Never ending debate: repatriation of cultural artifacts
April 14, 8:12 PMNY Art ExaminerJennifer Eberhart
One of the most widely debated topics in the art history world today is repatriation, or the return of “stolen or gifted” items to the home country. Should museums be allowed to keep their collections as they are, for the benefit of their patrons, or are they required to return significant works of art to the countries they originated from?
The debate continues as Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s antiquities director, recently announced his continued quest to retrieve artifacts stolen from the countries centuries ago, when the archaeological statutes that we have now weren’t in place. Hawass claims he will be relentless in his efforts, and is teaming up with other countries around the globe in order to further his mission. Meeting last week at the “Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage”, Egypt and 25 other countries, including China, Peru and Italy, hope to reclaim many of these ancient artifacts from museums around the world.
In Hawass’s sights are the Rosetta Stone, currently held in the British Museum; a statue of Ramses II from Turin’s Museo Egizio; and the bust of Nefertiti from Berlin’s Neues Museum.
In addition to Egypt’s requests, Greece has demanded the Parthenon marbles be returned from the British Museum, and Peru is looking to retrieve items that belong in Machu Picchu from Yale University.
So what does this mean for the art world as we see it now? Will the British Museum relinquish their hold on the Rosetta Stone, or the Parthenon marbles? What will the museums here in New York City have left? Some of the main attractions of the British Museum are the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone. If replicas are made of these objects (as parts of the Parthenon marbles are), and the originals returned to their home country, will visitors know the difference? Will they care?
So the debate is: are these artifacts the property of the country they were found in? Or do they simply belong to the world? Not everyone has the unbelievable good fortune to visit Egypt. If all of the treasures of ancient Egyptian history are kept in Egypt, who will see them? The debate is one of the most talked-about issues in the art world, and not likely to be settled any time soon.