Should British museums return objects to their countries of origin? Watch

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Many museum collections in the UK were formed in the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of British colonialism, warfare and unequal power relations around the world.

This concentration of global cultural heritage in institutions in the UK, however, is increasingly being criticized, with the result that restitution is now one of the most important issues facing British museums in the 21st century.

Many argue that returning material to its country of origin should be seen, not as a loss for museums, but as a way to redress past imbalances, build cultural relationships and promote cross-cultural awareness. However, many museum directors and curators argue that these objects are also part of the host country’s heritage and should stay because of this.

What do you think? Let’s start with a high profile case – the looting of the ‘Summer Palace’ in China.


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My name is Ashley Thompson and I am Chair in Southeast Asian Art History at SOAS, University of London. My research focuses on classical and pre-modern arts and literatures, with some punctual work on the contemporary period. I explore questions of memory, political and cultural transition, sexual difference and subjectivity, as revealed in Hindu and Buddhist sculpture, cult or ritual practices and texts, as well as other forms of fine and performing arts. Before taking up academic work in the West (France, the US, the UK), I spent ten years in Thailand and Cambodia working in post-war reconstruction in the fields of education, art, archaeology and cultural heritage research and management.


My name is Louise Tythacott and I am Senior Lecturer in Curating and Museology of Asian Art at SOAS, University of London. My research focuses the collecting and display of non-Western artefacts, and I have particular interests in the representation of Chinese and Buddhist objects in museums. I have edited books on “Museums and Restitution” (ed. with Kostas Arvanitis, Ashgate, 2014) and the representation of looted objects from the “Summer Palace” (“Collecting and Displaying China’s ‘Summer Palace’ in the West”, Routledge, 2018). Before taking up academic work, I spent a decade working in museums and, in particular, was the Head of the Asian, African, Pacific and Americas Department at the National Museums Liverpool.


My name is Simon O’Meara and I am a Lecturer in Islamic Art and Architecture at SOAS, University of London. Part of my research concerns the socialisation of vision in Islamic culture. Museums today play an increasingly important role in this socialisation process; hence my interest in this discussion!

My name is Maria Kostoglou and I am a lecturer at SOAS where I co convene the MA in Museums, Heritage and Material Culture Studies . Previously, I worked in Greece and in Britain for many years as a curator for the National Archaeological Service of Greece and as a joined academic for the University of Manchester and the Manchester Museum. I study artefacts and their meanings (past and present) especially in identity formations. As an academic and as a Greek I am strongly interested in the case of the Parthenon marbles.
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fallen_acorns
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my conditions:

saftey
1, yes send it back if: the work was stollen from a country, and that country is now stable and seccure enough to return it to
2, no, keep it in the UK if: the country poses a risk to the work = no, keep it safe in the UK

justification/examples - work originating in middle eastern countries that do not have stable goverments and have a recent history of destroying monuments/imagary not assosiated with X belief/political movement, may be best preseved in the UK, rather than back in its country of origin. Until the country is stable again.

if condition 1 of saftey is met, then:

cultural relivance to the UK
1, yes send it back if: if the work has developed no significant cultural relevance to the UK since arriving, and has just been sat in museums/galleries
2, no, keep it in the UK if: if the work has greater cultural relivance to the UK beyond just being taken from its country or origin to show, for example it became cultural symbol

justification/examples - the kohinoor diamond has developed its own significance within the UK, as a part of our royal families crown jewels, and should be kept. Had it just sat in a museum and played no function or gained no further significance after arriving, it should be sent back

If conditions 1+2 are met, then:

what was the origin of its departure from its country of origin
1, yes send it back if: it was stolen or looted during war-time.
2, no, keep it in the UK if: it was a gift from another culture, or part of a trade/deal

justification/examples - Stealing/looting is obviously morrally wrong. Gifts are much more subjective and hard to make judgements on retrospectivly. The dynamics of historical gifts or deals are highly debatable, especially to what extent extortion, or power-dynamics played into them. Given that its rarely possible to unanimously agree on the nature of a gift, the susspicion of immorality is not alone enough to warrent returning artifacts

if conditions 1+2+3 are met, then:

what is the current relationship like between the UK and the artifacts country or origin
1, yes send it back if: there is a good relationship between the two countries, and any british artifacts held by the other country are also exchanged
2, no keep it in the UK if: there is a problematic relationship, threats, or violent/political issues between the two countries, or if the other country holds british artifacts which it is not willing to relinquish


if all conditions are met then send the work back to its country of origin
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based on those conditions, given the example of the loot taken from the summer palace in China - yes I would send it back. I don't see any reason beyond selfishness/racism/nationalism/blind patriotism to keep it in the UK. I also don't see a moral justification in selling it back, as that would seem to me like a historical version of stealing someones car and demanding a ransom for its return.
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laurawatt
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If the country of the objects origin wants it, it is feasible to send back (e.g safety issues), and will be seen in the country - like in a museum/public place, then i think it should be sent back.
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nexttime
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(Original post by SOAS Guest Lecturer)

What do you think? Let’s start with a high profile case – the looting of the ‘Summer Palace’ in China.
Whilst I perhaps don't share the enthusiasm of a certain poster above... it is of note that the Summer Palace would presumably have been destroyed by the Japanese during WWII if it had still existed right? Even if not through direct combat, the Japanese army had a history of targeting cultural relics in S.Korea. I wonder how morally relevant that is? Edit: Apparently China's cultural revolution is also highly relevant as many previous items were destroyed.

With regards to items taken from tropical climes - I wonder how many of the items in the British Museum would still be around if they had been left in place? Surely from a purely climate/weathering perspective much would be severely degraded? A lot of museums have to spend a lot of money restoring and preserving artefacts, artefacts that were sometimes already in a very degraded condition at the time of discovery. Does that increase your claim to an item?

(Original post by fallen_acorns)
Had it just sat in a museum and played no function
Is sitting in a museum not a function? London's museums attract literally millions of visitors every single year - 7 million yearly for the British Museum alone!
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Notoriety
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No, their ancestors might have worked hard to make them or whatever. My ancestors worked hard to get them here and preserve them. All that's left of our once great empire.

In other words, our involvement with these artefacts has made these artefacts part of our country's story.
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fallen_acorns
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(Original post by nexttime)
Whilst I perhaps don't share the enthusiasm of a certain poster above... it is of note that the Summer Palace would presumably have been destroyed by the Japanese during WWII if it had still existed right? Even if not through direct combat, the Japanese army had a history of targeting cultural relics in S.Korea. I wonder how morally relevant that is?

With regards to items taken from tropical climes - I wonder how many of the items in the British Museum would still be around if they had been left in place? Surely from a purely climate/weathering perspective much would be severely degraded? A lot of museums have to spend a lot of money restoring and preserving artefacts, artefacts that were sometimes already in a very degraded condition at the time of discovery. Does that increase your claim to an item?



Is sitting in a museum not a function? London's museums attract literally millions of visitors every single year - 7 million yearly for the British Museum alone!

I don't believe it to be a cultural function no, (museums are, but a looted artifact doesnt). the existance of an artifact in a museum plays no greater role in our culture then a picture of it in a textbook. Both simply function as aids to educating ourselves about history/other cultures.. but neither has an impact on our culture of today. That is why I made the destinction with the crown jewels - its an artifact that plays an active cultural role, is used, is featured in ceremonies and cultural imagary, and has taken on meaning within our culture that is now of greater significane to us then the prior meaning it came with. Compare that to say a Chinese artifact which has been sat in a museum for 150 years, and whose only purpose is to be looked at and to educate people about chinese culture.

One has intergrated itself into our culture and serves a function within it - the other is still just a gateway to another culture, and is not actually part of ours.

museum visitors numbers are nice, and I do love a good museum - but their success doesn't outway morality for me. Especially as there is a simple ethical solution that retains museums ability to show artifacts to the public, whilst not relying on stolen/looted goods: Give them back, then agree terms to have them and other relivant peices toured around museums as is done already with other relivant exhibitions.

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as for your part about the japanese potentially destroying the summer palace - I don't see how its relevant. Were it to be a good moral point, it would justify the UK currently going into every war-torn and unstable country and taking anything of significance, to avoid any potential damage in any hypothetical wars that could happen.
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Jack900
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I believe all museum items should be returned to wherever they came from as lets be honest here, the majority of items where obtained by dubious means. Also, as someone that once was employed in a museum, much of museums vast collections is never seen, just stored in a dusty basement, probably never to be set eyes on again. Far more interesting is the items stored away. The British museum is a big, empty space with the same stuff on show for years.
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RSnia
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(Original post by Notoriety)
No, their ancestors might have worked hard to make them or whatever. My ancestors worked hard to get them here and preserve them. All that's left of our once great empire.

In other words, our involvement with these artefacts has made these artefacts part of our country's story.
Worked hard to get them there and preserve them? What about the fact that many artefacts have actually suffered irreversible damage because the museum workers used the wrong methods and equipment to clean them? Taking something away from a country because it was easy back then does not automatically deem the objects part of your culture
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the bear
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one only has to see what happened to Palmyra to realize that ancient treasures are safer in civilised countries.
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Pinkisk
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Things proven to have been stolen i.e. taken without the knowledge/consent of their country of origin should be returned without any caveats.

A thief should not have the right to stipulate conditions on which they would return items that they stole to the person from whom they stole them. I should not have the right to steal an item and keep the item until its owner proves to me that they can keep it safe if I give it back to them.
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Vinny C
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Certainly not... or it would only be a matter of time before they all start jumping around and blowing it up.
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AperfectBalance
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They are ours by right alone.
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fallen_acorns
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(Original post by Pinkisk)
Things proven to have been stolen i.e. taken without the knowledge/consent of their country of origin should be returned without any caveats.

A thief should not have the right to stipulate conditions on which they would return items that they stole to the person from whom they stole them. I should not have the right to steal an item and keep the item until its owner proves to me that they can keep it safe if I give it back to them.
A thief should not have the right to stipulate conditions on which they would return

What if you were on a boat with 100 people.. at the captain was drunk and acting dangerous, so you turned the engine off and stole the keys.

He demands them back.

You are a theif.. should you give his keys back without any conditions? without any stipulations? Doing so may risk destroying something valuable (the boat, and peoples lives)... but you did steal something that wasn't yours.

Or how about I stole a knife from your kitchen, and you demanded it back, and said you would stab me with it... I stipulated the only way I would give it back, is if you don't kill me.. if you want to kill me, I won't give it back.

Or how about I stole a historic painting from X country that has historical signfiicance and cultural meaning to millions of people. The goverment within the country wants it back, and then they intend on destroying it as it is now viewed as unclean due to being in my hands.. The people of the country love it and don't want it destroyed though, its part of their history. Should I give it back, with no co conditions on its saftey?

Etc.

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My point is that there are many examples of times when to refuse to give something back, even if it was stolen, can be morally justified based on the consequences of giving it back. If the result of giving it back will be the destruction of something, or the danger to someone.. then there can be a moral arguement made that the by giving it back you are partially responsibile for the outcomes that follow, negative and possitive.

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HucktheForde
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Point to add for the record : It is not true that historical relics are safer being in the UK since a load of them was destroyed when Germany bombed the UK during the second world war.
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Andrew97
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(Original post by HucktheForde)
Point to add for the record : It is not true that historical relics are safer being in the UK since a load of them was destroyed when Germany bombed the UK during the second world war.
Which was 80 years ago.
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HucktheForde
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(Original post by Andrew97)
Which was 80 years ago.
the relevant relics OP mentioned were looted more than 80 years ago.
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Notoriety
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(Original post by RSnia)
Worked hard to get them there and preserve them? What about the fact that many artefacts have actually suffered irreversible damage because the museum workers used the wrong methods and equipment to clean them? Taking something away from a country because it was easy back then does not automatically deem the objects part of your culture
So you think they'd be in better condition, had we not taken over stewardship of them? Can you back this vague claim up at all please?

Our history, what we did, is part of this country's story. If you look at these pieces and think "how awful are those Brits for stealing artefacts or being given artefacts foolishly as gifts by subservient nations", you're still looking at a cultural event and story. You can assert dogmatically all you like, but it's as clear as day that the things housed here for 200 years are part of the rich tapestry which forms the UK's history of globalism, free trade, and appreciation of the arts and foreign cultures (hence the existence of SOAS). While these things might not be appreciated per se by the British public, and they can more be appreciated as an aspect of UK history as I pointed out, why does that mean they would be any more appreciated per se by the "host country"?

Also, the academics who raised this question might have been useful in providing stats on the provenance of these things. How many were ripped from the bosom of the colonies and how many were wilfully gifted to the UK? On the latter, should we give the Speaker's Chair back to Australia because the administration which gifted it was naive and lacked genuine capacity to give things away?
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Andrew97
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(Original post by HucktheForde)
the relevant relics OP mentioned were looted more than 80 years ago.
And when people talk about safer In the U.K. they are talking about that in a modern context.
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HucktheForde
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(Original post by Andrew97)
And when people talk about safer In the U.K. they are talking about that in a modern context.
Most countries which the British empire looted the relics from are also safer in a modern context.
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(Original post by HucktheForde)
Most countries which the British empire looted the relics from are also safer in a modern context.
The U.K. is safer than a large chunk of these.
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