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Who owns art?

The Benin bronzes were looted from Nigeria in the British imperial siege of the 19th century, and most are now in the British Museum  

Stories about contested art objects in global circulation have been around for a millennium, but now there is a sense of urgency around the topic, with a larger diversity of voices asking for return of art works for a multitude of reasons. On the one hand, there are Nigerian students demanding the return of the Benin bronzes looted from Nigeria at the time of the British imperial siege of the country in the late 19th century. This story of non-governmental actors — students resident in the U.K. — getting into the discussion around national cultural patrimony is new and distinct from the traditional demands of governments for the return (repatriation) of objects taken from their countries under colonial or imperial rules. The Elgin or Parthenon marbles taken from Greece and now resident in the British Museum, or the 6th century Buddha taken from Sultanganj in India and now in the Birmingham Museum, are among the notable examples of the traditional demands of nation-states to right colonial wrongs.

The argument of righting the wrongs of the past is also at the heart of the art looted by Nazis from Jewish families in Europe during World War II. The issue came to the fore when descendants of Jewish families began to lay claims to major works by modern European masters that they saw in exhibitions and in permanent collections of museums in Europe and the U.S. It led to the establishment of a registry of Nazi-looted art and a serious attempt by all art museums to deal with the issue.

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), a prestigious organisation representing all major and mid-size art museums (an organisation I had the honour of being the President of, in 2000-2001), adopted a series of protocols to ensure that any work of art proven to be taken forcibly from a Jewish family during the Nazi regime should be returned to the rightful heirs, even if that meant a loss of the huge amounts spent on the acquisition of the work by the museum or its benefactor, who may have donated the work to the museum. An elaborate procedure was developed to research the provenance of the artwork (its origin and collection history). In 2006, AAMD claimed that out of more than 18 million objects in American art museums, 25,000 objects, “though not necessarily stolen by the Nazis, require further study into their ownership history.” Between 1998 and 2006, 26 works in American museums were identified as being looted by the Nazis and were, in each case, restituted to the heirs.

There was little debate about the return of Nazi-looted art: a group of well-to-do Jewish families had been wronged and had faced the horrors of the Holocaust. It was only right that some kind of restitution policy (the return of objects) was adopted by all parties.

This was strikingly different from the debates around the return of objects from previously-colonised countries such as India, Egypt, Greece or Nigeria, or countries such as China that were weakened by the overt presence of Western powers. Thus, in 1970 and again in 1978, the “source” countries (countries where the art work originated) pushed UNESCO to adopt a major resolution for the protection of cultural property and restitution of stolen works, “to facilitate bilateral negotiations for the restitution of any cultural property which has a fundamental significance… and which has been lost as a result of colonial and foreign occupation.” The U.S. didn’t sign the ruling, and finally adopted a similar rule only in 1982. AAMD didn’t take action on this issue until almost two decades later.

For much of the 1990s, and even during the first decade of the 21st century, a strong argument against the repatriation of works was posited by some art museum directors in the West. It went something like this: the encyclopaedic museums of Europe and the U.S. are repositories of world art under one roof. They take care of our global heritage, as art knows no boundaries, and it is important to show in one place great art works from all over the world to promote the dissemination of knowledge, tolerance, and broad cultural understanding. Another argument was that the objects were taken from countries such as Egypt, China, or India because none of these countries had the resources or the inclination to protect their own treasures. After all, in a place like India, it was British officials who discovered, excavated or restored great sites such as Sanchi or Ajanta. As there was no indigenous interest in preserving or interpreting such magnificent objects or archaeological sites of the country, wasn’t it better that such objects were at least preserved for future generations, even if that meant they were taken out of the country?

Similar arguments are still being made by some in the museum community in the context of destroyed sites such as Palmyra in Syria and Iraq. When the monuments are being destroyed locally (IS in Syria or the Taliban in Afghanistan), aren’t we better off taking moveable objects out and protecting them for the sake of the whole world? As a former museum director and curator, I must admit this argument is very powerful when you see great Sumerian objects being hacked with hammers and the amazing Buddhas of Bamiyan being blasted out of the cliff where they had survived for centuries (even after British soldiers used the Bamiyan site for target practice).

However, it does not obviate the question of who gets to decide when objects leave countries, how they leave, and who gets to keep them. In the current crisis, art museums in the U.S. and Europe have come up with a solution of creating a temporary home for looted objects, which can be returned to the “source” countries when the conflict ends.

It seems that both in the case of Nazi-looted art and art from current war-torn zones in the Middle East, there is a much greater acceptance of the principle of returning the objects to the original owners or the country of origin.

Why is there then a much greater resistance to return objects taken out of previously-colonised countries by Western colonial powers? Several plausible answers come to mind. First, in the case of Nazi-looted art and the current destruction of monuments, the perpetrators are enemies of the Euro-American world, either in World War II (as in the case of Nazi Germany) or IS (the sworn Islamist enemy of the West). It is easy to condemn their ghastly behaviour as the acts of an enemy.

If one were to make a similar argument for the objects taken by the colonial powers, then the now-independent nations of the global South should have an equal right to reclaim the objects taken from their soil without their permission. But this would mean that the former colonisers would have to acknowledge the wrongs perpetrated by them on the colonies they ruled. It would also mean that many of the biggest museums, especially the Louvre, the British Museum, and even some major American museums would get hollowed out of their collections. While academics such as the late Edward Said have powerfully critiqued the legacy of colonialism, cultural institutions have yet to acknowledge the full negative legacy of the colonial rulers.

To be fair, the questions surrounding the restitution of objects acquired during the colonial rule of the West in the countries of the global South are not simple. It is true that the great Stupa at Sanchi, for example, would not have survived if John Marshall, a British civil servant and an amateur archaeologist in the early 20th century, had not restored it.

As we acknowledge the positive as well as negative consequences of colonial rule for the cultural heritage of countries such as India, and recognise the importance of the preservation of culture for the benefit of human kind, it is useful to imagine new possibilities for sharing of our global heritage. I have often thought that if we pursue the idea of sharing the global cultural heritage, perhaps the large encyclopaedic museums of the Euro-American world could create a long-term loan programme of objects from around the world for formerly-colonised countries.

One could argue that the need of the hour is not so much to return indigenous objects to the “source” country where they already have a rich inventory of national art, but to share our global cultural heritage more widely. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the National Museum in New Delhi were to receive a long-term loan of Egyptian objects or 19th century American landscape paintings so that the National Museum too could begin to resemble an encyclopaedic museum of the West?

Similarly, what if the labels in Western museums actually acknowledged the colonial past of the pieces on display and the history of the removal of objects by colonial powers, thus returning the ownership of objects back to the “source” countries and simply recognising their role as protectors of, and not owners of, global heritage? One can come up with many more possibilities to move forward with the idea of truly sharing global cultural heritage, but it must be done with a greater sense of parity and a deeper commitment to recognising the historical wrongs of the colonial experience.

Vishakha N. Desai is Senior Advisor for Global Affairs, Office of the President, Columbia University.


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