Susana Vera / Courtesy Reuters An ancient Egyptian statue in Madrid, April 15, 2008.

Culture War

The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts


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In December 2007, the Italian government opened an exhibition in Rome of 69 artifacts that four major U.S. museums had agreed to return to Italy on the grounds that they had been illegally excavated and exported from the country. Leading nearly 200 journalists through the exhibition, Francesco Rutelli, Italy’s then cultural minister, proclaimed, “The odyssey of these objects, which started with their brutal removal from the bowels of the earth, didn’t end on the shelf of some American museum. With nostalgia, they have returned. These beautiful pieces have reconquered their souls.” Rutelli was not just anthropomorphizing ancient artifacts by giving them souls. By insisting that they were the property of Italy and important to its national identity, he was also giving them citizenship.

Rutelli has hardly been the only government official to insist that artifacts belong to the places from which they originally came. In 2011, the German government agreed to return to Turkey a 3,000-year-old sphinx that German archaeologists had excavated from central Anatolia in the early twentieth century. Afterward, the Turkish minister of culture, Ertugrul Gunay, declared that “each and every antiquity in any part of the world should eventually go back to its homeland.”

Such claims on the national identity of antiquities are at the root of many states’ cultural property laws, which in the last few decades have been used by governments to reclaim objects from museums and other collections abroad. Despite UNESCO’s declaration that “no culture is a hermetically sealed entity,” governments are increasingly making claims of ownership of cultural property on the basis of self-proclaimed and fixed state-based identities. Many use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image -- Egypt with the Pharaonic era, Iran with ancient Persia, Italy with the

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