Essay: Archaeological Artifacts Repatriation

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[. . .] In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) obligated federal museums and collections to restore to Native American tribes skeletal remains, grave goods and sacred objects - including those excavated or collected as early as the mid-nineteenth century. The problem with NAGPRA is that it does not extend to claims made outside the country, but nonetheless may serve as example to other foreign institutions. (IIP Digital, 2010)

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the laws are too few and cover too limited a terrain as well as not being strong or internationally binding. There are western countries that still need to repatriate their museum artifacts, and conventions such as the NAGPRA do not apply to privately held materials or to collections outside the United States

Britain, for instance, under its colonialism seized an extraordinary collection of Benin bronzes from, what is today, Nigeria. This collection has been sold to museums and private collections all over the world. Others make money from it, but the poor country, Nigeria, has had great works of African art that are integral to its culture stolen from it. (ibid.)

In relation to this, the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke, has recently urged museum experts to make laws that will influence the repatriation of Nigerian's stolen as well as to protect cultural institutions against looters.

Making his appeal to the Review of Laws of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), he urged the members:

"to make such laws that will influence the repatriation of these great works so that we can start enjoying the reward of our heroes past, and no offender against our cultural objects, be he a Nigerian or foreigner, will walk away free. Such laws will discourage looting and clandestine excavation of the objects" (Leadership. (7/10/2011))

Repatriation, too, of the objects, to their rightful land would ensure that the modern nation of Nigeria can depend on its culture for economic and educational profit, such as other nations do. The original law of repatriation of 1979, later re-enacted as Cap 242 of the laws of the Federation, had become obsolete and needed to be rewritten and extended. Not only, Edem complained, were Nigerian artifacts, particularly the Benin bronzes stolen from it, but hundreds of Europeans have copied these bronzes and sold them as their own. Nigeria, Edem insisted, needs to have copyright over the rights of copying these statues.

Edem's complaint summarizes a few of the holes in the repatriation laws. Some of these laws are archaic and need to be updated; others are too limited and narrow pertaining only to certain groups and certain countries. These laws need to be made more specific, need to be updated, and need to be extended to wider regions.

Other problems that exist were pointed out by Halle (2006) in his thesis on Maori relics. Negotiations with countries can sometimes become tricky for merits of the claims can become unclear as, for instance when a particular human limb is in reality someone's ancestor or whether a claimant does have genuine claim to the article.

This controversy is further brought to light by Turkey's ongoing struggle to regain some of its artifacts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Norbert Schimmel collection. Turkey says that 18 of their objects were illegally excavated from their country and housed in the MET.: "We know 100% that these objects at the Met are from Anatolia…We only want back what is rightfully ours." (Bilefsky (September 30, 2012))

The problem is that discussions on the topic are aggravated by historical confusion since Turkey's borders have shifted property various times during its history. If other countries follow suit, Museums like the Met, the Getty, the Louvre and the Pergamon in Berlin will all have to surrender many of their exhibitions leaving them with few displays.

The UNESCO convention lets museums acquire objects that were outside their countries of origin before 1970. Turkey ratified the convention in 1981, but it is now citing a 1906 Ottoman-era law -- one that banned the export of artifacts -- in order to claim any object removed after that date as its own. According to Turkey, theft and looting are wrong regardless of when they occurred and artifacts that were removed form a particular country even before the UNESCO convention was passed should be returned":

"Artifacts, just like people, animals or plants, have souls and historical memories," said Turkey's culture minister, Ertugrul Gunay. "When they are repatriated to their countries, the balance of nature will be restored."

The problem with this, as noted before, is that other countries -- such as Egypt, Greece, and Italy (with its demand from the Met of the Euphronios krater in 2006) - are making similar claims. The repatriation laws are too few, too indefinite, too vague, and insufficiently binding for them to have effect.

International Museums may end up with few, if any, objects housed on their premises.


This essay spoke about the symbolic representation of the artifact and the obligation, therefore, to repatriate it, but actually various other arguments exist for repatriation too, one of these being the right to consolidation when a work exists in fragments.

Many of the artifacts exist in fragments divided between the various museums and collections. These artifacts deserve to be aggregated and viewed as a whole, and they can best be done so, too, when viewed against the backdrop of their native country. Imagine viewing a Grecian state on British soil, and seeing that same statue, put together, with the Acropolis as background. The ancient Greeks believed that statues brought their subjects back to virtual life and so completeness was a perquisite for the statue.

Divided antiquities can, and should, be restored to wholeness by concentrated and honest negotiation. Wholeness, too, can best be achieved by these artifacts being showcased in their country of origin. This then is one of the solutions to the limitations in current laws on repatriating: focused and sincere negotiation on assembling artifacts and restoring them to their homeland when such is called for.

Negotiating is particularly crucial given the bitterness and hostility that some requests have evolved in. Turkey's request for instance developed form request to demand and then to unresolved conflict. The Met insisted that its objects were legally acquired; the Louvre insisted that the Turkish articles were gifted to it. Meanwhile Turkish representatives retorted:

"Who in his right mind would give a present from his own relative's tomb to a foreign country? If you come to my house and you steal precious objects from me, do I not have a right to get them back?" (Bilefsky (September 30, 2012))

Secondly, Halle (2006) talks about the case of the Maori woman who lived in Copenhagen and was drawn to a head of a Maori native located in one of the Danish museums. The curators, recognizing the cultural attachment of the woman to the head, allowed her to make frequent visits to the storerooms of not only that museum but also another one in Sweden that contained a similar head. The woman would cry and pray in front of the head and when questioned reported that it was painful for her knowing of, and seeing the deceased "so far away from home," caught up, as he styled it, in a "prison of preservation." Repatriation cannot always be achieved and sometimes it may take long periods of negotiation and haggling back and forth until agreement is reached regarding the best ways to return the artifact. In the meantime, the museums (as in the instance of the case history) can do their best to accommodate and respect the cultural needs of natives who feel a cultural bond to the artifact in their institution (whether or not these artifacts are on display).

In other words, in the cases when repartition takes a while, or is not always feasible, the second category of Weiner's classification should be observed, and the institution should observe a fealty to the artifact taking the greatest care to preserve it in line with the respect accorded it by its home culture.

In a larger context, the ongoing issue of the Nigerian bronzes illustrates other gaps in the repatriation laws. Some of these laws are archaic and need to be updated; others are too limited and narrow pertaining only to certain groups and certain countries. These laws need to be made more specific, need to be updated, and need to be extended to wider regions. Marc Masurovsky, an expert on plundered art at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, also insists that we need an international agency to enforce anti-plunder measures, and that in the absence of this nations will keep on demanding return of their possessions form private and international collections.

At the end of the day, the only principle in force that obligates repatriation of the object is ethics that is prompted at the recognition of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Cite This Essay:

APA Format

Archaeological Artifacts Repatriation.  (2012, December 19).  Retrieved June 15, 2019, from

MLA Format

"Archaeological Artifacts Repatriation."  19 December 2012.  Web.  15 June 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"Archaeological Artifacts Repatriation."  December 19, 2012.  Accessed June 15, 2019.