Richard Lenehan: The Need to Atone

In 1929, the G’psgolox totem pole was taken, without consent, from a First Nations community in Canada to Stockholm’s Museum of Ethnography.  The settlers that took it did not understand, or did not care to understand, this artefact’s socio-cultural importance to that community.   A totem pole is carved from wood to commemorate death: as the wood rots and becomes one with the earth, so too do the souls of the deceased.  In its ignorance, the Museum preserved the totem pole indoors in storage, thereby “trapping” the souls that it commemorated by not allowing it to rot.  Only when a replica was supplied in 1991 was the totem pole finally repatriated, allowing the community to heal in the knowledge that its dead were finally at peace.

This incident illustrates how significant cultural property is to communities, and why we need to address the colonial history of such artefacts in our museums.    Taking a totem pole from its community was akin to stealing a gravestone from this country – an action that we would see as clearly wrong.   Hearing about this made me think about cultural artefacts we have “collected” from other countries, and this essay will argue that these should be repatriated.  It is clear that these artefacts have stories to tell.  We should consider who has the right to keep these objects, and to tell their stories.

Our museums are filled with spoils from our imperial and colonial past.  Not only that, these objects tend to be displayed in ways intended to vindicate the actions of our ancestors in returning from overseas with the cultural property of others, and to tell the stories of these objects from the collector’s point of view, rather than in a cultural context.  This is wrong.  These items would be enriched if seen in the context of the place of their origin.  I am not arguing that we have inherited guilt for looting by our forebears.  I am however arguing that we have inherited responsibility for their actions, and that it is up to us to make things right.

Standard arguments in support of not repatriating artefacts include that they should be displayed in central western locations where they are accessible to the largest number of people, that they will be better looked after in our museums, that they contribute to our knowledge and understanding, and that they may never have been found if it were not for the “collectors”.

Museums are curated to elicit a particular emotional and intellectual response to the objects they display.  Their curators are, however, conditioned to view history from their privileged perspective.   It can therefore be argued that the true historical and cultural context, and the importance of looted artefacts, not only cannot be appreciated here, but is also denied to their rightful owners.

In my opinion, another important reason for returning artefacts is that taking them without permission was stealing.  The stripping of relief sculptures from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in the 1880s is an example of this.  At that time, the Ottomans occupying Greece gave him permission to take small artefacts from the building, but not to interfere with its “walls or works”.  Removal of what became known as “the Elgin Marbles” was in contravention of his permit, which was, in any event, issued by those without cultural rights to the site.  This can only be described as theft.   A modern-day analogy would be if the United Nations, who had temporary charge of parts of Glasgow during COP26, had allowed delegates to take home historical Glasgow artefacts as souvenirs.  There is no doubt that this would have caused an outcry, and justifiable demand for their immediate return.  

This theft was compounded by the mistreatment of the Marbles under British care.  During their time in the British Museum, the Marbles were cleaned with a metal wire brush to make them look whiter, thereby destroying a lot of fine detail, such as muscles and sinews.  It is therefore hypocritical to suggest that they are better protected here.  In fact, the artefacts would have been better left in situ.  Indeed, at the time they were stolen, accurate casts of the Marbles had already been made, meaning that replicas could have been enjoyed in Britain, with the originals remaining in place to be viewed in their historical and cultural context. This is another situation that should be addressed by repatriation and apology.

There are also clear moral arguments for the return of artefacts.  There was an element of control in taking them from a territory in the first place – it was symbolic of taking control of the territory itself too.  These artefacts are not now easily accessible to the peoples from whom they were taken, and for whom they have cultural significance. 

Moreover, there are clear economic arguments for the return of artefacts.  Items of historical interest frequently come from less developed countries.  There is a real possibility that returned artefacts could be the form the basis of a tourist trade.  You can draw analogies with how Scotland has benefited so much from cultural tourism in recent years, and it would be unjust if other nations could not benefit from their cultural heritage due to the misappropriation of symbols of that heritage.

In wake of recent consciousness-raising events such as the Black Lives Matter campaign, I believe that the fact that artefacts serve as reminder of past oppression is also important when coming to a decision on this point.  The shackles and yokes used on slaves in the 1880s in the southern United States of America are reminders of the atrocious acts committed, and the complete lack of freedom of the stolen people from the southern continents.  We acknowledge that cultural appropriation is wrong, and that dominant cultures should not appropriate from minority cultures.  This should be as true in relation to artefacts as it is in relation to behaviours, rituals or attire.

Museums need to review their acquisitions, and to ask critically whether they need to reframe the context in which they are seen.  They should also be asking whether the items belong with them, or whether they rightfully belong elsewhere.  If they belong elsewhere, then they need to start the process of repatriation, apology and healing.  This last year has shown us that people are questioning this country’s imperial and colonial past, and wanting to make some reparation.  To date this has taken the form of the removal of statues and monuments, but the return of looted artefacts to their communities seems like the logical next step to explore.