As Europe views itself more and more as a modern, global and empathetic entity, the contents of its museums tell an altogether different and more disquieting story. Ben Ray discusses the complex and controversial issue of the repatriation of cultural objects – should countries have to give back what was taken? And even if a consensus on this is reached, what is actually happening across the continent?

It is an ever-present paradox that as European countries become more certain in their modern, empathetic, global identity, the painful awareness of their chequered history and less-than-glamorous historical actions continues to draw question marks in front of self-perceptions that have been long-held. Last year Amsterdam museum in the Netherlands banned the use of the term ‘golden age’ to refer to the Dutch East India Company’s commercial dominance through slavery and violence, opting for the less contentious ‘17th century’. In 2015 then-president Hollande promised to pay France’s ‘moral debt’ to its former slave colony Haiti. And it isn’t just speeches and sentiment that have been mobilised in an attempt to right old wrongs. Across Europe, pressure is mounting for the repatriation of objects to their original homes.

Liberation or lifting?

Objects of scientific or anthropological study; spoils of war; ‘liberated’ artefacts; legally traded goods. The contents of museums and grand houses across Europe have followed many colourful and varied paths from their original cultures to their current places of rest. But as the cultural tide of European thought turns against its colonial histories, the demands from former territories for the return of cultural artefacts have been gaining in momentum and volume. And in many cases these demands are being answered, indeed encouraged, within Europe: in March this year the dagger of the ‘rebel prince’ Diponegoro, celebrated in Indonesia for his struggle against Dutch rule in the 1820s, was returned to Jakarta after spending 45 years lost in an archive in Leiden. In 2017 over 2,600 items originally belonging to the Sámi people were transferred from the National Museum in Helsinki, Finland to the Siida Museum in Finnish Lapland.

However, somewhat predictably, this story isn’t so straightforward. Many museums are continuing to argue away, resist or just ignore growing calls for object repatriation. And it isn’t always as simple as a dialogue between the European continent and a distant land. The Greek government’s demands for the return of the ‘Elgin marbles’, a collection of Greek marbles taken from Athens’ Parthenon and which is now kept in the British Museum in England, perennially flowers in the British press – it has even recently been hinted that future Brexit deals with the EU may stipulate their return to Greece. It’s unsurprising that these objects are hard fought for on both sides. Whilst the theft of a country’s heritage can be seen as an attempt to erase that cultural identity, European museums have come to see these objects as a key way of discussing world history and opening a global discussion about humanity, and as integral parts of their collections and identity. After all, what would Paris’ Quai Branly Museum be without its royal statues from the Kingdom of Dahomey, or Brussels’ Africa Museum without its many Congolese artefacts?

Hard bargaining

Europe has tried to solve this problem in many ingenious and innovative ways. Entire museum contents have been digitised and uploaded online, honest and genuine dialogues have been opened up with indigenous groups around the world, and long-term loans have been organised. The British Museum has even appealed for indigenous members of Easter Island to visit their cultural objects which are kept in the ‘safety’ of the museum – a perhaps misjudged attempt at reconciliation. In 2014 the EU even pledged over €1 million to a UNESCO project to strengthen awareness of cultural heritage and protect cultural artefacts in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Nevertheless, a closer look at a previously discussed example earlier suggests that, even in moments that seem to be repatriation success stories, European countries often aren’t ready to entirely atone for previous sins. Despite Hollande’s admittance of ‘moral debt’ towards Haiti in 2015, France has always refused to discuss the demand made by Haiti’s then-president Aristide in 2004 for $22 billion in colonial reparations. This gap between words and actions suggest that Europe’s debate over object repatriation will always be controversial and is – perhaps like some of the cultural treasures discussed here – very much here to stay.

Ben Ray
Ben Ray is a freelance journalist in European affairs, specialising in communications and environmental issues. He is also a professional poet with three publications, and has recently won the 2020 New Poets Prize. A graduate of Oxford University and the College of Europe, he currently works as a communications strategist within the EU Commission and lives in Brussels. Find out more about his work at: www.benray.co.uk, or on Twitter at: @Benj_Ray

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