Should Museum Artefacts Always Be Returned to Their Country of Origin?


Ellen Morris (she/her) reports on the York Dialectic Union debate concerning the repatriation of artefacts

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Image by Josh Haining

By Ellen Morris

On Thursday 2 May 2024, the York Dialectic Union held their penultimate debate of the term, for the proposal of the motion that “This House Believes That Museum Artefacts Should Always Be Returned to Their Country of Origin”. The motion passed with 70 ‘Ayes’ to 37 ‘Noes’, to conclude a win for the proposition.

Alexandra Brates, the President of the Union, told Nouse, “I’m so thrilled with how the evening turned out and the attendance! It makes me so happy to have organised an event that engaged so many students and I’m so honoured to have hosted such incredible, lovely speakers!”

Opening the proposition panel was Dr Vera Mey, a lecturer at the University of York in Art Curating, with a PhD specialising on Southeast Asian art during the Cold War eras in Cambodia, Indonesia and Singapore. Alongside her was Emilia Søgaard, a second year History of Art student at the University of York.

On the opposition panel was Professor Thomas Harrison, the Keeper of Greece & Rome at the British Museum and Associate Fellow of the Institute of Classical Studies. Also debating was Cameron Bennett, a third year History and Politics student also at the University of York.

Dr Vera Mey opened the discussion, launching the proposition by declaring the roots of colonial history within artefacts. She stated that “there is nothing natural about the creation of a nation” and artefacts serve as an “exclusion of ancestry”. She proposed a question to those listening, “Don’t we all want our bodies to return to where they came from when we leave this planet?” This question transforms one’s disconnected concept of an "artefact" into a personal question that evokes a deeper understanding of the morality at play and the emotional impact on source communities. Vera finished her opening statement with the example of the violent looting of Cambodia over decades of war and genocide - urging that the incentive of returning artefacts is “anti-racism”.

Professor Thomas Harrison followed with his opening opposition statement, acknowledging that there are many situations in which artefacts should be returned; providing the "Nazi plunder" as an example. He then progressed into the dilemma of who these artefacts should be returned to, raising the question of: do you return them to the source state, or the communities from whence these artefacts originated from?  Recognising the entanglement of museums and colonial history, Harrison proposed to use this as a tool to explore those issues rather than perpetuate them. He presented the idea of setting up more museums globally to lend objects to: rather than “letting these objects go home to die, we can encourage a better future with collaboration.”

Next, Emilia Søgaard began her proposing stance by declaring the holding of artefacts, in places such as the British Museum, as perpetuating the idea of global hierarchies. Through giving themselves “the legislation to decide where is or isn’t safe”, they are declaring themselves to be at the top of the hierarchy. Søgaard expressed that these artefacts become imbued with where they are kept, which dismisses their original cultural identity. She used the example of the Rijksmuseum returning objects to Sri Lanka, after the Committee for Colonial Collections established that these artefacts were looted; highlighting their intolerance to looting. By further emphasising the importance of repatriation, Søgaard asserted that “cultural rights must be treated as human rights.”

Finally, Cameron Bennett commenced his opposition stance, following Harrison’s questions on where these artefacts would be returned to. He spoke of a hypothetical repatriation of Ancient Greek artefacts, as “returning [them] to a civilisation which no longer exists”. Bennett’s next point follows that, although these artefacts are held in institutions of colonial powers, they are in a place of global connectedness; artefacts can be viewed collectively in museums to bring cultures together in one location. He concluded that the suggestion that the de-colonial project will “start” here is “misguided”, and is not at “the top of the list” of the priorities for de-colonialising.

After hearing from all the speakers, Dr Vera Mey was next to deliver her closing statement. She politely reinforced the absurdity of Harrison’s prior proposal of lending objects and artefacts to museums around the world, questioning, “Why loan an item to a country it was stolen from?” Also, she put forward the possibility of these countries instead loaning their artefacts to the British Museum; this proposition being entirely theoretical and almost nonsensical points to Søgaard’s prior assumption of a clear global hierarchy. Mey highlights the importance of repatriation as an important process in de-colonisation, through the symbolic value of why artefacts were chosen to be returned, and how meaningful this would be to the native people.

Professor Thomas Harrison’s closing statement began with a lighthearted comment, humouring that the British Museum is “behind the curve”, but stressed the misconception that everyone in his field “has horns”. He attests that although it’s difficult to research context, it is not impossible, and those involved within the museum are incredibly engaged with reflecting historical context. Harrison affirms that these objects in question in fact “widen the horizons”, and are a bridge to greater knowledge of our world.

At the end of the debate, many questions were asked by the audience. One asked the opposition: would you consider having replicas and returning the original objects? Professor Thomas Harrison responded that the British Museum has a talented professional who replicates the museum’s objects. But Harrison focuses on the antiquity of the artefact that cannot be found in a replica; through experiencing the artefact, one can connect with the past in its most authentic form.

Another question that was then posed towards Dr Vera Mey of the proposition picked up on the phrasing of the motion using “always”. Should they “always” be returned, or could it be unsafe for artefacts to be returned? Mey answered asserting that objects must be returned to the source communities regardless - if this means that the artefact will be destroyed, it is up to the source community and their decision. Alternatively, they can wait for a day when it is safe to return the objects.

After time was up, all attendees voted on the motion, with the proposition winning with just over double the votes. Have your say in their next vote, and come to their following event - publicised on @theyorkdu on Instagram.