Four historians consider one of the most contentious questions facing the West’s museums and galleries.

Artefacts do not need to be ‘returned’

Tiffany Jenkins, author of Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – and Why They Should Stay There (Oxford, 2016)


All of the artefacts we gaze upon today were made for someone else and for some other purpose: to celebrate the powerful; for worship; or for ordinary household use. Regardless of intent, soon after any object is made, it passes out of the hands of the creator into those of others – patrons, family, friends, thieves – new owners, crossing continents and centuries and changing use as it does.

It is time for museums to do their job

Marie Rodet, Senior Lecturer in the History of Africa, SOAS, University of London

Artefacts taken from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Oceania and the Americas during colonialism belong and should be returned to their countries of origin. Most of the global artefacts that are now held in European museums were either looted or bought for a value far below that of the European art market price at the time of their acquisition.

One argument put forward for keeping these items is that the location of their origin is unknown or ambiguous – it would be impossible to know to whom and where to return them. This is a fallacious argument, which confirms that galleries, museums and private collectors have never made the effort to know the history of the artefacts in their possession; or worse, they know, but don’t want to acknowledge, the circumstances under which they were acquired.


Repatriation raises questions that resist sweeping answers

Ioannis D. Stefanidis, Professor of Diplomatic History, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Who, then, is entitled to claim ‘repatriation’ before the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee? Could the second looters, the French, qualify? Under international law, looting is illegal today and was widely deprecated in 1797, though one might wonder about the difference between Napoleon’s pilfering of the horses and the Venetians’ misappropriation since 1204. Time offers an easy answer. This would suggest that Constantinople or its modern incarnation, Istanbul, should be considered. Could the Turks claim the horses ‘back’, on the basis of their connection with an existing monument, the Hippodrome, despite their nine-century long absence and the fact that they are not exactly associated with the Ottoman or Turkish cultural heritage? The repatriation of artefacts removed from their place of origin before such practice was progressively outlawed during the 20th century raises questions that resist sweeping answers.


No issue demands more careful consideration

Nicholas Thomas, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge

It depends. In the sphere of culture no issue demands more careful, case-by-case, consideration. The question has often been raised of the ethnographic collections that became vast through the ambitious, indeed rapacious, collecting associated with European colonial trade and science in the late 19th century. Those who assume that collections stand as a sort of coda to the imperial enterprise, an appropriate focus for redress and restitution, may however be surprised to learn that indigenous peoples – in parts of the Pacific, for example – are positive about the representation of their cultures in prestigious international museums.