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Museums of Unnatural History

Olivia Vella

Posted on July 25, 2020 18:07

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Last week, France presented an artifact-return law that would enable the country to return certain cultural artifacts stolen from African countries during France's imperialism, while also pledging to return 26 objects looted by French colonial trips in 1892 from a royal palace in Benin, currently held at the Musee Branly-Jacques-Chirac.

Whether museums should return stolen and looted artifacts from colonized countries has long been a topic of discussion. Unfortunately, Unesco regulations only require that artifacts removed from their country of origin after 1970 be returned. These regulations cannot serve as reparations for the artifacts that have been stolen for centuries previous.

The counter argument to why artifacts should be returned to their countries of origin often centers around the object itself. Typically, objects stolen during war are taken for their own protection and preservation, as historians do not trust the country of origin to be able to care for them properly. Another argument is that the countries that have dedicated time and resources to preserving artifacts deserve the right to display them.

You'll notice that these two arguments revolve around the well-being of the artifacts. However, when thinking about this issue, it's important to look beyond the objects and think about the cultures from which they originate.

Artifacts usually have an important historical and culture meaning for the culture from which they were taken. These cultures have often by threatened by colonialism and imperialism, so it's important that members of these countries are returned their own cultural artifacts to allow them to connect to their threatened past. And by keeping these artifacts for observation in Western museums, we contribute to the legacy of exoticization, fetishization, and othering of non-Western civilizations that first began in the age of colonialism.

To those who believe that we must keep these artifacts in museums and galleries: I ask you to appreciate art for the cultural and historical context it comes from. I can say that from personal experience, despite being fully dedicated to my own education, I struggle to remember an artifact that stuck out to me or had a lasting effect on my life. This is because museum visitors have no commitment or emotional attachment to stolen art in museums, partially because the art is usually presented as a stand-alone item, and partially because the viewer doesn't bother to read the information and background provided. I ask you, why is this single object more important to you than the culture? Does your commitment to your education end here, at the tokenization of human cultures?

As protests around the United States provoke activists to bring light to other violations of civil and human rights across the world, I encourage you to reconsider the ways that you have unknowingly and non-maliciously contributed to these violations.

Olivia Vella

Posted on July 25, 2020 18:07

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