White Man’s Burden: Why Western Museums Should Return Historic Artifacts to Their Native Countries

by Chiu-yi Rachel Ngai

At the heart of the British Museum, the Smithsonian, and other great museums of the Western world are historical artifacts from all over the world, such as the Dunhuang Manuscripts from China and Aboriginal shields and weaponry from Australia. However, as tokens of colonialism and Western imperialism, many of these artifacts were stolen or taken as spoils from colonized or imperialized countries. The transition from a colonial to a postcolonial world brought a massive variety of changes in worldview, moral righteousness, and questions on how to undo the damages brought forth by colonialism, such as marginalization and discrimation towards native cultures. Colonialism created a worldwide social ladder that elevates the West and puts down other cultures, leading to native and colonized cultures being seen as ‘lesser’. Along with objectifying already marginalized cultures, the display of stolen artifacts in Western museums rejects the responsibility of reparations and ignores the requests of countries to have their artifacts returned, denying historically and culturally significant items the right to be properly honoured in their native homes.

Offensive as well as a form of marginalization, the display of stolen artifacts for profit in Western–especially former colonial–countries sends a message of ‘otherness’ that mystifies foreign cultures and their artifacts without regard to the cultural significance or integrity. This ‘othering’ of non-Western cultures fetishizes foreign cultures and peoples, marking them as ‘different’ and something for the Western world to simply enjoy. ‘Othering’ further fuels a mentality that allows the West to disassociate from the harms they brought to native cultures whilst still benefiting from said cultures without regard to their traditions or values.

The British Museum has a vast collection of artifacts from Britain's time as a world colonizer, such as antique Chinese chinaware, Java Indonesian masks, West African drums, and Aboriginal jewellery. However, the majority of these items come with significant cultural meaning and were forcibly taken from their owners and native countries to be put on display in private homes before being donated to museums by wealthy private owners. The previously mentioned Java Indonesian masks were provided to the British Museum from the private collection of Sir Stamfords Raffles after his time as British Lieutenant-Governor of the Dutch East Indies. Traditionally used in religious or artistic plays, these masks are symbolic of Indonesian culture and cultural identity. Of great value to Indonesian art and culture, these masks were made to be used by trained actors to honor and remember Indonesian culture, religion, and history. Sir Raffles, and later the British Museum, took near-sacred items of Indonesian culture and turned them into display items for the eyes of white people. This ignores and disregards the items’ meaning and importance as items with their strong place in Indonesian culture and tradition. By displaying such significant artifacts without care to their intended use and reducing them to something akin to decoration, museums objectify them, and by proxy their cultures, as something to enjoy and profit from.

The negative impacts of colonialism also include resource drains and skewed economic development in formerly colonized countries, racist and xenophobic boundaries, and cultural assimilation and subsequent loss of native heritage and culture. In order to avoid persecution or to blend in with the culture and habits of their colonizers, many in colonized countries stopped acknowledging and embracing their culture in its entirety for those of their colonizers. Colonization led to native peoples abandoning their own culture, labeled as ‘primitive’ or ‘inferior’, in favour of colonizing cultures, labeled as ‘superior’ and ‘correct’. This subsequent loss of history and abandonment of cultural identity in many former colonies includes the artifacts that were taken from them by their colonizers.

Logically and morally, the responsibility lies with colonizers to carry out reparations and make up for the harms they have done to their colonial countries, and many formerly colonized countries have requested artifacts of particular cultural or religious significance to be returned from Western museum displays. Sadly but unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Western museums have not taken kindly to these requests. Unwilling to carry out this most basic form of reparation, they have found and attempted loopholes or ‘alternate solutions’ to avoid truly giving the items back. Western museums also profit greatly from their ‘exotic’ displays.

By allowing for greater distance between items, their histories, and the museums, the phenomenon of othering has allowed them to justify keeping ‘their’ artifacts despite international pressures and requests for repatriation. Benin has been requesting the return of the Benin Bronzes, metal sculptures and plaques that used to adorn the walls of the Palace of the Kingdom of Benin, from the British Museum for years, but the British Museum only agreed to ‘loan’ the Bronzes for the opening of the Benin Royal Museum, fully expecting them to be returned. Many Western museums have the same—only ‘loaning’ artifacts to their home countries for a short period of time with the expectation and demand that they be ‘returned’. Still, a most basic form of reparation that colonizing countries could carry out remains the return of stolen artifacts. The responsibility of undoing damages caused by colonialism must in part lie with those who caused it, and repatriations are but a first step in a long journey of repairs.

A common counterargument for museums keeping their artifacts is that they are better able and equipped to care for, preserve, and study such fragile historical items. However, many countries from which museum artifacts were originally taken are now economically and financially stable enough to properly look after their own artifacts. Economically strong, arguably even more so than Great Britain, China is more than capable of caring for the Dunhuang Manuscripts and the numerous important imperial household relics now on display in museums worldwide, including the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Emotional care of artifacts, the honouring of cultural meaning and intended use, can also only be better carried out by native countries with cultural ties and knowledge of it. The only people truly qualified to honour and care for such culturally significant items, native countries, peoples, and cultures also have more to gain from having them in their possession and care as they study their own historical artifacts to better understand and reclaim their own history—their own history that was so brutally tainted by colonialism. In order to force adherence to Western civilization and cultural assimilation, colonizing armies and governors burned and destroyed large amounts of native cultural artifacts. It does not make moral or logical sense for colonial countries to ‘care for’ or ‘preserve’ the cultures they themselves destroyed when native cultures are able to reclaim that responsibility for themselves and their future generations.

Colonial countries do not have the right to benefit, economically or academically, from items they stole from the cultures they destroyed and labeled ‘inferior’. Chinese historians and linguists have more to gain from studying the origins of Chinese language from the Dunhuang Manuscript than the audience of the British Museum ever will. Native countries have the motivation and desire to better care for and preserve them for the sake of their culture and future generations, but Western museums may not. Better taken care of and better valued in the hands of their native cultures, important historical artifacts must not be downgraded and reduced to objectified museum displays.

The return of stolen artifacts decreases marginalization and cultural objectification, helps colonizing countries make up for their misdeeds, and allows artifacts to return to homes where they will be preserved, honoured, and studied the way they were meant to be. Items made by and for a culture belong to that culture. They were made to be used and preserved for future generations, who deserve ownership and the right to study the relics left behind from their ancestors. Not to say that priceless historical items should be returned to places where they may be damaged, but the risk of damage is indeed the only reason why they should not be. If a native country proves able to properly care for their items, there maintains no reason why they should not be given ownership of their artifacts. The profits of former colonizers and museums do not outweigh the cultural and historical significance of artifacts to their native people, and thus, historical artifacts should be returned to their original, rightful owners.

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