What about ancient rip-offs?
It seems that throughout history, various colonial powers have taken ancient artifacts from their original locations. This article discusses the resolution of one such event:
While many countries have been involved in this practice, it seems that France, Great Britain, and the United States have been particularly active in the trade.
Dr. Zahi Hawass (former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs for Egypt) has been very active in securing the return of many items to Egypt. While there is no small amount of controversy over the ego, ethics, and practices of Hawass, no one can deny that his work has led to repatriation of artifacts taken from Egypt by past colonial powers.
The actions taken by Hawass have encouraged other countries to press for the return of antiquities now “owned” by outside holders. Added to this is long-standing and still building effort by many Native American groups to secure the return of artifacts and lands taken from them by the American government.
I have mixed emotions about this…
I believe that ancient artifacts belong to their location of origin, but I am concerned about the preservation of these objects. The historical significance of antiquities can’t be overlooked or understated, and so preserving them for the future is of utmost importance.
To illustrate this, let me present a totally fictitious and, perhaps, absurd example…
Let’s assume that in 1800, a full headdress was taken from a small tribe of Native Americans. Since that time, the artifact has resided in a museum someplace where professionals have preserved it in excellent condition. The tribe, as it exists today, is very small, maybe a few hundred members, and is quite poor. They are so poor, in fact, that they simply could not afford to preserve the headdress.
Now, is it in anyone’s best interest to return the item to the tribe when the odds are that the headdress will be neglected (not intentionally, mind you…just a matter of economics)? Or, is it better to leave it in the care of the museum where it will continue to be cared for?
I think we need to consider this when it comes to ancient artifacts. In the above somewhat wacky example, I think the best thing is to return title (or whatever you want to call it) to the headdress to the tribe, but the item is to remain on permanent, non-revocable loan to the museum.
The major problem is just who decides what gets returned and what doesn’t. Do we really want to leave such important decisions to national governments, politicians, or the circus that is the United Nations? Personally, I think not.
What say you?