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The Legacy of Stolen Heritage: How The Theft of Historical Artefacts Perpetuates Modern Colonialism

Writer: Marina Mendieta

Editor:Radhiah Auni, Pat Sevikul, Veronica Yung

Graphic Designer: Pat Sevikul

Historical artefacts are not merely objects; they represent people, history, traditions, countries and most importantly, culture and heritage. Over centuries nations have been built and destroyed, and the only thing that remains are these objects. Therefore, they are a crucial part of understanding and appreciating the history of a culture. However, there is an ongoing issue that has remained unresolved for centuries: the theft of historical artefacts. This issue deprives people from their cultural heritage and perpetuates modern colonialism through cultural appropriation in the hands of colonisers.

To understand where this began, we must trace the history of stolen artefacts. In the age of exploration (circa 15-1600) European colonial powers looked to expand their wealth and territories; they invaded nations and “undiscovered” lands, exploiting and stealing from multiple cultures. For example, the Benin Bronzes that belonged to the Kingdom of Benin (modern day Nigeria) are distributed throughout Europe in different museums and even in private collections. There is much conflict surrounding European Museums, such as the British Museum, for refusing to return these artefacts. For many Nigerians, it is a potent reminder of the colonialism that continues to affect African society. This directly links to the impact of stolen heritage on the descendants of the original owners and how it has robbed them of their connection to their past and cultural identity.

The theft of historical artefacts has impacted cultural identity and preservation as it means that future generations will not have easy access to the objects that represent their ancestry if they remain in museums, stolen, thousands of kilometres away from their homes. Consequently, this affects people’s knowledge of their own heritage. It is important to note that relics are not merely objects, but a source of understanding of cultures that provide insight into the history, traditions, and beliefs of people. Hence, when these artefacts are stolen or lost, it can be challenging to pass on the knowledge surrounding its significance to future generations of that particular culture. As a result, returning artefacts to its respective country of origin is crucial for cultural preservation as our heritage allows us to learn from the past and build a better future that fosters a sense of cultural identity and pride.

Museums pose a more dominant role in this problem. Ultimately, it is crucial that they are held accountable for withholding thousands of artefacts oceans away from their birthplace, and for profiting from the theft and exploitation of its history through the exclusivity of their exhibitions. Moreover, the history of museums and their collections is tied to the history of colonialism, with many of the world's most famous museums being founded in the Age of Exploration. As a result, these museums are often filled with artefacts obtained through colonial exploitation.

The ethics of collecting and displaying stolen artefacts can also be called into question legally. Although laws such as the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property; The Cultural Heritage Act in China; The Antiquities and Treasure Act in India assist in repatriation (the process of returning relics to their home), little to no action has been taken due to the lack of clear evidence

. There are also limitations to repatriation as the process can be a long and arduous one, with many legal and ethical issues to consider. This includes disproving the legal ownership rights that the museums possess and tackling political obstacles just to name a few.

Some museums and collectors have been resistant to returning artefacts, arguing that they are an important part of human history that should be shared with the world and that some countries do not have the resources to preserve and protect their historical artefacts. Still, we must consider that the lack of money to focus on preservation within these countries may have a direct correlation with colonialism. For example, Haiti has been in severe poverty due to a debt that the French implemented during the Haitian rebellion in 1804. Today, they continue to struggle with unemployment, poverty and political instability. Another example is Zimbabwe, which was colonised by the British. After gaining independence, poorly executed land reform policies were implemented to redistribute land to Black Zimbabweans causing economic decline due to a lack of resources which ignited hyperinflation, high unemployment, and political instability.

While some museums have acknowledged the harm caused by the theft of historical artefacts and have taken steps towards repatriation, many have not. The role of museums and collectors in perpetuating stolen heritage is a complex issue that requires ongoing attention and action. The British Museum has a section on their webpage dedicated to “Contested Objects” which comprises all the debated relics that have been disputed about. Some examples are the “Benin Bronzes”, “Moai, Easter Island Heads”,” Maqdala Collection, Ethiopia” and “Human Remains”. The latter has sparked controversy due to the lack of ethics of preserving human remains in display with no consent whatsoever of the country they belong to/ the person being displayed. Museums still remain defendants of their position in this battle of morals and are rapidly being posed with the responsibility of holding these artefacts with blurred ethical lines.

Cultural heritage plays a crucial role in shaping the identity and history of a community or nation. The theft and illegal trade of cultural artefacts cause economic losses because most of these artefacts are priceless national treasures. It also ignores the cultural significance these objects hold in its communities. The need to repatriate stolen artefacts and promote collaborative efforts in cultural preservation cannot be overstated. Therefore, it is important for people, institutions, and governments to support repatriation efforts and collaborate on cultural preservation projects. As a global community, we must recognise and acknowledge the ongoing legacy of stolen heritage and the need for continued awareness and action. Together, we can protect and preserve our world's cultural heritage for future generations. Let’s commit to this cause and take action to ensure the return of stolen artefacts to their rightful owners and the continued protection and preservation of cultural heritage for all. With no cultural heritage, no future exists where colonialism can be seen as only the past. The gain that some people receive is greater than the loss that others will suffer.




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