In Focus
Apr 19, 2022

Western Universities’ Reckoning with their Role in Cultural Theft

Some of the most prized historical artefacts are located in universities a long distance from where they originate.

Alexander PayneContributing Writer
Trinity's Museum Building
Sinéad Baker for The University Times

The tensions of cultural “theft” and restitution of antiquities have been present for thousands of years. The ancient Greek historian Polybius, writing in the second century, expressed sympathies for the victims of conquerors, describing them as suffering the dual pain of a deprivation of cultural heritage and humiliation of seeing one’s native objects displayed as plunder.

This tension still exists today – in fact, perhaps now more than ever it is a part of popular discourse, and its problems have entered the modern sphere. The White Cube Gallery in Lusanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has tried to sell NFTs of a carved statue of Maximilien Balot, from the uprising of the Pende people against the Belgian colonial rule of DRC, that currently resides in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in the United States.

Whether the circumstances are Roman conquests, colonial exploitation, or “scientific” expeditions (a somewhat misleading description of mainly British archaeological excavations in the 19th century), there are common themes between all these acquisitions of antiquities. Today, the question of where these antiquities should reside persists. In order to answer this question, the Savoy-Sarr report, commissioned by Emmanuel Macron investigating French collections gained through colonial occupation of Africa, may be taken as a starting point. We need to consider both how items have ended up in their current museums (away from where they were originally found) and whether it is better for the vitality and function of these items to remain in the museums where they are kept today.


The report states from the outset that it “only concerns [the French relationship with] sub-Saharan Africa”, so it is important to remember that the violence that accompanied the French acquisition of sub-Saharan African antiquities during the colonial era was not present during, for example, the years of Cyprus being a British protectorate. Those questions can be raised for many of the artefacts on display in foreign museums.

Each artefact or collection engages with complex logistical questions and its own specific set of circumstances. These can be broken down into a number of groups including when and how each item has been acquired, the function of the item in the society where it was originally made and the desire of the original country to have the item returned.

Legal obligations for restitution came into force for any objects acquired after 1970, but is thinking about legal obligation the appropriate mindset for this issue?

When looking at any item’s acquisition, the “crux” of the issue, according to Dr Rebecca Usherwood, an assistant professor in the Classics Department at Trinity, is “who had the right to sign over ownership that was excavated, what was the legitimacy of that exchange, and it’s always about an imbalance of power”. Usherwood goes on to explain that “when the people are there saying this is our heritage, and we are in a position to take it back to the place it was made. I think that’s a very difficult argument to counter”.

Within this whole argument of restitution it is almost impossible to ignore the colonial and imperial histories of the countries involved. Legal obligations came into force for any objects acquired after 1970, but Dr Christine Morris, also of the Classics department at Trinity questions whether “thinking about legal obligation?” is the appropriate mindset for this issue.

“Can legal permission be legal if it was given by an imperial colonial power?”, Morris asks. Usherwood mentions the Benin Bronzes as an example of this conundrum. “We can universally condemn [them] as old-fashioned ‘booty-of-war’, from not even that long ago.”

This idea of time of acquisition, or, more precisely, the age of the artefacts, also plays an important role in this discussion. Usherwood says: “Tell that to the Egyptians – they’re not afraid to put forward their sense of heritage and belonging that are associated with their artefacts.”

When looking at any item’s acquisition, the crux of the issue is who had the right to sign over ownership? What was the legitimacy of that exchange?

Morris says that “there’s a lot more ethnographic collections from recent times, removed via colonial collection, that belonged to living people or immediate ancestors … there’s a lot of conversations going on with the groups claiming ownership, and therefore this process is a more effective process than the one for older pieces”.

“For example, even some people’s direct ancestors can end up on display in Western museums … I wouldn’t say that because something is older it is less important, but it is perhaps less a personal group connection … it doesn’t mean it matters less, it just matters differently”. She suggests that such an item could persist in “a national social memory”.

Here, the complexity of the issue starts to display itself. What value in terms of social memory do these artefacts have within the societies which are requesting them, and are arguments strengthened by a more contemporary personal family connection to the artefact? Alternatively, might this undermine the groups claiming ownership of artefacts that are much older and were acquired through less violent means? The arguments of the Egyptians, mentioned by Usherwood, would suggest not.

Treasurer of Trinity’s Archaeology Society Rachel Smith, who has a keen interest in the second-hand jewellery market, feels that a strong argument can be made for the changing idea of function and ownership that puts the item itself at the centre. “If I buy something – for example, a Roman ring – I can give it a purpose that it perhaps would not get covered in dust in a museum archive … I always look into the history of the item and like to carry its personal story with me.”

Some people’s direct ancestors can end up on display in Western museums

In contrast, Usherwood says that, in her role as an academic, “sometimes we are drawn into it [the private market] … with people asking me to identify coins … I will not identify coins [as] I am not going to participate my knowledge and expertise to that market”.

Smith admits that in her job she does sometimes come across items with significant cultural significance, namely the squash-blossom necklaces of Native American origin, which “were awarded to people in their society of special importance” – however, she did not have anything further to add about her role in the dialogue about these items.

The issue surrounding the desire of the countries of origin to have their antiquities returned has received a lot of attention in recent years. Morris states that “nobody in Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt is looking for repatriation of every object … they are looking for repatriation of specific iconic objects… it is almost like a shopping list of things they would particularly like back, which is at a governmental level of negotiation”. This is perhaps well exemplified by the collection of Cypriot antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland. Some 253 of the 600 artefacts held by these institutions were excavated by the British between 1882 and 1896 during the time that Cyprus was a British protectorate. These excavations seem to have been funded by the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum) and the British Museum, during a time when British interest in overseas artefacts was very intense. Archaeologists and private collectors were spending a lot of time and money investigating abroad and bringing back objects partly for “cultural enrichment”, but also undoubtedly with an eye on the monetary value of ancient artefacts.

The museum itself has said that “the NMI Cypriot Exhibition was designed in partnership with the Cypriot Government, and through engagement with the Embassy of the Republic of Cyprus in Dublin. It arose from an offer of a loan from Cyprus to the NMI and all five loan objects were returned to Cyropus in line with the loan agreement”.

Given the dialogue detailed by Morris about the general feeling of countries of origin in regard to restitution of every single artefact not being top of the agenda, and the fact that the museum had open dialogue with Cypriot institutions about the exhibition, the Cypriot Exhibition could be seen as an example of a collaborative collection, and one that engages with the themes of acquisition as information about this is detailed as part of the exhibition. But overall, restitution is an issue that engages complex themes, especially the ways in which history indelibly marks the present moment with tangible artefacts. It is a sign that the dialogue about this has entered the public sphere and this can only be a good thing, according to those in the academic sphere. Morris believes that doing an audit of every collection is the first step on this journey, and that “some western institutions are beginning to do this”, perhaps prompted by the current political climate concerning the West confronting its colonial past. Usherwood states that it is important to be “as vocally critical as possible” against the status quo of powerful, once colonial powers avoiding this topic simply because it is too complicated or contested to come to a clear decision.

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