For thousands of years, artifacts have been acquired through conquest, and more recently, bought, sold, and traded to various museums and personal collections around the globe, displacing them from their original intended locations. The question of whether or not these non-native arts and artifacts should be returned to their places of origin is quite controversial. There is a wholeness of experience when a work of art is viewed within its cultural context, providing further insight into the work and the culture from which it was created. Displaying foreign artifacts in a museum, on the other hand, allows those who otherwise might not have the opportunity the access to a wide range of cultures, and provides a means to discover and connect links to their own cultures. While a complete experience of art in its cultural context is desirable, promoting tolerance and diversity is essential in our seemingly disparate world, in order to strengthen and unify us as humans. So, whose art is it? No matter where it is housed, or who has legal ownership, art belongs to the people.
Humanity is constantly evolving, and cultural lines are blurring more all the time. Exposing ourselves to the many different cultures all over the world and reveling in our similarities as well as our differences is so important; separating the world into entities within cultural boundaries is detrimental to the progression of humanity. Many feel that cultural artifacts are integral to their national identities, and that they belong to the countries from where they came. James Cuno, however, asserts that “when art and culture are strictly attached to a nation we lose the cross-culture ties that bind many different peoples together. (31-32) This attitude is more conducive to the enrichment of all people’s lives and their understanding of how cultures change over time, rather than the much more limited benefit for those who simply wish to “claim” it because it is necessary to their national identity.
It is unfortunate that so many artifacts have been plundered throughout the years, but repatriating artifacts back to their homelands will not change history; it will only limit the exposure to a greater audience. These days, there are many laws that protect historical and cultural artifacts from illegal acquisition, and it is only fair that if an artifact is illegally obtained, it be returned. Before these laws were implemented, however, illegal and unethical methods were used to procure artifacts, which have as much importance in the course of history as the artifacts themselves. Viewing them in this context is just as valuable to one’s understanding of human history, and how we have evolved.
Museums are meant not only to display cultural artifacts, but to also protect them from future theft or looting, and to also preserve them from the effects of time. Often the native places from where artifacts come do not have the resources to maintain them and keep them safe. If museums or personal collectors were to suddenly transport all artifacts back to their native lands, many would inevitably become damaged during transit, or, once relocated, would be vulnerable to theft or vandalism if the originating countries were unable to provide the proper care and maintenance.
The acquisition and personal rights of artifacts and art ownership do not have to be so black and white. The origins and history should be provided wherever it is displayed, but it should remain in the care of whoever will best preserve it, and wherever it will reach the most people in the larger context of human diversity.
Bell, Malcom and James Cuno. “Repatriation of Cultural Property: Two Experts Debate Whether Art and Artifacts Should Be Repatriated.” eJournal USA. U.S. Department of State. Vol. 15, No. 8. Web. Oct. 24, 2013.