The Repatriation of Cultural Objects

Leong Yew, Research Fellow, University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore

A large number of the indigenous art and cultural artefacts adorning Western museums, stately mansions of the European upper class, or hidden away in the private stashes of businessmen, travelers, tomb raiders, and soldiers in contact with the colonial world have had a long and troubled history. Most of these have now come under scrutiny by a burgeoning postcolonial consciousness that their location in these places are inherently problematic. At the same time the claims of ownership by native communities are equally unsettled as issues of the "right" of ownership, the identity of the owner, and the circumscription of global capitalism and modern property law persistently colour these claims. Hence, much like the diasporic peoples around the world, indigenous art -- once displaced -- becomes caught in in-between hybrid spaces, never fully belonging to the countries that host them or to the places they originated.

Some of the most impassioned movements calling for the restitution of native art today very much couch their claims on modern legality. The parties in possession of these cultural objects had wrongfully acquired -- the terms plunder, looting, and theft are often used -- them and must under the purview of modern property law return them to the rightful owners. A number of international organizations embody such views, for instance UNESCO's convention on the Prevention of the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and UNIDROIT's (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law) Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. Without doubt the discrepancy in the meaning of these objects between those who currently possess them and their claimants cast an enduring shadow on contemporary imperial discourse. For the museums that acquired the cultural objects in the heyday of colonialism, the artefacts were to be put on public display to celebrate the vastness and greatness of empire while reducing these symbols as mere objects of the imperial gaze. Today the attitude towards indigenous art may have shifted to a different register but a similar condescension prevails. Why repatriate them to some obscure private palace in Africa while millions of people can see them at the British Museum? Here a persistent attitude prevails over how the imperial centre values art; art is meant for public edification and its belonging in a museum really depicts cosmopolitan ownership.

Amidst these debates there are also a number of issues that must be considered. Global capitalism has dramatically transformed the modes of exchange and the use value of objects, and it is through global capitalism and its colonial antecedent that indigenous art becomes commodified. This has led to a fair amount of incommensurability between the original provider and recipient of native art. What may at one time have been a tribal religious statue may have existed in a relationship with its native possessors in a way that cannot be articulated outside of modernity and capitalism. How this transaction occurs becomes untranslatable; at best interpreted under very violent forms of physical force. In other words might gives the "new" owners of indigenous art the right to interpret the circumstances of the exchange. A similar amount of incommensurability also pervades the claims for the repatriation of such art. The original communities that possessed the disputed art have become transformed by colonialism and capitalism in varying ways. New sovereign states may have superceded these communities and hybrid notions of ownership -- trapped between traditional and modern -- may have become the very elements that propel these claims for artistic repatriation.

All these are not meant to be obstacles for the restitution of indigenous art but are meant to be issues that must be considered in light of the claims that are being made. The following selected links point to a vast array of resources that demonstrate these debates over "stolen" artistic treasures.

Related External Web Materials


  • Art, Antiquity and Law (periodical)
  • Graham, Brian, G.J. Ashworth, and J.E. Tunbridge. A Geography of Heritage: Power, Culture and Economy. London: Arnold, 2000.
  • Greenfield, Jeanette. The Return of Cultural Treasures. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Hitchens, Christopher. The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece? New York: Verso, 1998.
  • Journal of Cultural Heritage (periodical)
  • Kowalski, Wojciech W. Art Treasures and War: A Study on the Restitution of Looted Cultural Property Pursuant to Public International Law. Ed. Tim Schadla-Hall. London: Institute of Art and Law, 1998.
  • Messenger, Phyllis Mauch, ed. The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property: Whose Culture? Whose Property? Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.
  • Miller, David L., David W. Meyers, and Anne L. Cowe. "Restitution of Art and Cultural Objects: A Re-Assessment of the Role of Limitation." Art, Antiquity and Law. 6:1 (2001). 1-17.
  • Pal, H. Bhisham. The Plunder of Art. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1992.
  • Palmer, Norman. "Sending Them Home Some Observations on the Relocation of Cultural Objects from UK Museum Collections." Art, Antiquity and Law. 5:4 (2000). 343-354.
  • Washburn, Wilcomb E. Against the Anthropological Grain. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1998.
  • United Nations. Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Backgrounder: The Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Paris, 1983.
  • Ziff, Bruce and Pratima V. Rao, eds. Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997.



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Last Modified: 23 May, 2002