Lost histories: Bringing stolen artifacts back home

By Nicholas Raffoul

In the past year, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany have begun to admit that many works dispersed across their museums and private collections are stolen artifacts from European colonial empires from the 19th century. As these stolen collections demonstrate, legacies of colonialism persist within our history and art museums to this day.

Countries such as Benin, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Egypt have been long requesting their art, sacred artifacts, and other historical objects stolen from colonial empires who continue to benefit from them financially and culturally.

Since the 1960s, Nigeria has been calling for the return of over 4,000 bronze and ivory artifacts taken from the British Empire from an expedition to the Kingdom of Benin (now known as Southern Nigeria) in 1897 as “reparations,” after it defied the colonial Empire by imposing custom duties. The 4,000 works have been spread out across museums in North America and Europe as of today. Questions of how the United Kingdom will be ‘loaning’ these works is currently being debated.

Plaques of these historical works rarely reveal the provenance of the artefact, who owned it, and how it was brought to the West, de-historicizing the artifact and its forceful removal from the physical place and culture it came from.

The issue of stolen artifacts is much closer to campus than we might think. McGill University’s Redpath Museum has a collection of “World Culture” artifacts, including around 17,000 archaeological and historical works from Africa, Asia, and South America. However, Redpath Museum has no material related to Canada’s Inuit, Metis, and First Nations peoples on display because their Indigenous art collection is house in the McCord Museum.

The World Culture collection includes over 2500 objects from Africa, specifically Angola and the Congo, which was collected circa 1900. Many of these objects, including ceremonial staffs and beadwork have strong ancestral ties to the land and represent spiritual figures. .

Another 2000 objects in the collection originate from Egypt, as the Redpath Museum holds three human mummies and other religious items and jewelry. A source reveals that at least one of the mummies was obtained by James Ferrier in 1859 through an illegal trade deal. Because of the dubious origins of the mummy and other items, discovering the origins of the mummy remains unlikely.

In 2010, Egypt demanded that artifacts from museums around the world be returned to their place of origin. With iconic pieces like the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum bringing high numbers of museum-goers and thus high profits, museums care little about the moral issue of returning culturally and spiritually significant artifacts.

McGill and the Redpath Museum fail to share information regarding the colonial histories and the illegal procurement of most works in their World Culture collection. Museums like Redpath also neglect to mention why these ancient artifacts were so desired in the first place, including reasons such as fetishization of ‘other’ cultures, orientalism, and outright racism.

The desire of European and North American institutions to keep these ancient artifacts also brings up an important question of why contemporary art from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America is not demanded to the same level. By neglecting contemporary art from these communities and cultures, museums depict ‘faraway’ cultures as stagnant and only worth presenting because of their antiquity.

While extremely popular museums seem to be setting a bad example of returning illegal ancient artifacts, smaller institutions like Redpath are equally complicit in the repression of a history of colonialism and theft among their body of works.

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