Should art and artefacts that were looted or dubiously purchased during colonial periods be returned to their countries of origin? That was the topic of debate at a recent dinner hosted for a German visitor working at the controversial new Humboldt Ethnographic Museum in Berlin.

The Parthenon Marbles of Greece and the Egyptian Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, the bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti and the Babylonian Ishtar Gate in Berlin, the Kohinoor diamond — now in the crown of the Queen of England — are the more famous objects at the centre of this tug of war. However, there are tens of thousands of objects in museums and private collections across the world that were taken by force or subterfuge.

In Roman times, museums or ‘seat of the muses’ were places for philosophical discussion. By the 17th century, European museums housed curiosities collected from all over the world. The public display of artefacts as a consequence of war or conquest became symbols of triumph for the conqueror and defeat for the conquered. The current debate about restitution or return of these objects reflects a collective colonial guilt with strong arguments on both sides of the debate. In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron of France shocked the museum world by promising to return within five years the cultural heritage taken by France from Africa.

It is difficult to imagine world-famous museums stripped of their collections and many suggest that acknowledging their provenance or how they were acquired is enough restitution. A new thought is to build regional branches of Western museums such as the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, where collections relevant to that region can be displayed.

There is also a question of the ownership of the objects as new countries are formed and old ruling families are dispersed. The Mughal Empire ended and, in the new nationalist India, there is no ownership of that culture. Should the artefacts be returned to Lahore? Some countries argue they are deprived of symbols of national history and income from tourism. Anthropologist Charlotte Joy points out the irony of wanting to keep the cultural artefacts of countries whose people are not welcome as migrants.

The current debate about restitution or return of these objects reflects a collective colonial guilt with strong arguments on both sides of the debate.

War booty has a long ignominious history, as long as war itself. It is interesting that art and artefacts retained such value in the midst of war. Tipu Sultan was barely cut down in battle before British soldiers stripped his person and his palace of valuable artefacts, now housed at Windsor Castle. Timur the Lame, who built towers of skulls of the vanquished, spared artisans to build palaces in Samarqand, filling it with artists, architects and intellectuals from across Asia. Nadir Shah plundered Delhi and 700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses carried out looted treasures — including the Peacock Throne — to Iran. Art was stolen in both World Wars, the Afghan and Iraq wars, and during the 1860 destruction of the Forbidden City (a palace complex in central Beijing) by British and French troops. This was less a gesture of subjugation, as Changez Khan put it “to vanquish your enemies ... to rob them of their wealth,” but more for personal financial gain. 

While most plundered art has been preserved in its new locations, Cortez and his Spanish conquistadores melted exquisite gold and silver artefacts taken from the Aztecs. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) destroyed numerous heritage sites. After the 1857 uprising in India, British soldiers systematically destroyed almost all of Delhi’s Mughal palaces, and gardens, and also some mosques and shrines. While restitution of objects is being considered, what restitution can there be for cultures destroyed, native and aboriginal lands confiscated? The claim for Israel is based on reclaiming ancient rights. After 10,000 years of civilisations defined by trade, migrations, exiles and conquests and of cross-fertilisation of cultures, what and how much can be returned and to whom?

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 6th, 2019