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Activism Focus

Why Artifacts Belong In Museums

Mai Do April 3, 2019

Among the controversies surrounding museums, cultural imperialism, and nationalism, there is another issue: the rights of possession over an artifact. If a person finds an antique item with a significant historical and cultural value in her backyard, could the person claim it as their property? Could the person sell the item or destroy it? The issue is more complicated than you think and it depends on the laws of the land where the item originates.

The UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property states that “cultural property is under protection. Cultural property includes anything of scientific, historical, artistic, and or religiously significant, as defined by Article I of the convention.” The treaty became effective in 1972 and applied to all members under the UN. There are 193/195 countries that are members of the UN. The scope of the law is vast.

Source: cbsnews.com

Despite the lucid treaty signed by all members of the UN (the U.S is a member), the clarity of the laws regarding the obtaining of artifacts is dismal. According to this article, some states in the U.S. have had a tradition of digging up artifacts for decades when the activities were legal. After the justifiable laws to protect the heritage of the American Indians cropped up in the 1990s, the denizens were shocked that the police violently raided the houses in these communities. The people arrested and put on criminal records were not made aware of the changes in the law. When it comes to private purchase, the legality of a transaction of objects is also shrouded in confusion.

Museums purchase objects or circulate them around the world museums. Nowadays, museums have become more entrepreneurial as they bid for objects from a dealer, try to keep the costs low, and maintain marketing goals and memberships. But no matter how many innovative events and workshops museums organize to attract, entertain, and educate the public, they cannot operate without the input that defines the reason for their existence: the artifacts. Time and time again, there have been disputes over the rights to possess these artifacts.

Source: britishmuseum.org

The Catholic archbishop of Sokoto, Nigeria, Matthew Kutah, believes the bronze and ivory masques on display at the British Museum should remain in England. Once the artifacts are returned to the shrines that they belong to, they would likely be stolen. He implied that the objects were more suited to be at a museum, where their presence is appreciated by the public, the curators, and museum experts.

Another even more controversial example stems from the Palestine-Israel conflict. Jehad Yasin, general director of excavations and museums for the Palestinian Authority, argued that the display of artifacts in the exhibition, “Finds Gone Astray,” which were taken from  the contested West Bank area and now reside in Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum, is illegal because the items belonged to Palestinians, who control forty percent of the contested land while Israelis are in charge of the remaining sixty percent. The Israeli side fired back by claiming they only borrowed the items. The exhibition highlighted the debate over who has rights to antiquities in an area where power is always changing hands.

The FBI News recently published a story about 7,000 stolen global artifacts discovered in an Indiana home. The federal agency strives to return the important historical materials to the rightful owners, encouraging native tribes and foreign governments to cooperate for repatriations. After four years, even though only 15 percent of the materials have been returned to their original countries, the FBI has made progress in returning these artifacts rather than letting them waste in the Indiana home of a commoner. This is the right move on the government’s part.

Source: pennmuseum.org

Amidst the global issue, we question the rights of museums to possess these artifacts. In the United States, there are 35,000 museums. That is nine times more than the number of cities in the country.  According to a recent study called “Museums as Economic Engines” by American Alliance of Museums, museums provide 726,000 jobs and contribute $50 billion to the US economy each year and $12 billion in tax revenue. Museums are great sources of cultural, historical and educational heritage, attracting 850 million visits total worldwide each year. A museum’s ultimate defense for possessing artifacts, even illegal ones, is that they have the duty and responsibilities to display the valuable objects. “The museum is not saying that this belongs to us. It’s not about belonging or owning, it’s about documenting,” says Leora Berry, the Deputy Director of Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum. Because there is such a considerable investment in curating, preserving, organizing, and displaying the artifacts, they may be better staying at an institute whose goal it is to care for the objects. The revenue and cost of operation depend on the state of these artifacts so the objects tend to be more well-preserved and are less likely to end up being stolen and sold in the black market.

Back in February, anonymous flyers were posted on the University of Pennsylvania campus, alleging that the world-famous Penn museum, the host of a million archeological objects, had stolen two horse sculptures, known as “Taizong Horses”, from China. The claim was that the original artifacts were illegally purchased by C.T.Loo, a controversial Chinese art dealer. The 1921 purchase by Penn Museum, therefore, became invalid. Even so, I think what matters most is the artifacts are kept intact, well-maintained, and credits are given to their creators and the countries of origin, just as Penn Museum has done splendidly. The museum is transparent about the history and the creation of the artifacts, educating the public about them.

Laws and regulations of the world differ, making the rights of possession complicated.  If one purchased one very specific iPhone that cannot be replaced by other of the same type, and that phone became a “national artifact” later for the U.S to be displayed in a science museum, should the owner give up that specific phone? No, because the terms of agreement indicate that it belongs to the owner. Ancient artifacts are much vaguer when it comes to legal possession. In many cases, the legal documentation was unfounded. At the end of the day, to  pass the value down to future generations, an artifact should stay where it can be preserved the best over time, regardless of museums, countries, and political beliefs.