Stolen Art: Why We Need Repatriation

This essay from Serena Liuat age 15, from Parkway West High School in Chesterfield, Missouri, is one of the top 11 winners of the Training Network Ninth annual student editorial competitionfor which we received 16,664 records.

We publish the work of all winners and runners-up next week and you can find them here as published.

Stolen Art: Why We Need Repatriation

The legacy of imperialism is marked by suffering. After millions of deaths and contracts forged through blood, this is not a particularly controversial statement. Yet in the softly lit halls with museum exhibits, Western countries parade their imperialist history, showing looted art.

A few years ago I visited the Summer Palace in Beijing. Glazed towers rose above a lush forest, painted against the blue sky and the even bluer Kunming Lake. However, as my mother told me at the time, this complex was a shadow of the old Summer Palace, which was looted by British and French forces in 1860. Led by British Commander Lord Elgin, the pieces were put up for auction and the fallen palace was burned to the ground.

Now royal scepters and gleaming jade from the old Summer Palace adorn the Royal Collection and other British museums. Each unreturned artifact is a reminder of the century of humiliation that Western nations have inflicted on China. With the rise of Chinese nationalism, this resentment arose in the already tense political relations between East and West.

But the question extends beyond China. In the world of art history, Elgin is a scandalous name. Beginning in 1802, Lord Elgin’s father and his men carved intricate friezes and metopes from the famous Athena Parthenon in Greece and sent them to London, where they are now housed in the British Museum. Since then, the Greek government has demanded the return of these artifacts, known as Elgin’s marbles.

If Elgin’s marbles were repatriated, they would be on display at the Acropolis Museum. Here, in the exposition, where the plaster forms of Elgin marbles stand instead of the real ones, the towering windows offer a panoramic view of the Acropolis. Only herewhere the viewer is free to imagine how these artifacts once adorned the Parthenon, their full historical context in all its ancient glory can be appreciated.

However, some fear that repatriation will lead to the collapse of encyclopedic museums. Citing the Koh-i-Noor diamond, a gemstone taken from the Mughal empire after the colonization of India, former British Prime Minister David Cameron said that “if you say yes to one, you will suddenly find that the British Museum will be empty.” “.

But maybe some museums Must to empty.

The founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloan, funded his collection through imperial networks and smashing Jamaican slavery. In Belgium, the Museum of Africa – where Congolese were once exhibited as zoo animals – was built with profits from King Leopold’s brutal Congo.

No matter what repairs are made, history cannot change. These museums, built on the foundations of colonialism, serve as modern sanctuaries of oppressive imperial ideals, and the refusal to return stolen art is an insult to all who have suffered from it.

Cited works

Bernhard, Meg. “Belgium is facing an ugly colonial past, but the changes in the African museum are not for everyone.” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2019

Boassono, Lorraine. “The British Museum was a marvel of its time, but also a product of slavery. Smithsonian Magazine, October 30, 2017

Bowlby, Chris. The Palace of Shame that angers China. BBC, 2 February 2015

Nayeri, Farah. Recalling the racist history of Human Zoos. The New York Times, December 29, 2021.

Urusov, Nikolai. “The New Acropolis Museum: Dialogue with Antiquity. New York Times, October 30, 2007

Tweedy, Neil. Koh-i-Nur: The Diamond Robbery? The Telegraph, July 29, 2010

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