Monarchy and Museum Ethics: The Darker Side of What's on Display

Monarchy and Museum Ethics: The Darker Side of What's on Display

. 7 min read

Mixed Media

Amidst the outpouring of grief over Queen Elizabeth II’s death on September 8, 2022, not everyone is mourning for the woman who stood as a symbol of British rule for 70 years. Citizens of both current and former British colonies face complicated feelings over what the Queen truly meant to their nations and to themselves. For some, she was a representative and reminder of the colonization which ravaged their homeland, taking countless human lives and cultural artifacts. Those human lives cannot be brought back, but many of those artifacts—sitting in the royal collection or in British museums—can. Now, in the wake of the Queen’s death, pro-repatriation activists are calling for the next chapter of the British monarchy to return artifacts to their countries of origin.

There has been longstanding criticism worldwide over how the monarchy continues to reap the benefits of the British Empire’s colonization of African, Asian, and Caribbean countries and diasporas. The Empire violently exploited such nations, leading to decades of socioeconomic devastation and suffering. In the past few years, public scrutiny and accusations of racism perpetuated within the royal family have forced them to reckon with their colonial history. Most recently, though, the passing of the Queen reignited debates about reparations and the legacy of colonialism. Those who believe the riches stolen by the Empire under imperialism should be repatriated have taken advantage of the media hubbub to voice their opinions on platforms such as Twitter. For example, the famed Kohinoor diamond began trending as a hashtag on Indian Twitter shortly after the Queen’s death.

Heritage’s Homecoming

The discourse over whether governments and museums have a responsibility to repatriate looted artifacts has been further fueled by Nigeria’s recent reclamation successes. For example, the Benin Bronzes consist of around 5,000 artifacts created in the former Kingdom of Benin from the 13th to the 16th century. In 1897, British colonial troops invaded the kingdom’s prosperous capital of Benin City and looted the Bronzes. The troops kept some of the loot for themselves, gifted some to Queen Victoria, and sold the rest—with many eventually ending up in museums around the globe. Nigeria has had a mission to reclaim the Benin Bronzes since the 1930s. The movement took hold alongside independence in 1960 and gained traction in 2007 with the formation of the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG). BDG comprises representatives from Nigerian and European cultural institutions, all of whom are determined to bring the artifacts back home. Working towards the same goal are Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and, since 2020, the Legacy Restoration Trust, which negotiates with foreign museums.

NCMM sent a formal repatriation request to London’s Horniman Museum in January 2022. After the Horniman researched the history of their artifacts, they realized that “these objects were acquired through force, and … it’s both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria,” as stated by Eve Salomon, Chair of the Trustees of the Horniman Museum. The Horniman announced in August 2022 that it will repatriate its 72 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, making it the first British collection of Benin Bronzes to be returned for ethical reasons. Furthermore, this decision follows in the wake of Germany’s repatriation of 1,100 artifacts to Nigeria in July 2022. Is the world now witnessing a movement of European museums returning looted artifacts en masse to their homelands?

The Sign Says “Do Not Touch”

The answer is complicated. While the emerging trend toward repatriation is causing nations to realize the benefits to diplomacy and foreign policy—such as strengthening partnerships and national security—resulting from returning cultural property, governments and laws still act as a roadblock to repatriation in countries such as the United Kingdom. Currently, state-owned institutions in many European nations lack the legal infrastructure to return their collections.

France is one country that has actually enacted new laws to move forward with repatriation. In 2018, President Emmanuel Macron commissioned a report which found that “around 90 to 95 percent of African cultural heritage is found overseas.” Subsequently, the French Parliament passed a bill in December 2020 allowing African artifacts to be returned. This is a strategic display of good faith between two major economic trading partners; French exports to Africa have increased from US$13 billion to US$28 billion over the past 20 years, and foreign domestic investment has increased tenfold from 5.9 billion euros to 64 billion euros. However, other countries that are seeking to increase investment and trade in Africa—like China with its Belt and Road Initiative—have been threatening France’s economic and political influence in the area. Repatriating cultural heritage, therefore, could serve as a way for France to strengthen its relationship with its former colonies in Africa.

British state-owned institutions, on the other hand, are barred from returning looted artifacts under the British Museum Act of 1963 and the National Heritage Act of 1983. Additionally, the British Government has stated that it is not planning to amend those laws to allow repatriation. The closest the government has gotten is adopting a “retain and explain” policy where contested artifacts are kept on display but contextualized, and the British Museum announced in 2021 that it would lend key artifacts on a long-term basis—yet none of these options are full transferrals of ownership to an artifact’s country of origin. Britain has long been the target of calls for returning stolen antiquities; a 2020 draft of the 27 European Union nations’ negotiations with Britain on their future relationship specifically advocates for the “return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin.” But, the only hope of British artifact repatriation is attaining enough public outcry to influence new laws.

Culture, Contested

Public opinion on repatriation, both from curators and the general population, is divided. One common argument against repatriation is that antiquities should go to the institutions best equipped to handle the responsibilities of protecting and preserving them. The British imperial system, according to defenders of the United Kingdom’s possession of looted artifacts, has kept millions of artifacts safe from theft and destruction in wars. However, state-of-the-art museums have emerged in countries such as Greece and Nigeria, both of which have cultural patrimony residing in the British Museum. Another argument follows a slippery slope—giving one artifact back will lead to having to give all of them back, since countries will demand everything returned. But do all cultural artifacts belong in their country of origin? Or do only some? Who gets to decide, and how should they?

The debate over repatriation essentially boils down to two sides: cultural nationalism versus cultural internationalism. The view of cultural nationalism is that countries should withhold their cultural objects to their own territory and seek to recover objects located abroad taken illegally or unethically. Cultural internationalism, on the other hand, promotes the idea that cultural property is not restricted to one nation and should be freely shared and even privately owned in some cases. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed this sentiment in 2013, commenting that “the right answer is for the British Museum and other cultural institutions … to make sure that the things which we have and look after so well are properly shared with people around the world.” Cameron has staunchly rejected the idea of repatriating stolen artifacts. Liz Truss, also a former British Prime Minister, stated in October that she didn’t support repatriation either—without further elaboration.

While cultural nationalism supports arguments for repatriation and cultural internationalism supports arguments against repatriation, there is a massive amount of gray area between these two ends of the spectrum. Many agree with both ideas, wanting to see a variety of cultures represented in museums around the world while also wanting stolen artifacts returned as an act of long-overdue justice.

The Diamond Debate

One such artifact under the media spotlight following the Queen’s death is the Kohinoor diamond, a 105-carat jewel set in the Crown of the Queen Mother. Mined during India’s Kakatiya Dynasty between the 12th and 14th centuries, it passed through the ownership of the Mughals, Persians, Afghans, and then Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh. However, Britain’s East India Company coerced Ranjit Singh’s successor, 12-year-old Maharaja Dunjeep Singh, to surrender the jewel in the late 1840s via the Treaty of Lahore, which stated that Singh was “gifting” the Kohinoor Diamond to Queen Victoria. Her consort, Prince Albert, then requested the original 793-carat gem to be recut and eventually set into the Crown of the Queen Mother in 1937.

The Indian government requested that the Kohinoor be returned in 1947, upon the country’s independence. This demand, along with a second one in the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, went unfulfilled after the United Kingdom argued that there were no legal grounds present for repatriating the jewel. Now, in the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, followed by the election of the United Kingdom’s first PM of Indian descent, Rishi Sunak, there is once again public outcry in India demanding that the Kohinoor be returned to its home. Pro-repatriation advocates are leveraging India’s economic strength to demonstrate that good diplomatic relations between India and the United Kingdom would be beneficial. Manik Ram Choudhury, an Indian municipal councilor, points out that India has recently surpassed Britain’s economy as the fifth-largest in the world, and that Indian companies create thousands of jobs for British citizens. Returning the Kohinoor would be a valuable way to show Britain’s commitment to these international ties.

The question of where to return the Kohinoor, however, is still at large. Governments in India, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have all laid claim to the treasure. This confusion is partly due to modern-day borders complicating the map of the past as well as the fact that the Kohinoor  was possessed by numerous groups throughout its centuries-long history. In 2019, the Pakistani government claimed to be the gem’s rightful owner, arguing that “…colonizers stole the gem from its territory.” Considering the historical conflict between India and Pakistan, as well as the tenuous relationships these four countries have had with each other, where the Kohinoor ends up being returned—if it even ends up being returned—has the potential to raise tensions.

Reevaluating History, Renovating Exhibits

The United Kingdom and other former colonial powers face tough decisions over what to do next in terms of legislation regarding museum ethics, their relationship with their former colonies, and the treasures they acquired through dishonest transactions. This is a turbulent time for its royal family, which has recently suffered a major loss. There is a powerful relationship between art and national pride, and as the definition of what a nation—and even monarchy—means continues to evolve, so do government, museums, and public decisions of what to do with art with complex, painful histories. Perhaps cultural artifacts can provide answers as to what a country is and what it aims to be.