Winning Their Marbles? The Return of Cultural Heritage Objects

June 14, 2021

Graduate Center alumnus Pierre Losson (Ph.D. '19, Political Science) discusses the return of cultural heritage objects on the International Horizons podcast.

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How do cultural artifacts end up outside their country of origin? What are the different approaches that are being taken to repatriate historical treasures, and what barriers stand in the way of these efforts? What value do we give to objects of ancestral origin, and does it change with time?

Graduate Centrer alumnus Pierre Losson (Ph.D. '19, Political Science) talks to Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about the politics of cultural heritage and what we can expect from international efforts to return "stolen" artifacts to their homelands.

A lightly edited selection of the transcript follows below.


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International Horizons - Ralph Bunche Institute · Winning Their Marbles? The Return of Cultural Heritage Objects

John Torpey: Today, we discuss claims for the return of cultural heritage objects around the world with Pierre Losson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Italian Academy at Columbia University, who recently received his PhD in political science here at the Graduate Center. His dissertation focused on the political motivations for cultural restitution claims by the governments of Colombia, Peru, and Mexico.

Pierre is also a practitioner in international arts and culture management, having worked as a French cultural attache in Latin America for 10 years and with the Americas Society/Council of the Americas here in New York. Thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today on International Horizons, Pierre Losson.

Pierre Losson: Thanks a lot for your invitation.

John Torpey: Well, it’s a very interesting topic, and I look forward to the conversation. So we mentioned a couple of the most, best known cases in the introduction. But perhaps you could tell us a little more about the historical background of how some of these works ended up in museums in Europe in the United States, to give a kind of basis for this discussion to some of our listeners.

Pierre Losson: Sure, there are different origins for the collections that are in dispute today, and all seem increasingly unacceptable in the eyes of those who want to return all these objects. Maybe I would identify four broad phenomena or contexts in which objects were removed from their original context. And of course, these phenomena often intertwine, right?

So the first one would be loot from wars and conquest; and loot is as old as war itself, so it’s definitely not a recent phenomenon. We, for example, see it with the Benin Bronzes that were taken from Benin City in the late 19th century during a so-called punitive expedition by the British Imperial Army into what would become Nigeria today. We also see it for instance, in one of the cases that I studied, which is Montezuma’s feather head. It’s a beautiful object in feathers, in Quetzal feathers, that was taken from Mexico in the early 16th century, during the Spanish conquest. But we also see it with much more recent examples with the case of artworks that were seized by the Nazis from their Jewish owners. So I guess that would be the first origin.

A second origin that is related to armed conflict is the entire colonial period. And here the example could be the Parthenon marbles, which were taken from Athens when Greece was not an independent state, but a province of the Ottoman Empire.

The third origin for this collection is scientific research. I studied how an American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, removed objects from Machu Picchu when he ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu in the early 20th century. I saw a similar context in Colombia, for instance, in San Agustin, where a German archaeologist took away statues from San Agustin.

Those situations often combined with colonialism and imperialism, because those objects were taken at a moment when newly independent states did not always have the means to impose the norms they had already passed on the protection of heritage.

In the same context, we also see the origin of vast collections of human remains from native and indigenous people, particularly in settler states, like the US and Canada, and Australia.

And maybe the fourth origin for this collection would be the development of the habit of collecting. Objects were taken, sometimes bought, sometimes stolen, directly to join private and/or public collections. And here we see how objects, that had a social or religious use in their original context, came to be considered as objects of art, appreciated much more for their aesthetic value than for their anthropological use. So those would be, I think, the four main origins of these collections and why they are disputed today.

John Torpey: Interesting. That’s helpful. I mean, I wonder if you could say a little bit more about why you think this is in the news now. I mean, it’s been in the news for a while; I wrote a book about, you know, the idea of reparations fifteen some years ago, and, you know, these kinds of issues were floating around these issues about kind of dealing with past wrongs, of which this is one species sort of. So, why is the Metropolitan Museum suddenly giving back some of its — some, I think, not all, from what I understand the paper — of its holdings from the Benin bronzes (and forgive my pronunciation of Benin).

Pierre Losson: I think that we can probably explain this, both by what is happening at the international level. And maybe I can talk a little bit about what I did with my research, looking specifically at what happens within the claiming countries. I think that there are many different factors, there is growing awareness worldwide that the cultural heritage of some countries has been depleted, that’s very much the case in Africa. For example, there are two researchers who were commissioned by the French President Macron, to write a report about the African collections in French public museums. And one of their conclusions was that for many Western African countries, the vast majority of objects from past centuries are actually located in France or abroad in general, but not in those countries themselves.

And I think this awareness comes with greater facilities to travel, the blockbusters exhibitions that the universal museums have been organizing over the past decades. So in general, people know that these objects are in these museums. There is also growing awareness of the damages done by trafficking of antiquities and of cultural objects.

There is a legal framework that has been strengthened throughout the 20th century in favor of the idea of returning objects that should not have been removed from their country of origin. So often under the impulsion actually of the countries that are now claiming these objects. For example, Mexico, which was one of the countries that was behind the adoption of the 1970 UNESCO convention. And this text is now widely considered to be a watershed moment for returns in our institutions, and that the problem of this particular text is that it’s not retroactive, so it does not cover some of those cases that we were talking about, of objects that were removed during wars, colonial wars, or during the colonial period in general.

I think there is also the influence of post-colonial and decolonial studies in academia. Those have been pushing museums understood as institutions of white supremacy, to examine the history and origins of their collections. So for example, last fall, Dan Hicks, who is a curator at the University of Oxford, published a book called The British Museums that made a big splash in the world of museums, where he argued that continuing to exhibit the Benin bronzes specifically –but I think the argument can really be extended to other objects– continuing to exhibit objects that were seized in the colonial context perpetuates the violence that was used against the populations in the former colonized countries.

Now, one thing I do with my own research is to try to understand why this interest has also been growing within the claiming countries. Because, well, if those objects have been removed decades or centuries ago, why is it that there seems to be a growing interest in recent years, in recent decades? So I think that one nuance for this would probably be that there seems to be growing interest, because those cases are more salient in the media but there has pretty much always been discussions. Like experts, historians in those countries have always known that those objects were there and were interested in obtaining their return.

Now, one thing that I think is important to introduce here is the idea that cultural heritage is not a thing. It’s not something that has an intrinsic value. It has the value that we give it; heritage is a construction. So it says more in a way about who we are today, what it is that we care about today, than what it may have meant in the past for the populations who created this object.

Heritage is really about our representation of the past; what it is that we keep from this past. And so understanding that, I think that in countries that have become independent in the 19th or the 20th century, the objects that are being claimed now have been constructed as part of a national heritage. So claiming them is really a nationalist project. And here I don’t mean nationalist, as in like a strident, belligerent project as we often think when we talk about nationalism, but really like, in a very Benedict Anderson way, imagining a community of belonging and what it means to be a community in a country today named Nigeria, or today named Mexico, which did not necessarily exist a few decades or centuries before.

And I think from my research, I really concluded that these objects serve to coalesce the nation in a way through the many different crises of the nation. So oftentimes, you see that in a moment when there is political crisis and economic crisis, those claims can be used somehow to, I wouldn’t use the word distract, but really to just like, remember the whole community of who we are together as a group. And that is also possible in more recent years and more recent decades, because also more pragmatically, developing countries now have the expertise and infrastructure to care for the objects.

Western museums often said that these countries could not properly take care of the objects and that was an argument not to return them. This is largely not true anymore. If you go to a country like Mexico, they have beautiful museums, archaeologists, historians, experts, restorers, who are very, very much able to care and especially they are specialized in the specific materials that they claim. Even in a country like Nigeria, they now have a project to build a new museum in Benin City, to welcome all the bronzes upon their return.