Colonial artifacts should be returned to their homelands


Photo by Jasmine Allison

Chinese artifacts from the Tang dynasty are displayed at the Minnesota Institute of Art. While these artifacts were donated to the museum, other Chinese artifacts were forcefully taken from China by European colonial powers.

Museums house some of the most beautiful artistic wonders of the world. However, the methods of collecting some artifacts can be traced to colonial and imperial times, when Western powers plundered kingdoms and countries for artifacts to return to their collections. Many former colonies are now asking Western museums to return what was stolen long ago.

Most museums as they are today are 19th-century inventions that were designed to display the prizes of European exploration and colonization. At this time, European powers were riding the wave of the industrial revolution and were looking to expand their access to natural resources. Along the way, they wanted artifacts to display the wealth and wonders of their colonies in Africa and Asia. The collection of artifacts from their colonies became somewhat manic as curators, anthropologists, missionaries, merchants and military officials sent long lists of desired objects on expeditions.

“You could argue that the drive [for colonization] was for natural resources to send it back to their homeland,” world history teacher Mitchell Weege said. “But the taking of these artifacts and the plundering of some of these goods can be attributed more to greed.”

Many of the most famous artifacts in Western museums were taken during colonial and imperial times. One famous example is the throne of Sultan Ibrahim Njoya of Cameroon’s Bamum people. In 1907, German officials suggested that Njoya gift Kaiser Wilhelm II his “remarkable, elaborately beaded throne” for Wilhem’s 50th birthday. The throne was from the sultan’s father and was known as the Mandu Yenu for the protective figures that adorned the back of the throne. After the replica of the throne failed to be produced in time for Wilhelm’s birthday, Njoya was forced to hand over the original throne. The original throne currently sits in the State Museum of Berlin in Germany.

No one is going to appreciate these artifacts more than the descendants of the people who made them.

— Claire Henning

Many cultures, including the Maori of Aotearoa (New Zealand), consider the artifacts alive. The Maori have a concept called mana, a supernatural power found in people, places and objects. Items created from natural materials also carry special meaning since they come from the earth. With this in mind, it is important to acknowledge that the artifacts carry more than heritage; they carry a life force.

“Imagine going into a museum and seeing an artifact that is really alive according to your culture,” Claire Henning, English and ethnic and cultural studies teacher, explained. “It’s really alive with its own spirit and it’s just being put in a lifeless display.”

Former colonies around the world are asking Western museums to return colonial artifacts. By returning colonial artifacts to their homelands, museums allow people to reconnect with their culture without leaving their homelands. Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, born in Umuahia, Nigeria, is an artist, critic and art historian of African art. Okeke-Agulu is well-versed in a collection of African artifacts, called the Benin Bronzes, and has explained in many interviews that he has had to travel outside Africa to study his African heritage.

“When you have an artifact, you essentially have the key to being able to tell that part of history,” senior Marit Hickey explained. “Having those artifacts allows you to study them, and allows you to have your own interpretation of your own history.”

The museums in historically colonial countries should work with the museums of their former colonies to return what they took. It was wrong to take them then, and it is wrong to continue to hold onto artifacts that do not belong to them. All cultures deserve to own their heritage and take pride in them.

“No one is going to appreciate these artifacts more than the descendants of the people who made them,” Henning said.