Culture & Controversy: Should Museums Return Ancient Artifacts?

(funky music) – Hello, hello, and welcome
back to Rogue Rocket. My name is Philip DeFranco, and today’s story has it all, you got adventure, exotic
locations, political intrigue, and most of all, drama. And in part we’re gonna kinda look at whether everyone’s favorite
archeologist Indiana Jones is really a hero or a villain, because this has actually
been hotly debated since before Indiana
Jones was even a movie. And obviously, this whole video
is not about Indiana Jones, but more specifically his field of work. Although, Indy did say something that really gets to the essence of this whole debate. (climatic music)
– This was the second time I’ve had to reclaim my property from you! – It belongs in a museum! – Many governments,
institutions, and people around the world believe
that not everything belongs in a museum. Especially western
museums that Indiana Jones would have taken things to during his era, with many thinking that
these artifacts do belong where they were found. So to help us dive into the
world of cultural artifacts and encyclopedic museums,
I’m gonna hand it over to Brian Espinoza from
the Rogue Rocket team. – [Brian] For well over
(drum beat) a 100 years people have
been arguing over who owns the cultural artifacts
in encyclopedic museums all over the world. To give you an idea of what
we’re even talking about, here’s some headlines you may have seen. Turkey demands returns of
plundered ancient artifacts. Macron agrees to return Benin
sculptures without delay. Greek president demands UK
return Parthenon marbles from “murky prison” of British Museum. But before we can move on, we should define cultural artifacts, encyclopedic museums, and repatriate, otherwise this story’s
gonna be extra confusing. So, cultural artifacts,
and to switch it up, I’ll just say artifacts sometimes too, are anything created by
humans which gives information about the culture of
its creators and users. Encyclopedic museums, sometimes
called universal museums, are museums with collections of artifacts from all around the world. Think of places like the British Museum, the Smithsonian Museums in DC, or the Louvre in Paris. And finally, repatriate, to send, in this case, something
back to its own country. So after hearing all that, I wanna ask you, do you think encyclopedic museums should repatriate cultural artifacts? I want you to remember your answer, because we’re gonna revisit this later on. When it comes to that question, there are basically two camps. On one hand, there are the encyclopedic museums of the world. They say that they’re there for the betterment of all mankind. By having these artifacts from
all over the world together, it allows people to compare and contrast cultures and
see how far off places relate to their own. And these museums hope to
break down cultural barriers and biases and enrich
everyone’s knowledge. Especially as the world
becomes increasingly diverse, and people are more often
encountering neighbors who don’t share the same
cultural background as their own. While, on the other hand, there are people in groups
that feel like their culture has been taken away from them and moved far away. – We understand that the
Moai is very important for the collection of the museum, but I’m really sure, and our delegation, especially
the people from Rapa Nui, are absolutely sure that they understood the meaning for them of this Moai, this is much more than a stone. – [Brian] And while the idea of encyclopedic museums sounds nice, the rhetoric can feel hollow, because while these artifacts
come from all over the world, the museums are centralized
in wester nations, often places that are inaccessible to much of the world’s population. A couple from Benin often
can’t afford to travel to the Quai Branly in
France to look at artifacts originating from their homeland. On top of that, these museums can drive tourism, leaving some places
feeling like other nations are receiving monetary gains
off of their cultural heritage. But those are really just
the surface level arguments, because each group, country, organization, and person has their
own unique perspectives. And each artifact has its own unique story of how it ended up in
an encyclopedic museum. When you begin looking
into each unique scenario, things quickly become complicated. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s look at the Elgin Marbles. Quite possibly the most famous
dispute between a government and a museum over an artifact. Their history starts
back in ancient Greece, where for thousands of years
they sat there until 1801. Then Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, began to remove about half of the surviving sculptures out of Greece and shipped them to the UK where they currently sit
at the British Museum. All of this was done with
the approval of the Ottomans who had been in control of Greece for over 200 years at that point. But when Greece became independent in the early 1800’s after revolution, they began to ask for artwork, including these marbles,
to be repatriated. Ever since then, the
British Museum has refused to give ’em back, claiming they were legally acquired, while Greece claims they
were plundered and stolen. The marbles are from Greece and were taken out of the
country with the permission from an occupying power, not from Greece. In this case, the British
Museum points to documentation that Lord Elgin removed the artifacts with permission from Ottoman authorities, who, at the time, ruled over Greece for around 200 years. And in general, encyclopedic
museums often point out that their artifacts were legally moved into their collections according
to the laws of the time. But in the case of the Elgin Marbles, we actually don’t have
the original documents. Only an Italian translation
that some scholars have called in to question. Disputes over provenance,
a conclusive paper trail to show how artifacts were obtained, aren’t unique to the Elgin Marbles. Egypt claims that german
archeologists lied to them and forged documents
when the Nefertiti Bust was removed from Egypt in
the early 20th century, and because of that, Germany has no legitimate
claim to the item. Turkish officials have similar claims when it comes to items like
Priam’s treasure in Moscow, or collection of items at the Met. But what if a museum
can’t prove provenance, or doesn’t think it has
to return the items? Well, in these cases, Egypt and Turkey have
both threatened to cut off further archeological digs
and collection sharing. But this goes a lot deeper. For example, France has thousands of items from Benin, a former colony. According to the laws of the time, it was part of France, meaning France could extract items and goods from it. Modern sensibilities generally disagree with the policies of colonial powers, and agree there were unequal
power structures in place that didn’t allow for
these people to hold on to their cultural artifacts. Now, Benin wants these
cultural artifacts repatriated, and France refuses to do so, and has consistently
refused to do for decades. There’s even a law declaring just about anything in her possession, somewhat ironically, as part of the cultural history of France and illegal to remove. But the items have been
used as political capital, with french presidents, including Macron, promising to return some of the sculptures as acts of goodwill. Politics in general plays a
major role in this debate. Sometimes these calls for
repatriation are an attempt by certain political
groups to tie their nation to a glorified past. We spoke with Dr. Jim Cuno, president and CEO of
the J. Paul Getty Trust, who pointed to the famous
example of Saddam Hussein trying to play up the Iraqi
position in the Arab world. during the late 1970’s. – The real of case of it was in Iraq, where there was a sense
of an unbroken legacy, and historical legacy of Iraq back to ancient earliest civilizations. And at the time, during the latter part
of the 20th century, there was a criticism of Egypt, in which it had been broken
with its ancient past, according to those in Iraq who
promoted this vision of Iraq, so there’s a claim that all
these cultures were in there to be supportive of the
view of the nation’s state, and the nation’s state, of course in the case of Iraq, is only about 70 years old. So there’s no real connection between the modern nation’s state and the ancient past. – [Brian] It was a way for Saddam Hussein to attempt to take the
title of the preeminent Arab country from Egypt by saying there was a continuity in Iraq’s history, but that ancient Egyptian history isn’t tied to modern Egypt. But sometimes these ties
to a past can be dubious. The Turkish government
wants many artifacts back from Byzantine and pre Roman times, stuff like Priam’s treasure. But here’s the catch, modern Turkey, and largely modern Turks, don’t really have a cultural or ethnic connection to Priam’s treasure. Priam’s treasure is from
an offshoot Greek peoples who aren’t around any longer. Ethnic Turks conquered
the area in the 1400’s, and there’s nearly a 2,000 year
difference between the two, and many different ethnic groups occupying the area since then. The only serious connection
is that the modern state of Turkey controls the land. In this same scenario feeds another argument and counter argument. Sometimes nations ask for
their artifacts to return so visitors can see them
in their original context, and the society that made them. It kinda makes sense, you wanna see marbles from the
Parthenon in the Parthenon, or at least in Greece. As we saw in Turkey, sometimes that past can be dubious. But even in places like Greece, where there seems to be a continuity with the ancient past, it’s not black and white. – And taking an example
of the Elgin Marbles is a good example, because the history of the Elgin Marbles dates back 2500 years, and so the culture, the context in which one
would restore them today is not the context in which
they were originally in when they were made, because what’s happened
in the interim, of course, is that they have suffered the detriment of environmental conditions that have changed over the course of time. And most recently, most important, when Greece became independent, when it out from the Ottomans in the early part of the 19th century, they eliminated from the
site of the Decapolis all the non Greek remaining objects, so there was a mosque that was taken down, there were early other accretions. So they cleansed the Acropolis
of non Greek remains. And so they got rid of
the context that was there just years before in order to go back to kind of revived historic
context of ancient Greece. So it depends in what
context you want to refer to, the ancient past, the middle past, the more recent past, because history doesn’t
stop at any one point, it continues to accumulate
important contextual values over the course of time. – [Brian] Then there’s the argument that encyclopedic museums
are better equipped to take care of cultural artifacts, allowing for further research and study, and saving the artifacts for humanity to see and appreciate them. And while that’s true in some cases, it’s also true that many nations that have their cultural artifacts removed are now well equipped themselves, bringing us back to the Elgin Marbles, it’s widely accepted that
Greece can take care of them, not to mention that the British Museum, one of the most advanced and capable institutions in the world, has actually damaged
the marbles in the past. But that’s just one example, because as you’ll see
throughout this piece, there’s a million unique scenarios. In Afghanistan, the Taliban let a campaign to destroy monuments, artifacts, that were seen as idols, which are banned by Islam. Then in 2013, Mali had issues where rebels and Al-Qaeda affiliated
groups took over Timbuktu, a world famous heritage sight, and proceeded to destroy
ancient artifacts. And more recently, in
Syria in northern Iraq, Isis decided to smash a Palmyra, as well as Babylonian in a Syrian site. Obviously, some of these sites are too big to put into a museum abroad, but there were smaller
artifacts in museums in these regions that were destroyed. But are there any solutions for these two sites to compromise? Well, possibly. Between the ’60’s and ’70’s, the UN and 140 countries negotiated and signed an agreement
to dissuade countries from buying artifacts illegally. Anything bought this way would be required to be returned. This was done to protect sites and dry up revenue streams for looters. They would go into these areas and steal anything that could be stolen, particularly smaller artifacts. It got to a point where
major damage was being done to historic and cultural sites. Meanwhile, in the United States, there have been a series of laws laying out detailed ways
for Smithsonian museums to return Native American artifacts, especially human remains, and those of religious significance. Thousands have been returned, and while that may seem like a loss for encyclopedic museums, many tribes, especially
those without proper funds to take care of the artifacts, have taken up the Smithsonian’s offer to hold these items in trust. Meaning, they’re available
to be seen in museums while tribes can still feel
like a wrong has been righted. But outside of that model, which even the Smithsonian lobbied against while it was still in congress, there are other solutions
museums themselves can take. Some nation’s museums would
like to be able to share collections and artifacts more often, and Dr. Cuno even said that this was where things were moving towards. – I think that the future is going to be a matter of sharing collections, and building capacity among
all the different museums that might be involved
in such a relationship. There’s a period of time
in which an aquisition was the principle motive of
accumulation of collections that are providing context or
understand the collections, and now I think it’s gonna be sharing. The Getty has just announced an initiative that we’re calling Ancient Worlds Now, and part of that initiative
will be the presentation and protection of cultural heritage, and then the presentation
of cultural heritage we’re gonna be working with a consortium of museums to provide a
collection sharing scheme to provide access to the
collections, to objects, and cultures that they
don’t have access to so they can understand
that we are all part of the same complex world, and the more we know about
the world the better. – [Brian] Here’s why Ancient Worlds Now, which will be launched in about 10 months, was seen as a good solution. The Getty would identify five partner museums around the world. They could be in Mexico
City, Mumbai, Shanghai, or even in areas traditionally tied to having artifacts removed, like Mosul in Iraq. The ideas that these places
have amazing collections of their own cultures, but lack items from
others around the world. For example, we were
told it’s rare for Mexico to have access to large
collections of Indian artifacts, and we mean South Asian
Indian, not Native American. It’s also rare for Indian
museums to have access to large Chinese collections. Ancient World Now would
facilitate these places to share their collections
with each other. Dr. Cuno also added that ideally, large collections from traditional encyclopedic museums, those in Britain, Germany, America, et
cetera, would also partake. And he also really emphasized
that he wasn’t worried about who owns the artifact, a common debate we’ve seen
between all the sides. – So when it gets all hung
on questions of ownership, that’s not so important to me. What’s important to me
is that the protection of cultural heritage, and the sharing of cultural heritage for the world. – [Brian] At the end of the day, he wants as many of these artifacts from all over the world in front of as many people as possible. Arguing that increased exposure to other cultures breaks down barriers. Also adding that in today’s world, in increased immigration
and cultural mingling, it’s hard to say that
people shouldn’t be able to enjoy their cultural heritage
in the places they live, even if that’s outside their homeland. But there are some instances
where this isn’t enough, and for many nations, their continued calls to return any items that were removed while under the control of a foreign power. And often, museums and
nations actively wanna settle any debate over ownership
before any loans can be made. So to wrap this up, as we’ve seen, this is an
extremely complex issue with a million unique situations, so it really comes down
to whether you think that as a net whole, encyclopedic museums do a massive service to people around the world. Or, if you think that
historical injustices should be righted at
the cost of these items being widely available around the world. With all of that said, I wanna revisit this question from the start of our video, and I want you to remember
how you initially answered it. Do you think encyclopedic museums should repatriate cultural artifacts? And do you think you have
a different answer now than you did when we started? – Now, clearly the debate between nations and museums over cultural artifacts isn’t an easy one to settle. But, with everything that’s been said, everything that’s been showcased, we of course wanna pass
the question off to you, can you think of any
solutions that satisfy museums and nations or groups that want cultural artifacts repatriated? And also maybe a more personal question, does your ethnic group or nation have any artifacts that you
feel should be repatriated? I’d love to hear any and all thoughts that you have in those
comments down below. Also, hey, if you liked
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on this story and more. But, with all that being said, my name’s Philip DeFranco, thank you for watching, and I’ll see you soon on the
next Rogue Rocket Deep Dive.

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