Dinner Table Conversation: Finders Keepers?

September 16, 2019

Visit a museum lately? If so, you probably visited exhibits filled with artifacts and artwork from hundreds or even thousands of years ago. But who is the actual owner of these pieces of artifacts and artwork? If the museum has—let’s say—art donated by a popular artist, they know exactly who it belonged to and how they came about owning it. Another example might be a king or queen’s crown. Members of the royal family may have given permission for the museum to display it. But what if the artifact has a questionable origin?

Joyofmuseums [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
Museums around the world are wondering how they should deal with African artifacts that were taken from the country through conquests or without approval. A museum in Belgium, for example, stated that more than eighty percent of its artifacts came from the Belgian Congo (a part of central Africa that was colonized by Belgium in 1908-1960). Even if some artifacts were gifts, many items were brought to the museum without permission from the owners, or were simply taken by Belgian people who lived in the region when it was colonized by the Belgians. The debate about who truly owns these pieces of artifacts has gone on for decades. Greece, for example, has had a dispute with the British Museum for marble sculptures taken from the Parthenon over 200 years ago.

How are some museums trying to resolve these disputes? Some are considering these artifacts as “loans” from the host country, while others are debating whether artifacts serve a bigger purpose in museums, rather than back in their home country.

What do you think?