In this episode, host Stephen Dubner explores the complex issue of repatriating stolen artifacts, focusing on the Benin bronzes looted by Britain from the Kingdom of Benin, now Nigeria. Dubner visits the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland, where the curator of world cultures, Patricia Allen, sheds light on the responsibility of museums to repatriate stolen objects and the ethical considerations involved in acquisitions.
While Nigeria has repeatedly requested the return of the stolen Benin artifacts from the British Museum, their pleas have been denied. However, the Glasgow Museums and other institutions have taken steps towards repatriation. The Glasgow Museums have established a set of criteria to guide the repatriation process, considering factors such as the status of those making the request, the connection between the community that created the objects and the current community making the request, and the cultural, historical, and religious significance of the objects to the descendant community. Additionally, the fate of the object if returned is taken into account.
The Smithsonian has also implemented a new collections policy that considers ethical considerations in acquisitions and allows for repatriation or shared stewardship arrangements with communities or descendants making claims to the objects. Economist Tom Wilkening proposes an alternative solution, suggesting that museums could lease objects to their countries of origin as a means to generate revenue and protect cultural patrimony.
The contentious issue of the British Museum's ownership of the Parthenon marbles is discussed, along with recent negotiations between the museum and the Greek government. On a positive note, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has reached an agreement with Greece regarding a collection of Cycladic objects. These objects will be displayed at the Met for 25 years before ultimately being returned to Greece.
Lonnie Bunch, the director of the Smithsonian, emphasizes the importance of museums grappling with difficult questions and recognizing their role in shaping identity and addressing contemporary issues. This thought-provoking episode delves into the complexities of repatriation and the evolving attitudes of museums towards stolen artifacts.
Museums are purging their collections of looted treasures. Can they also get something in return? And what does it mean to be a museum in the 21st century? (Part 3 of “Stealing Art Is Easy. Giving It Back Is Hard.”)