Stolen Art: Why We Need Repatriation

This essay, by Serena LiuThe 15-year-old, from Parkway West High School in Chesterfield, Mo., is one of the top 11 wINNERS of the Learning Network Ninth Annual Student Editorial Competitionfor which we received 16664 entries.

We are publishing the entries of all the winners and runners-up over the next week and you can find here while posting.


Stolen Art: Why We Need Repatriation

The legacy of imperialism is filled with suffering. After millions of deaths and treaties forged through blood, this is not a particularly controversial statement. However, in the softly lit halls of museum exhibitions, Western countries display their imperialist history by displaying looted art.

A couple of years ago, I visited the Summer Palace in Beijing. The glass towers rose above a lush forest, painted against the blue sky and the even bluer Kunming Lake. However, as my mother told me then, this complex was a shadow of the Old Summer Palace, which was looted by British and French forces in 1860. Led by the British commander Lord Elgin, the pieces were taken to be auctioned off. and the fallen palace is burned to the ground.

Now, royal scepters and shining fatigues from the old Summer Palace adorn the Royal Collection and other British museums. Each unreturned object is a reminder of the century of humiliation that Western nations inflicted on China. As Chinese nationalism grows, this resentment boils over into already strained political relations between East and West.

But the issue extends beyond China. In the world of art history, Elgin is a notorious name. Beginning in 1802, Lord Elgin’s father and his men carved intricate friezes and metopes from the famous Athena Parthenon in Greece and shipped them to London, where they are now housed in the British Museum. The Greek government has since demanded the return of these objects, known as the Elgin Marbles.

If the Elgin Marbles were repatriated, they would be displayed in the Acropolis Museum. Here, in the exhibition where plaster casts of the Elgin Marbles stand instead of the real ones, high windows offer a panoramic view of the Acropolis. only with herewhere the viewer is free to imagine how these artifacts once decorated the Parthenon, can their full historical context be appreciated in all its ancient glory.

However, some fear that repatriation would cause the decline of encyclopedic museums. Referring to the Koh-i-Noor diamond, a gem taken from the Sikh Empire after the colonization of India, former British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that “if you say that to someone, you suddenly find that the British Museum would be empty”.

But maybe some museums must to empty.

The founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane, funded his collection through imperial networks and broken Jamaican slavery. In Belgium, the Museum of Africa – where Congolese were once exhibited as zoo animals – was built with profits from King Leopold’s brutal Congo.

No matter what renovations are made, history cannot be changed. These museums, built on the foundations of colonialism, serve as modern shrines to oppressive imperial ideals, and refusing to return stolen art is an insult to all who suffered under them.

Works Cited

Bernhard, Meg. “Belgium grapples with ugly colonial past, but changes at African museum don’t please everyone.” Los Angeles Times, 31 October 2019.

Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The British Museum was a marvel of its time – but also a product of slavery.” Smithsonian Magazine, 30 Oct. 2017.

Bowlby, Chris. “Palace of Shame that angers China.” BBC, 2 February 2015.

Nayeri, Farah. “Remembering the racist history of ‘human zoos’.” The New York Times, 29 December 2021.

Ouroussoff, Nikolai. The New Acropolis Museum: A Dialogue with Antiquity. New York Times, October 30, 2007.

Tweedie, Neil. “Koh-i-Noor: The Diamond Heist?” The Telegraph, 29 July 2010.

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