No more Indiana Jones

Naomi Hancock, Opinion Editor

I first learned about civilizations in my elementary school history class. My teacher, Miss Calvano, told her fourth-grade class that there are different traits of a good civilization. They have laws, systems to distribute food, and ways to protect their people. But most importantly, they have culture. 

Humanity’s history is vast, diverse and complex. An endless number of sub-cultures and divisions make it impossible to say humanity has one singular “culture” accurately. But finding ways to preserve past cultures and share foreign ones is impossible without a place to store this information. Before the Internet, it was museums. 

They allow us to understand the world around us better so we can address issues plaguing our society, like poverty, prejudice, and discrimination, and serves as a way to fill the holes in our school history curriculums.

 And while the benefits of museums are huge, conversations surrounding the unethical acquisition of artefacts are getting louder, calling for museums to repatriate (send back) stolen items. In extreme cases, protestors have even pushed for museums to close. 

Museums have a long history of unethically acquiring artifacts. Investigations from the last few decades have uncovered thousands of illicit trails, tracing museums’ supplies to the illegal art trade, looting, and plain old theft.

The history of these networks goes back millennia, to ancient Roman gardens and palaces filled with conquered Greek fine artworks. Humanity has a long history of looting and stealing from other cultures and countries, feeding a stream of stolen antiquities to sit on foreign shelves.

Repatriation, which means to return something to its country of origin, has also been used to describe releasing prisoners of war. Both definitions are ironically accurate in a museum context. Ancient Greek sculptures from the Parthenon, like the Elgin Marbles, were unethically taken by the Ottoman Empire in 1801 to exhibit in The British Museum in London.

British Prime Ministers have consistently turned down demands by the Greek government for the return of the Elgin Marbles since 1983, calling for questions about the ethicality of museum operations and the laws protecting artifact acquisition.

If museums want to represent their missions accurately–––to preserve and share history to better the world around us–––then we should see significantly more repatriation of items. 

When the International Council of Museums changed its standards for acquiring museum items last year, it urged museums to look back at the history of previously acquired items and determine whether an object was lawfully obtained and lawfully exported.  

They also underlined that museums must ensure that the acquisition of objects does not infringe on the rights of the affected Indigenous People, a standard hardly followed in the museum industry. If it is, it is met with stubbornness and hesitation.

Now, this isn’t to say that we should stop visiting or funding museums entirely because their purpose and, generally, executions do positively impact society. Museums are a fun way to learn about history and previous generations, but they should be more mindful and comply with the acquisition standards.