One of the undoubted advantages of living or visiting many of the global capitals of the world, is the opportunity to gain admission (in many cases free) to some of the largest museums that house artefacts from all corners of the globe. Having many of these artefacts under one roof enables visitors to see the history of peoples around the world and to experience what they are about without even visiting the country in person. For instance, you can see the Rosetta Stone from Egypt, the Parthenon Marbles from Greece, and an Easter Island head statue from the Pacific, all under one roof at the British Museum in London.
However part of developing a country and its national identity,is to ensure that the home populations know where they have come from, and what their ancestors did and stood for. It is under this backdrop that many African countries are now demanding the return of their artefacts that were taken away, either through purchase in times of chaos, or theft. Many artefacts were able to leave their homes during the 1700′s – 1970′s, because many countries were under colonial rule, and hence with no domestic government, they had no way of protecting their national heritage.
Therefore, awe inspiring pieces such as the Axum Obelisk from Ethiopia and the Luxor Obelisk from Egypt, the 3 400 year old bust of Queen Nefertiti from Egypt, or the spectacular Benin Bronzes from Nigeria, were all looted, or handed over to colonial powers by self appointed rulers. Such artefacts tell the story of the peoples in that region, no where else will you find artistry as precise and full of character as in the Benin Bronzes, yet not many of the best works are in their native home of Nigeria.
So why don’t museums want to return artefacts back to their homes? There are 3 predominant reasons. First, they maintain that if they did not possess them, then many of them would have been destroyed or would not be as well looked after as they are in their museums. However artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes were kept in superb shape for centuries by those in Nigeria, so if they could do it then, why couldn’t they now? Secondly, they state that housing them in their museums, that are located in the affluent regions of Western Europe and the USA, they can attract millions of visitors who will then see the various cultures around the world under one roof, and hence market Africa to those uninitiated on the continent. Again, how else will countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria get more tourists without their key attractions? The third reason is that in many cases, they state that they never looted the items, and bought them on the open market from reputed traders in artefacts. However, in the case of objects like Rosetta Stone that was surrendered by the French to the English in 1801, and looted out of the country, is a clear example of a major artefact being taken away unilaterally.
One of the leading voices of the call to return African artefacts to Africa, is Egyptian head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass.He has appealed to UNESCO to ensure that artefacts stolen are returned, and he should be concerned, especially with artefacts named above and the Dendera Zodiac and the Hemiunu Statue are still held in museums across Europe, all unique piece of Egyptian heritage. He has been able to secure over 3 000 pieces of Egyptian heritage to be returned back to Egypt, but he has still been unable to secure the marquee artefacts that define the Egyptian culture. Until cultural objects are returned to their homes, then Africans will never truly know who they are and what they should stand for.