Written by: Wong Sean Yew (19-U4)
Designed by: Jo Yeoul (19-A2)
In the case of restitution, works of art which have been removed from their country of origin are often obtained via illegitimate means; they are likely to be obtained from countries which are suppressed, or are obtained by looting and pillaging in wartime. These have mostly occurred in the past, and currently, there has been a growing number of calls around the world for the restitution of various works of art. This is natural, given the cultural significance they may hold to the country of origin. However, despite these illegitimate means, there have been arguments against restitution. Detractors have postulated that the return of some artworks will lead to a slippery slope and serve as the precedent for the restitution of all artworks which do not originate from the country where it is located in, hence emptying vast public collections, rendering them useless as institutions for learning. Given the various controversies and diametrically opposing views, I will evaluate this issue through two different perspectives in order to provide a balanced opinion on the issue.
From a deontological perspective, I believe that works of art that have been removed from their country of origin should be returned. These precious works of art are often steeped in history, possessing great cultural significance to the people in the country of origin. It is morally incorrect to deprive these people of the works of art as this deprives them of the fundamental prerogative to understand their country’s histor y. By stowing away pieces of art in museums in faraway lands, these people also lose the opportunity to take ownership of their history and the shared experiences of their ancestors. This culminates in a situation where they are denied a right to the self-actualization of their identity, a need as established under Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. For instance, during the destruction of the old Summer Palace in China in the Second Opium War, various invaluable cultural artifacts, such as intricately designed porcelain vases and imperial tapestries, were plundered and taken to Europe. This prevents current Chinese citizens from owning and understanding a key part of their country’s history, entailing the loss of a key part of their identity as the descendant of a civilisation which was once a cultural behemoth. Thus, from the deontological perspective, it will be right to return these works of art to country of origin.
From a realistic perspective, I believe that works of art that have been removed from their country of origin should not be returned. Large, impressive museums, especially in Europe, contain thousands of works of art from all around the world and exhibit them regularly to curious visitors, educating people on the cultural and historical information that could be gleaned from such works of art. However, if works of art that were removed from their country of origin are all to be returned, these museums, once places of learning, will only include works of art from the country in which they are located in, providing visitors with a limited and myopic perspective of the world. The effectiveness of a museum as an institution for learning will then be diminished, given its inability to accurately portray the history of the world to their visitors. For example, the British Museum, the Louvre and other major European Museums contain numerous collections which originate from different parts of the world, owing to Europe’s history of exploitation of other inferior civilisations. These exhibits expose thousands of people to the many cultures and histories around the world. In one place, visitors will be able to learn about Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese pottery and African tribal masks. If works of art were to be returned to their country of origin, these museums will only be able to display works of art from Europe and people will no longer be able to learn about the world by visiting the museum.
After viewing the issue through two different perspectives, I believe that art restitution should occur, but not so much as to empty the vast collections of museums. This can be conducted in a judicious manner, through objective legal instruments that belong to supranational organisations. For instance, a multilateral system of justice for restitution can be created to facilitate this, to be modelled after respected systems such as the International Court of Justice, an organ of the United Nations. With this, the integrity of museums as institutes of learning can be retained, while people in other countries can utilise these works of art to affirm their cultural identity, hence striking a successful balance between the stakeholders in the issue for the continued appreciation for such works of art.
What is the assumption behind this claim?
Beyond the opportunity to understand their own culture, is there a symbolic significance to the ownership of such cultural artefacts?
How is this going to be evaluated and regulated? Which works of art should be returned and why?
This article was written in the author’s personal capacity. Views, opinions, and thoughts expressed in all articles published on The Origin* belong solely to the author(s), and do not represent the values or ethos of The Origin* or the College.