The Ethics of Repatriation

I noticed that another student discussed the reasoning behind the opinion that the bust of Nefertiti be returned to Egypt. And after going over the history of antiquarians, and the national collection of Egyptian (and other ancient societies) artifacts, I decided to utilize this blog post to delve deeper into the ethical issues surrounding the current dilemma: Do museums keep the artifacts that they collected during excavations, or should they return them to the original homeland?

I first want to point out that repatriation is not just an idea, but an act that is already being carried out in the world. In the United States, NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) requires scholars to return any human remains of Native American ancestry to the respective tribe. In closer relation to this class, Egypt can reclaim royal mummies in order to have them returned to Egypt – not unlike NAGPRA. This is why you can only see royal mummies in Egypt today.

So why do museums believe that they can keep the artifacts, when practices of repatriation are already being put into place? In one article, it is mentioned that the British Museum argues that the Rosetta Stone should stay in England because it would be unsafe in Egypt and also, so that more people can see the Rosetta Stone. However, the author argues that this view does not address the ethical issues of keeping the stone. Regardless, the author believes that the stone should remain in London, stating, “The Rosetta Stone was the key to unlocking the words of the pharaohs, so of course Hawass is entirely correct that it is an essential piece of Egyptian identity. However, it’s also an emblem of decipherment, a cultural byword recognized around the world as the ultimate key to a past so long obscured.” Thus, the Rosetta Stone represents decipherment, and since the British and the French deciphered the stone, they get to keep the stone.

Although some of the grander items (like the statue of Ramses and the bust of Nefertiti) remain in Europe and the U.S., some artifacts have been repatriated back to Egypt. However, in some cases, the artifacts were returned because Egypt blocked excavations or cut off ties to the museums that they intended to obtain the artifacts from. Is preventing the future study of Ancient Egypt as a means to repatriate artifacts an ethical move, or is Egypt simply playing at the same level as the museums?

1 thought on “The Ethics of Repatriation

  1. I was excited that you decided to discuss the ethical issues of repatriation. I am currently taking Dr. Lovis’s class ‘Archaeology Policy and Law’. We have begun to examine the more prominent laws that surround archaeology throughout the United States and the world.

    You are correct in stating that artifact repatriation is not just an idea, it a law, at least in the United States. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act [NAGPRA] is one of the laws that we focused on today. I am also familiar with NAGPRA through my volunteer service with Dr. Lovis, and my museum studies specialization. Even the Michigan State University Museum is affected by NAGPRA’s applications. The MSU Museum anthropological collections contain items from Native American burials.

    The last question of your post [“Is preventing the future study of Ancient Egypt as a means to repatriate artifacts an ethical move, or is Egypt simply playing at the same level as the museums?”] raises a very interesting point. How important is the study of Egypt’s past to the current population? Are they willing to risk losing the top knowledge keepers on their history because of a few objects? How do the citizens of Egypt feel about government officials preventing archaeological digs to continue until certain objects are returned? Repatriation of artifacts is a very controversial topic; it will be interesting to learn more about Egypt and how they handle future situations.

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