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You’re a tourist strolling through New York’s renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest museum in North America and eighth-ranked on the list of most-visited art museums across the whole world. You don’t know which way to turn or where to look. Everything is so beautiful, so unique, so… real. As you admire the seemingly endless collections of paintings, sculptures, and ancient artifacts, you must wonder:
How did this all end up here?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art contains over 1,000 artifacts allegedly linked to looters and traffickers. Time and time again, people’s cultural identities and heritage are exploited for profit, and museums such as the Met are guilty of engaging in this unjust practice. Museums must return stolen artifacts that were forcefully or unlawfully obtained to their rightful owners.
Present-day museums contain a significant number of artifacts that were stolen from their countries of origin during colonial times or taken with the threat of violence. For example, a statue of Shreedhar Vishnu, the Hindu protector god, carved by master artisans nearly a thousand years ago from Bungmanti, Nepal, was worshiped by many locals. However, the treasured sandstone relic went missing in the 1980s, and residents of the village were deeply saddened by its disappearance. About a decade after the theft, a wealthy American collector donated the statue to the Met, where it would stay for around 30 years, until an anonymous Facebook account identified the artifact in 2021. Since then, the item has been publicly removed from its collection, but the damage that was inflicted over years is not as easily remedied.
Each stolen artifact is a piece of a culture taken away. Traditions get lost and fade over time. People dedicate their lives to commemorating their country’s identity through art. The large corporations who get their hands on these precious items cannot fathom how much they may have meant to someone. This exploitative behavior is not only limited to museums. The Koh-i-Noor jewel, unearthed in central Southern India, was a symbol of prestige and power during the Islamic Mughals’ rule. In the eyes of the British, this diamond was worth taking by any means possible, including killing people. During the annexation of Punjab in 1849, the Koh-i-noor was acquired by the British and placed among the crown jewels of Queen Victoria.
Today, the Koh-i-Noor jewel is on public display in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. Among claims by several other countries, India, its country of origin, has requested its return numerous times but has been denied. This jewel is more than its monetary value, more than something that sparkles—it is a symbol of greed and of what former colonies experienced at the hands of colonial powers. The most visited piece in the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone, was taken from Egypt by forces of the British Empire in 1801. However, the British Museum blatantly claims that no request has been made for the return of the artifact, which highlights a great degree of disrespect and irresponsibility.
Some may argue that a lack of foreign objects in museums will lead to a lack of exposure to various cultures and their histories. However, there are people from the country of the objects’ origin who likely have a more profound understanding of their significance. The objects hold more power when it is observed in their place of birth, as that fosters a deeper connection with the viewer. The reason that visiting foreign countries is so thrilling is because it allows us to experience and see things that aren’t present in our daily lives.