Can the damages of colonial power in museums be reversed?

Avery Monette/THE CONCORDIAN @yrev.a

Museums continue to hoard the history of colonized countries

Since 1802, the Rosetta Stone has been on display in the British Museum after being taken from Egypt during Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupation. 

The Rosetta Stone, along with thousands of stolen historical artifacts, is symbolic of the long lasting effects of colonialism still being suffered today. It serves as a reminder of the ways colonialism lives on, and how museums promote it through their unethical practices.   

The Stone is inscribed with text from three different languages: Ancient Greek, Demotic, and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was used to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time, unlocking a plethora of new information about Ancient Egypt. 

Two hundred years later, Egypt still suffers the loss of this piece of their history. It makes me rethink how these stolen artifacts and colonizer attitudes disrupt national identity and pride. 

Last year, Egyptologist Dr. Monica Hanna launched a petition urging the public to speak up for the artifact to be returned. Zahi Hawass, Egyptian archeologist and former minister of state for antique affairs, has been working tirelessly since 2002 to repatriate stolen artifacts and put an end to the unethical purchasing of artifacts by museums. 

The Concordian spoke with University of Southern California researcher Jumana Behbahani about the Rosetta Stone being kept in the British Museum. She criticized the display as a result of a history of cultural violence: British visitors can celebrate a piece of history as if it’s their own, while Egyptians remain stripped of their accessibility to a vital piece of their history.

“Keeping these artifacts in western countries, in a way, represents the ways in which these countries stripped the areas they colonized of their respective cultures.” 

As social historian and Concordia professor Dr. Lucie Laumonier noted, “Back then, Egypt was culturally plundered and its stolen historical artifacts inundated the European markets […] the return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt would be a way, from the English side, to acknowledge this colonial cultural plunder.” 

However, some have argued that the British Museum is the best location for the Rosetta Stone, claiming that Egypt is a vital part of European heritage, and crediting European historians with deciphering the Stone which would have otherwise not been possible.

Dr. Laumonier criticizes this line of thinking. “The people who belong to the country from which artifacts were stolen during the colonial times deserve as much, if not more, to be able to access these artifacts,” she said. “Historical artifacts are essential in asserting national identity and pride, and to be aware of one’s history.”  

Along with that, many of the artifacts in the British Museum’s possession were taken forcibly, and nearly all of them aren’t even on display but are instead kept in the museum’s private archives that the public doesn’t have access to. 

The British Museum is no unique case of the capitalist incentive of museums profiting from colonial power. The idea of displaying historically significant artifacts somewhere other than their country of origin seems inherently colonialist, especially when it signifies a period of struggle and war crimes. 

Museums such as The Getty in Los Angeles, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,  the Louvre in Paris, and the Humboldt Forum in Berlin are notorious for hoarding looted artifacts and claiming entitlement over them because they are “the spoils of war.” This doctrine, however, has been rejected by international law. 

These museums can look to other institutions for compromises over stolen artifacts. 

Museums around the world have displayed efforts of decolonization, unveiling possibilities of engaging with colonized communities with their permission and respect granted. For example, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago invited Indigenous artists to showcase their work in their Native American galleries. Indigenous communities can be celebrated and studied without taking away from them. 

The Australian Museum in Sydney rethought its relationship to the artifacts in their museum when they shifted ownership of the artifacts to the “custodians of those collections, with an obligation to the peoples who created the objects and stories, and to their descendants,” as stated by former Museum Director Frank Howarth. 

The display of these artifacts appears enriching and informative to its visitors, but when the items are a byproduct of cultural violence, charging people to come see them is exploitative in its nature. The Rosetta Stone should be housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where Egyptian people can celebrate and engage with their history and culture. It belongs to them and not strictly to those who have the luxury of flying to London and visiting the British Museum. 

The British Museum has been called upon multiple times to return The Rosetta Stone, but have yet to respond to requests.
The matter extends beyond the value of a tangible object; it’s a concern of national identity being stripped away in the name of colonialism. The Stone symbolizes the colonized world and its relationship to the colonizer, one that arguably still exists.

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