Should museums return their colonial artifacts?

Mike Bebernes

The 360 shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening:

Museums in a number of Western countries are facing increasing pressure to return troves of artifacts in their collections to their countries of origin. Leaders from areas of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific that were once colonies have said they want the items — many of which were taken hundreds of years ago — to be given back.

Similar requests have been made — and largely ignored — for decades. But a new crop of European leaders have recently begun to reevaluate the legacy of colonialism.

French President Emmanuel Macron commissioned a report that recommended returning many of the 90,000 artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa housed in his country’s museums. Germany and the Netherlands have announced their own plans to return items. Several museums in the U.K. have loaned parts of their collections to museums in their country of origin.

Why there's debate:

Advocates for returning the artifacts say the items were stolen during an oppressive era in history. Countries that keep these ill-gotten pieces, they argue, are continuing to profit from exploitation of the past. “Keeping them abroad is like holding our ancestors hostage,” said a curator from the National Museum in Nigeria.

Some curators from Western countries say that many of the items were acquired legally, at least according to laws at the time. Others raise questions over whether claims of ownership are legitimate, since some of the nations and tribes that created the items no longer exist.

There are also concerns that the countries requesting the artifacts lack the infrastructure and funding to ensure that they are properly preserved.

What’s next:

While it appears that more artifacts will be making their way to their home countries, it's unlikely that this will lead to empty shelves in European museums anytime soon. It’s estimated that 90 to 95 percent of sub-Saharan cultural artifacts are housed outside Africa.


Profiting from stolen items perpetuates the wrongs of colonialism.

“Major world museums continue to perpetuate a colonialist paradigm with their frequent refusal to return artifacts that were stolen or otherwise acquired in an illegal or illegitimate fashion.”
— Molly Beauchemin, Paper

Western museums are best equipped to ensure items are safe and seen by more people.

“To the British Museum and others, even ill-gotten artifacts are now their property. The argument is a legal and utilitarian one: This is where the items are safest and most people will see them.” — Max Bearak, New York Times

The rightful owners of specific artifacts can be hard to determine.

"Western curators have long deployed a range of arguments to keep [the items]: that countries of origin don’t have the museum infrastructure required to keep the artifacts safe, to adequately care for them, or to offer access to the public. That it is not always clear to whom the artifacts should be given – the people they were taken from or the nation-state that exists now? " — Kristen Chick and Ryan Lenora Brown, Christian Science Monitor

Saying African nations can't care for the artifacts is insulting.

“The argument is often advanced that by coming to the West, these objects were preserved for posterity — if they were left in Africa they simply would have rotted away. This is a specious argument, rooted in racist attitudes that somehow indigenous people can’t be trusted to curate their own cultural heritage. It is also a product of the corrosive impact of colonialism.”
— Mark Hornton, CNN

Western countries should help poorer nations build proper museum infrastructure.

“Their argument is basically: You Africans can’t protect your art. We know it because we stole it from you. … But if you’re that concerned about it, how about just making the museums in Africa better. Taking a tiny piece of that sweet colonialism money and build a museum in Africa you feel comfortable in." — Trevor Noah, “The Daily Show

The European perspective perverts African history.

“A more serious problem is that the collections retain and perpetuate the stereotypical narratives Europeans had — and still have — about Africans. … The power to select, name and decide the meaning of these items makes Europeans the authors of African history.”
— Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, Quartz Africa

Western nations shouldn't have the power to decide what is returned.

“The suggestion that African people have to prove that they are worthy of their own cultural heritage is insulting and absurd.” — Christine Mungai, Al Jazeera

Museums should embrace a more honest narrative.

“We need a new type of museum: one that’s not afraid to admit it doesn’t have all the answers and actually welcomes critique and dissent, that will let in a multiplicity of responses and voices without defensiveness. We need a different script on acquisition, possession and repatriation: it’s not enough to insist that finders are keepers.” — Alice Proctor, Guardian

Is there a topic you'd like to see covered in The 360? Send your suggestions to

Read more 360s