Understanding National Heritage through Object Ownership and Contestation: Print Proposal

In 2020, there are numerous Western museums facing criticism for maintaining collections filled with looted artifacts. Many of these objects formerly belonged to colonies of imperial nations in Africa, Asia, and South America, creating arguments between nation-states about ownership, decolonization, repatriation, and national heritage. Institutions like the Louvre Museum and British Museum face persistent requests for the return of looted objects, but many nations and museums find themselves at an impasse regarding the physical return of popular artifacts like the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, or bust of Nefertiti. Not only are these some of the most popular objects within the museums mentioned above—Western museums also posit arguments about their superior ability to care for artifacts and the importance of displaying non-Western art in Western nations.

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Greek protesters beside the looted Elgin Marbles in the British Museum
Source: The Economic Voice

                Often, competing narratives of ownership lead to these controversies; specifically, ideas of national heritage vs. international appreciation for shared history. Futhermore, the maintenance of colonially-formed collections perpetuate Western dominance over and oppression of former colonies. These competing narratives between nations are ripe for study, especially following a surge of calls for repatriation at present.

So, for my print project, I would like assess the different ways that Western nations talk about their museum collections (especially those that are contested) as compared to the nations which claim ownership of certain objects but do not have them within their own borders. In order to do this, I would like to compare foreign language Wikipedia pages for museums that hold contested objects. The major museums that I will focus on are the Louvre and the British Museum, two major aforementioned museums that are the center of controversy regarding repatriation. Specifically, I will look for the way that foreign language pages treat the museums, as compared to the English and French pages themselves, and how they present their collections: as international or national, patriotic, educational, etc.

I will also study pages which specifically consider contested objects held within these Western museums, like the Elgin Marbles, Benin bronzes, and Zodiac Ceiling, all foreign objects that are at the center of repatriation controversies in their home countries (Greece, Benin, and Egypt, respectively). I will be looking for statements which assume ownership, reference contestation, or denote heritage within each object’s foreign and native language pages.

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The Zodiac Ceiling, on display in the Louvre, was looted from a temple in Dendera, Egypt in 1821, and has not been returned, though the temple still stands.
Source: Louvre Museum

                My goal is to illuminate these opposing narratives between nations and the power dynamics that undergird the language used to describe national and international patrimony. I believe that this research is timely and allows for the voices and views of conflicting groups to be heard and perhaps, better understood. Furthermore, this research will emphasize the effect that collecting practices in museums can shape global narratives of decolonization and diplomacy. In the end, who owns history?

3 Replies to “Understanding National Heritage through Object Ownership and Contestation: Print Proposal”

  1. Sarah, this is a really interesting proposal! I feel like there isn’t always enough discussion about the perpetuation of colonial power dynamics in museum settings. I am curious about how you’re planning to approach the language barrier in studying the Greek, Beninese, and Egyptian Wikipedia pages. Are you going to ask someone to translate or use a translation service online? What issues (and solutions?) do you foresee?

    1. Cameron,
      Thanks for a great question! I am planning to use the automatic translations offered through my browser, but I can definitely see that the intricacies of language and the importance of word choice could get lost in translation. I’ll definitely consider this when I begin and make sure that I analyze in the fullest way possible.

  2. This is a really creative idea! I’m very much curious to see how the stories of these institutions and the looted artifacts are framed differently to these different language communities.

    Along with the language differences, I think it will also likely be interesting to track how the pages have changed over time in relationship to these. The British Museum’s wikipedia page was created in 2001, so there is nearly 20 years of version history there and it would be interesting to know if the increasing awareness about this issue is visible in the history of the page.

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