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.
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.
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?