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The restitution of art to its origins

Driven by awareness and technology, younger generations are advocating that museums return works to their original homes

Miguel Ángel García Vega

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Museo Británico
A visitor at the British Museum in front of part of the Parthenon Sculptures on January 9 in London.DANIEL LEAL (AFP via Getty Images)

The history of art is one of plunder. Tens of thousands of objects have been stolen, looted or ripped from their places of origin, especially by Europeans during the colonial periods of the 18th and 19th centuries. But young activists have now emerged to rectify that. They are pressuring major European and North American museums to review the provenance of their works and return what does not belong to them. “It should be noted that this new ethic has not appeared out of thin air. [It’s just that] the public protests of current generations are yielding absolutely impressive results,” says Alfredo Jaar, a New York-based Chilean artist, whose work is exhibited in MoMA’s permanent collection. He adds that “these young people are very informed and aware of the links between art and politics.

In an era of misinformation, these young people are demanding reparations from history and their governments. “There is a generation of young people who are rethinking how culture is preserved, disseminated and transmitted,” reflects Manuel Borja-Villel from Brazil, where the former director of the Reina Sofia Museum is preparing the São Paulo Biennial. The major change comes from understanding that history is no longer written in a linear narrative that goes by the traditional canons. We have to understand what curator Borja-Villel calls “moments of memory.” Who writes them? The three major pillars are Afro-descendants, indigenous people and feminists. In other words, peoples who have been plundered.

Europe has not yet fully understood what it means to give back. For example: In Berlin’s Humboldt Forum museum, which opened in 2020, there are huge signs that read: “Stolen works,” “traded for genocide” and “the fruit of plunder.” It is an honest initiative, but the signs are written by Germans themselves, not the plundered population! Young people decry the fact that the discourse continues to be Eurocentric, despite some attempts to move the conversation back to where it belongs.

Despite some good intentions, reparations are painstakingly slow. Six years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron publicly called for the “return of African heritage” during his state visit to Burkina Faso. The French administration has finally presented an 85-page report written by the Louvre’s former director Jean-Luc Martinez—who is under indictment, accused of illegally trafficking Egyptian antiquities with its homonymous museum in Abu Dhabi—in which it plans to study the restitution requests from eight countries. The most striking one is the return of the Benin Bronzes (which the British Army looted from Nigeria in 1897), which are scattered among different European and American institutions.

Younger generations have found a reason to lead these struggles. “Young people of color, in particular, have played a crucial role in putting the issue on the table,” observes Sarah Van Beurden, an expert on postcolonial Africa at Ohio University. Perhaps the most extraordinary part is how climate activism, feminism and Black Lives Matter (BLM) claims are intertwined with a movement that would seem removed from their demands.

“Young people are asking themselves how culture is preserved, transmitted and disseminated.”
Manuel Borja-Villel, curator

Restitution is a social change driven by historical memory, injustice and technology. Communication is instantaneous and movements are created within hours. “Why are these looted works being denounced today but not before? Because until now, Western morality legitimized certain forms of plunder and theft. These days, social media users denounce very quickly,” says Bartomeu Marí, an independent curator.

The Parthenon Sculptures, which were created between 447 and 432 BC and adorned the Parthenon, are at the center of these changes. Many were destroyed during the siege of 1687. But in the nineteenth century, the British Lord Elgin used a chisel and a hammer to remove some parts of them (Greece belonged to the Ottoman Empire then). In the process, he broke all the rules of archaeology, which Greece considers illegal. Since 1816, the pieces have been on display in the British Museum. The Greeks have been fighting to get them back for decades. In 2021, the English statistical firm YouGov asked 7,717 British adults—including young people—to whom the Parthenon Sculptures belonged. 59% answered Greece while only 18% said the UK. It’s not just a couple of amphorae; it’s a matter of national identity.

The British Museum seeks a temporary, rotating system of displaying the friezes between the two countries. But Greece opposes any joint proposal with the word “loan.” Socially, the UK stands alone. “Without the awareness of young people, including the English, this worldwide movement to restore the [Parthenon Sculptures] would have been impossible,” observes Greek politician Yanis Varoufakis. This has consequences. The British [Museum] is an old building. It is 170 years old and in need of repairs. “The budget is about 1 billion pounds. But its sponsors are going to deny it this amount as long as British kids threaten to boycott the institution for holding the friezes hostage,” avers the former Greek finance minister.

Historical memory, universal justice

Young people, especially those in the United Kingdom, have already displayed their strength by removing the BP oil company from the Tate. At the beginning of June, under a protective orange New York sky (the result of hundreds of fires in Canada), several dozen youths from Reclaim Our Future and Culture Unstained demonstrated against MoMA board chair Marie-Josée Kravis, whose husband Henry Kravis’s venture capital firm KKR invests in fossil fuels (according to Forbes, he has a personal fortune of $7 billion. At the protest against the New York museum, protesters shouted, “We need clean air, not another billionaire!”

This new way of understanding the world closes the circle of restitution like a barbed wire fence (after all, it is another social awareness movement). Separating the people who thwart justice from those who pursue it is achieving restitution. The Vatican (under Pope Francis), Sicily and Austria have returned several fragments of the friezes. Young people have succeeded in bringing restitution to the intergenerational population. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias is clear: “This is of enormous importance to us,” he told Artnet News.

Elena Foster, the founder and CEO of the Ivorypress publishing house, recalls firsthand the welcome speech that First Lady Mareva Grabowski delivered to open the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize ceremony in Greece in May. “She gave a direct and courageous defense of the need for restitution. It is a question of universal historical justice that responds to objective principles of ethics and aesthetics,” the editor emphasizes.

Young people applied a lot of pressure. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Getty (California), the National Gallery and the Horniman (London), the Museum of Mankind, the Army Museum and the Louvre (Paris), among others, are all analyzing the provenance of their collections. The kids are raising a banner: “No more neocolonialism in museums.”

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