Decoding Artifact Relocation: Where does ancient history “belong?”

Egyptian Sarcophagus

Western colonization lies at the center of innumerable sums of stolen artifacts and objects. Today, many of these stolen objects, often alluded to as “borrowed,” remain exiled in art institutions worldwide, serving as trophies from conquest rather than symbols of culture and community.


Globally acclaimed institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) and The Smithsonian are associated with the historical disguise of colonization as means of displaying other nations' history as their own. In recent years, the discussion of artifact repatriation has become highly debated and extremely controversial amongst museums, collectors, researchers, and the art scene at large.


Artifact repatriation is the return of stolen objects to their places of origin. The process begins when an organization, community, or person with a claim to an object submits a request for its return. The case is then examined closely through extensive historical research. The operation can take months, or sometimes even years, given that relocated objects were often subject to revisionist history.

Piece of a four part tomb returned to Turkey

So, does the place where art is created have to be the same place where it is displayed? How does the geographical displacement of objects change their history and meaning? After hundreds of years, how are stolen objects ethically returned to their rightful places,and how are art institutions handling it?


After centuries of unethical artifact collection, the Smithsonian Institute took one approach by instating the “ethical return of stolen artifacts'' policy after being called out for unethical collection practices in early 2022. The National Gallery of Art initiated its first “ethical return” by returning 30 Benin Bronzes to The Kingdom of Benin. The Washingtonian provided more information about the Smithsonian’s policy regarding the relics. according to their article, British troops raided the gallery in 1897. Today, over 2,000 of the Bronzes sit in public and private collections in the United States, the U.K., and Germany.


Some nations settle repatriation efforts by co-parenting the piece. The Stone of Scone is believed to be the slab of rock that the biblical figure Jacob rested on when he dreamt of a ladder to heaven. It remained in Scotland's possession until England claimed it in conquest, where it became a prized chunk of rock for the royal family. The stone held such significance for the group that a special chair was crafted for it to rest under so that up-and-coming Kings and Queens of the monarch would be crowned upon the sacred stone.

In 1996, an agreement was reached between Scotland and England, resulting in the Stone of Scone’s return to its home nation. England returned it on the condition that it would be shipped back to them for important ceremonies, like coronations. The passing of Queen Elizabeth tested this agreement when the stone was sent for the coronation of King Philip. Everything went smoothly, and who knows, maybe next time two nations scramble for custody of ancient artifacts, we will see it in divorce dourt.


More recently, a 50-year hunt for Turkish artifacts concluded in November alongside Turkey’s continual fight for object repatriation. The United States returned six stolen and smuggled ancient artifacts. These pieces include a bronze statue of Emperor Lucretius Versus dating back to the 1st or 2nd century, a terracotta slab, figurines of Atticus and Apollo, A Kusura-like idol, and a tomb separated in four slices. ArtNews discusses how these repatriation efforts began, and how accreditation for such endeavors resulted in the concealment of prominent female figures in archeology and anthropology.


The discussion of artifact relocation, however, is not always so cut and dry. For example, the United States returned seven ancient seals to Iraq after they were stolen in a 2003 invasion. This moment of insecurity at the beginning of the century left the outcome of artifact ownership uncertain. Iraq lost over 17,000 pieces as casualties of conflicts like this one, which has slowly returned since being stolen.

Ancient object
Exhibit shows off artifacts

In addition, Ireland is in the process of returning a sarcophagus to its original lands in Egypt, which was originally “owned” by University College Cork after being donated in 1928. As it makes its way home, it will reach the home soil of its burial grounds. While the sarcophagus itself is considered an artifact of ancient history, it involves the remains of a person. While preservation and embalming are fascinating, the remains should return to their home country. History is already in the making—let's let the dead rest.


And while the dead can rest, history cannot.

Institutions have taken on a “what’s said is done” mentality for far too long. Luckily, the topic of artifact repatriation is on the rise as artists have begun taking a stance through art.


Contemporary artistClaudia Peña Salinas reimagines stolen objects through time and space in her recent exhibition titled Uxmal-On-Hudson. The installation was on view as part of the Center for Curatorial Studies graduate thesis show at Bard College in the spring of 2021.


The exhibition showcases blown-up, high-resolution images of the artifacts, which hang from a translucent wire attached to a metallic sculptural staircase. Through this, Salinas recontextualizes the route these Mayan objects took, beginning in Yucatan, Mexico, and ending in the United States. After almost a century strewn across Cruger Island, the objects were donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where they remain today.

Scotland stone

Salinas' commentary focuses on the movement of these objects over time. The curatorial statement reads, “By occupying the gaps in historical records as productive spaces for contestation, Uxmal-on-Hudson sets forth an object-oriented approach to the production of historical knowledge.” Through this interpretation, Salinas reclaims the Annandale-On-Hudson context and allows the objects to transcend time and space.


Present narratives and actions toward repatriation efforts show that museums tend to approach the issue in three different ways: by ignoring, returning, or sharing it. While the MET and Smithsonian Institute continue to return smuggled artifacts, they still hold thousands in their museums. Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq continue to receive pieces of their ancient heritage from foreign nations, while countries like England and Scotland split their artifact’s time like a custody exchange.


As more current-day artists reimagine the outcomes of artifact relocation, perhaps the insertion of these new narratives will serve as a way to decolonize the art landscape, become a form of healing through art, and serve as an educational platform for a part of history that has been neglected for far too long.

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