As museums move to become more ethical the question of object restitution – that is, should museums give back objects which once belonged to other cultures  – is becoming more prevalent. Here I will present two case studies, to explore the arguments for and against the restitution of objects.

The Machu Picchu Artefacts and Yale University

The Machu Picchu artefacts were discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911 in Peru and were lent to Yale University for study.  In the late 1920s Peru demanded the return of the artefacts. Yale’s response was that it had returned all loan items and only kept those which it owned.

Machu Picchu. (Image: Allard Schmidt (The Netherlands)) GFDL license 

 After numerous requests for the legal return of the items throughout the 2000s, in 2010 a large mobilisation for the return of the objects was launched based on moral, rather than legal grounds. The Peruvian government held marches in Lima and Cusco led by the President Alan Garcia. These protests prompted negotiations – which is perhaps indicative of the fact that Yale wished to avoid any bad press.

The main points which Peru put forward for the return of the artefacts were as follows:

• Machu Picchu was a key part of the Inca Empire which ruled Peru before its colonisation by Spain. It is therefore very important historically to Peru.

• The original agreement was to lend the items to Bingham.  It was not for Yale to keep them.

• Machu Picchu is a major tourist destination which receives over 1,000,000 visitors a year.  If we think of a museum’s role as being that of sharing knowledge with the public, then most visitors who would be interested in seeing the artefacts are in Peru (the tourists and the locals).

• Items could be displayed in a proposed museum in Cuzco and would therefore remain on public display.

Hiram Bingham at his Tent in Machu Picchu. Public Domain Image
Hiram Bingham at his Tent in Machu Picchu. Public Domain Image

Yale University had some counter claims to these.

• Yale had spent a lot of money and time in securing the artefacts

• Yale had looked after the items and had kept the items together in one collection.

• Peru took too long to ask for the items

Eventually a deal was struck. Yale would keep some control of the Bingham finds, and would collaborate on a travelling exhibition and help build (and partly own) the museum in Cuzco.

This deal has been hailed as a model for museums working with communities.

The Koh-I-Noor Diamond and the Tower of London

Queen Alexandra wearing the Koh-i-Noor in her coronation crown. Public Domain Image. 
Queen Alexandra wearing the Koh-i-Noor in her coronation crown. Public Domain Image.

The case of the Koh-I-Noor diamond is much more complicated. Below is a simplified timetable showing who owned the diamond and when.

Timeline detailing the ownership of the Koh-I-Noor diamond. Photoshop image created by author. 
Timeline detailing the ownership of the Koh-I-Noor diamond. Photoshop image created by author.

As you can see, the diamond has changed hands numerous times, which has resulted in numerous claims for restitution from groups and governments in India, Iran and Pakistan.  It was surrendered to the British by the Maharajah of Lahore in 1850, when it became part of the British crown jewels.

 I will focus on the Indian claim to the diamond.

The main focus of India’s claim is as follows:

– The diamond was mined in a river basin in India

– It was owned by generations of Indian rulers for 444 years

-The stone was stolen by Nadir Shah of Iran in 1739

-The Maharajah of Lahore claimed he’d been tricked out of diamond by the British

– It should be returned as “atonement for the colonial past”

However, the Tower of London and the British Government claim the diamond should stay in Britain. They argue:

• The diamond was formally presented to Queen Victoria by its rightful owner, the Maharajah of Lahore

• Returning the diamond would open floodgates to other objects being returned. David Cameron said on a trip to India recently: “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty”

• The history of the diamond is confused – there are multiple previous owners – who has the best claim?

• The Tower of London is a major tourist destination and therefore many people can see the diamond there.

However, the diamond’s colonial history has encouraged some to think about it in a postcolonial context. If the object is read as a relic of British colonial rule, surrendered to the crown then quite aside form representing the British monarchy, it also represents British power, and by extension the colonisation projects of the past.

By giving the diamond to one culture then the UK would be saying the claims by other cultures are illegitimate. This puts the UK in a difficult possession however as by keeping the diamond we are similarly saying that the claims by other cultures do not outweigh our own. This unfortunately could be read as a return to the colonial mind-set – the “more powerful” country taking (or indeed keeping) parts of other countries which we want.

In both case studies the most compelling arguments have ignored legal frameworks. Yale was not legally obliged to give the artefacts back – and indeed it was public protests not legal threats that sparked negotiations.

I would argue that dialogue, not legalities, are required to sort out restitution disputes.  Perhaps some sort of joint ownership deal (as was suggested by a community group in India in relation to the Koh-I-Noor) would be the solution. However the practicalities of this, I think, would require a major overhaul of how we see museum objects and a rethink over our grasp of the concept of ownership.