Returning looted art is now easier to discuss: ‘Former colonies are becoming increasingly powerful’

The National British Museum has again been asked to return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt. Although the chance of success is small, senior researcher Jos van Beurden sees the return of art theft becoming a topic of discussion in Europe.

The call comes from renowned Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass, who has been trying to get objects back into Egyptian hands for years.

‘It’s their story’

“It is of course very important for countries like Egypt that objects that have been smuggled out of the country are returned,” says Jos van Beurden, senior researcher on colonial collections and restitution issues. “It’s their story and they have a right to it.”

But in the case of the Rosetta stone, it is not so easy, he says. “The National British Museum still wants to lend things but not return them. It’s going to be a long road, but it’s very good that Hawass is taking advantage of the current time frame because there is now a lot of discussion about returns.”


The Rosetta Stone

“The rosette stone is a fairly large block of granite, measuring over 1 meter by 75 centimeters,” explains researcher Jos van Beurden. “It has a text in three languages, a thanksgiving song to King Tholomew.”

“It dates from 196 BC. There are only a few of these in the world, so it is a very special stone. The importance is that thanks to the different languages, scientists have been able to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs.”

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Independence and economic power

This sudden turn in Europe is primarily due to globalisation, says Van Beurden. “We have much more contact with each other and know much more about each other. So curators and visitors see what we have here and what is missing in those countries. It will gnaw, it feels uncomfortable.”

“In addition, countries such as Egypt, Nigeria and Indonesia have completed their independence,” he explains. “They are entering a new phase. They are becoming more powerful, also financially. They just want their own legacy back. Those kinds of factors play an important role in this whole game.”

More diverse employees

But the attitude of museum staff is also changing. “Employees 20-30 years ago were mainly concerned with protecting and preserving their own collection. This century has changed, and it is also connected with the fact that researchers have become colored,” says the researcher.

“If there are people who have their roots in former colonies, then they look at the problem differently than white cheeseheads,” he continues. “It really matters. Very slowly the atmosphere has changed and improved in favor of the former colonies.”

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Willing to negotiate

Nigeria has been fighting for years to get back Benin artefacts, which were taken by British soldiers in 1897 and scattered around the world. “They are successful because a few weeks ago a large museum in London decided to transfer 72 of these objects to Nigeria. Other museums have done the same,” says Van Beurden.

The National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands made an inventory of how many Benin objects are in the Netherlands. “They have the inventory of at least 114 in the Netherlands, which can also be directly linked to that robbery from 1897. They are prepared to negotiate with Nigeria.”

More equality

“At the end of 2019, the Cultural Council issued an advice: return the stolen if the country of origin asks for it,” says the researcher. “It has been taken over by the ministry, but has not yet been approved by the Folketing. But everything has already been put into operation. There will be coordination on all research and a restitution committee.”

“Indonesia has set up its own restitution committee in response to that policy. This means that they will decide for themselves which objects they want back. Then you see that the relationship between the old colonizer and the old colony becomes more equal. the goals of the restitution process .”

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