Restitution - Beyond The Realm Of Long-Term Loans I Oxford Open Learning


    Restitution – Beyond The Realm Of Long-Term Loans

    Since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the concept of, and requests and claims for, ‘restitution’ have been coming thick and fast. Social and mainstream media have been alight with calls to return plundered items which have a cultural, and often spiritual, home elsewhere. However, as is also known, the political and social machinery of home and foreign policy and diplomacy grinds constantly, both in the background and foreground. In reality these discussions are probably the echoes of a constant stream of discourse that has always been debated.

    What Is Restitution?

    Linguistically, the word restitution corresponds to the concept of returning an item or items which have been “lost or stolen to their proper owner.” When the British Empire was at its ‘pinnacle’ the removal of artefacts of archaeological, social and economic value from other countries to the UK was a common-place occurrence. Many of the museums in the UK house artefacts which hold a dubious legal provenance.

    Clandon Park is perhaps the newest discussion and agreement to be made. A Māori delegation visited the Surrey National Trust home, which currently houses original Hinemihi meeting house carvings, bought in 1892 by then owner of the house, William Hillier, the 4th Earl of Onslow. These ‘souvenirs’ from his term as governor of New Zealand have been agreed to be returned to the New Zealand Hinemihi Trust and alternative, commissioned carvings are being created to replace them at the property.

    Another UK museum, The Horniman, has agreed to return brass artefacts looted from Benin City, Nigeria, whilst the French government has already repatriated ‘its’ Benin Bronzes – items kept on display and on loan to museums such as the Quai Branly museum in Paris since they were captured by France in 1892.

    The Elgin Marbles

    The Parthenon Marble friezes, or Elgin Marbles as they are often referred to, are the source of one of the UK’s most famous restitution debates, all the while continuing to be under dispute by the British Museum. Greece has put forward opposition to the UK retaining these marble frieze sculptures which were originally part of the structure of the Parthenon in Athens. Currently, and for many years past, the stance of the British Museum has been that of agreeing ‘long-term loans’ but not the full restitution of the artefacts.

    A Crown Jewel

    The Koh-i-noor Diamond, a 105.6 carat diamond which has been the subject of myth and gossip since it was discovered in the 13th century, probably in Southern India, has resurfaced at the head of this discussion in recent weeks. Its current worth is estimated at between 140-400 million euros, and as such retains the interest of India and the UK. The diamond was ‘gifted’ or ‘ceded’, depending on which version of events are read, after the annexation of the Punjab in India in 1840. On arrival in the UK it was re-cut to remove ‘imperfections’ before being set in what is known as the Queen Mother crown. This famous diamond is currently on display in the Tower of London and remains part of the UK Crown Jewels with no sign of a change of ownership in sight.

    One of the arguments that has been posited for many years to advocate the retention of artefacts is that they may be returning to ‘economically and socially unstable’, even ‘internally volatile’, countries; the idea that these items are historically and socially ‘too precious’ to lose to war, private/closed collections or from public and scientific view. However, as with the sunset of the days of the British Empire in physical presence and tangible terms, so too the times have passed when the UK authorities have the option to be ‘moral arbiter’, determining who holds the hierarchy of how, where and when items are displayed and disposed of.

    The Future

    It’s a complex discussion, one which is mediated by ’emotion’ as well as legality. All of the artefacts under discussion hold significance for multiple social, cultural, spiritual, and economic, reasons. Decisions about their best location entails considering the best, most moral course of action, rather than by simply considering the many different hands though which any item or piece of land has passed, and what each government legally determines as ownership. Amongst all this there is also the consideration of international negotiation and relationship building.

    The recent ruling of The Charities Act in the UK also makes restitution more of a possibility. Institutions are no longer caught between opposing laws and ideals. They are at liberty to make the decisions to, or at the very least apply to government to, ‘discharge their responsibilities’ to these items, and return items held for generations in a country not of their origin. For large institutions to be able to do this opens up a wealth of opportunities for future conversations and this creates the potential for future generations to have contact with more of their tangible, spiritual, and cultural past via an increasing number of artefacts on home soil.






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