Activists in India and Africa Are Leading the Global Push to Repatriate LootedArtifacts

Sixty-two years ago, the small Indian town of Thanjavur woke up to devastating news. A 2,000-year-old temple in the city had been looted, and its much-loved deity was missing. Police in India say that the centuries-old statue of the dancing Hindu god Shiva (Natarajar) now resides over 2,000 miles away, within the walls of the Asia Society and Museum in New York.

All across museums in the U.S. and Europe live gods that have been “deshrined,” as the poet Niyi Osundare once put it while writing on a Benin mask at the British Museum. Some of these gods are on display, and some are concealed within forgotten storage crates. But the gods are finally coming home—to Asia, to Africa—thanks to citizen-led movements for cultural restitution.

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Vijay Kumar, of the India Pride Project, which played a big part in the identification of the Natarajar statue, said in an interview with ARTnews that museums often forget these artifacts are also important religious and ritualistic symbols for the source nations.

“Many of these are not just random objects but gods who were being actively worshipped or elements used in culturally meaningful rituals by different communities,” he said. “Empty temples and eager devotees await their return in small villages and towns. Theft and colonial loot have left gaping holes in our religious and cultural identity.”

Sculpture of a standing bodhisattva.
A ca. 8th century sculpture of standing Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, from the Prakhon Chai area of Thailand. Activists say many similar statues that were looted are housed in museums across the world.
Sepia Times/UIG via Getty Images

Social Media Push

While the process of restitution itself is often government-led, social media campaigns have played a big part in bringing discussions about repatriation to the forefront. One of the first prominent movements started amid Sotheby’s 2016 auction of a Prakhon Chai bronze sculpture. In 2016, a series ofsocial Facebook posts with pictures of thePrakhon Chai sculpturesinmuseums outside Thailandwent viral, leading to greater public interest in their provenance.

Heritage activism forums were created as a result, and cries for repatriation grew louder. Social groups in Buriram Province organizedmass cycling excursions andcreated customized T-shirts with slogans demanding the return of Thai cultural property, whileThai students in New York wore these shirts in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The movement effectively led professional and amateur historians, as well as cultural tourists visiting museums in Europe and the United States, to turn themselvesinto internet watchdogs.

Other social media movements have since flourished—and brought success for activists. Work by Sylvie Njobati, a Cameroonian who started the #BringBackNgonnso, ultimately led to the return of the Nso statue and the Benin Bronze NFT Exchange project. Mexico’s #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende (#MyHeritageIsNotForSale), while started by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and backed by the government, is a public movement of discovery of looted Mexican heritage across the globe. Over 9,000 pieces have been recovered under the campaign, including a pair of recently discovered 2,000-year-old ceramic statuettes used to advertise the Mexican liquor Kahlúa. The British Museum’s social pages are frequently tagged with decolonial repatriation demands under similar campaigns like #UniteParthenon and #UnfilteredHistory.

To some degree, this increased awareness of longstanding forms of racism can be credited to the Black Lives Matter movement, which pushed these discussions from institutional and governmental circles into the public forum. That movement, like these ones, has been partially waged on social media, primarily by millennials and Gen Z.

These growing calls have helped spur real-world impact. In 2018, for example, the French government commissioned a report that called for the wholesale restitution of colonial-era loot.

A recent report by the organization Open Restitution Africa indicates that news articles, tweets, and books about African restitution has grown between 300 percent and 600 percent between 2016 and 2021 (based on an analysis of data points from Google and Twitter), and that returns of objects are increasing. However, the organization’s cofounder, Molemo Moiloa, pointed out that these discussions are still dominated by the Western world.

“Most restitution so far has happened specifically due to political interest or through long term, non-transparent, museum-related processes,” Moiloa said. “This is changing, which is important. But because the conversation is dominated by non-Africans, we see an emphasis on internal politics of the global north, when in fact Africa has much wider concerns including social education, healing, and reconstruction which rarely emerge as issues in the global conversation.”

Now, she added, the conversation needs to move from social media to institutions, and museum leaders need to construct more open and transparent forms of communication to allow for potential repatriations. “Information needs to be framed in a particular way for museum professionals to use and mobilize, but needs to be accessed in a different way for it to have a role to play among the broader public. This work is complex but vital.”

Museum visitors standing before rows of stacked plaques.
The Benin Bronzes—some of which are seen here in the British Museum—were looted by British troops and have made their way to museums across the globe. Activists have taken to social media in the hope of getting them permanently returned.
Photo Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A Changing Museum Landscape

For decades, museum industry groups and Western governments advocated for the idea of encyclopedic museums—institutions that provide comprehensive overviews of art history over the years and across the globe. They also warned that restitution would be a slippery slope toward emptying museums.

Western museums have historically attempted to bolster their claims to stolen artifacts by pointing to legal stipulations and alleging that the home nations of these objects couldn’t care for them. Now, however, the conversation has gone beyond legal ownership, and instead focuses on ethical validity.

In a recent BBC Radio 4 interview, Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, called for reconsideration of the National Heritage Act 1983 that prevents U.K. museums from deaccessioning objects unless they are duplicates or irreparably damaged.

“It should be the responsibility of trustees to make the case for what should and should not be in their collections and at the moment they don’t have that right because the 1983 act means they are legally unable to do so,” he explained, adding that there is a “ping-pong between governments and museums which I think everyone finds slightly unsatisfactory at the moment.”

In April, the Smithsonian enacted an “ethical returns policy” that requires a look at how an object came into the institution’s possession. The U.S. Department of Interior is weighing changes to a federal law that ensures the repatriation of Native American remains and sacred objects. New York now has laws that require museums to display signage acknowledging Nazi-looted artworks.

Museums across Europe are also increasingly engaged in restitutions of controversial artefacts. Cambodia hosted an International Conference on Cultural Property Protection in September that brought together law enforcement and civil society groups working for restitution in ASEAN countries to create a unified approach to tackle the heritage loot.

A Concerted Effort

A global movement of art and cultural restitution is underway that demands not just long-term loans and “positive partnerships” which skirt issues of ownership and colonial violence, but also permanent repatriations and acknowledgments of the cultural and identity impact of colonialism.

Academic reports by experts like Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy say such transitional solutions should be in place only “until legal mechanisms are found to allow the final and unconditional return of heritage objects to the African continent.”

“We collaborate with volunteers and organisations similar to us in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and more in locating each other’s missing cultural artefacts,” said Kumar, the activist with the India Pride Project. “They tip us on the location of possible stolen artefacts which we verify against a database we maintain. If they match, we alert the authorities and aid them with gathering proof via provenance. Once an object can be proven to be stolen, the recovery process depends on each organisation. We are also working toward building robust groups of immigrant volunteers to lobby for policy changes in their respective countries. Public awareness of movements for better restitution policies is the way forward.”

Kumar is the brain behind the #BringOurGodsHome campaign which was instrumental in over 500 of India’s recent successful restitutions, including the Glasgow returns and the 15th-century Vijayanagar-era bronze idols of Lord Ram, Lakshman and Sita returned by U.K. Vijay Kumar and his team were also key players in nabbing Indian-American art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who was recently sentenced to prison for leading a smuggling ring. They are involved in research, documentation, and collaboration with law enforcement, and with more generally following the trails of stolen artifacts.

Many of the artifacts recovered with the help of the team have been reinstated in the original places of worship, and wherever the original structures were demolished or are no longer capable of holding the returns, these objects have been handed over to museums in various parts of the country.

The Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, the Lost Arts of Nepal, the ATHAR Project (Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research), and Mwazulu Diybanza’s Pan-africanist movement Yanka Nku are just a few other such organized movements happening throughout the globe.

The success of most restitution campaigns at the moment depends on political lobbying and the willingness of museum heads to co-operate. Even though restitution has been on the agenda of most source countries for half a century now, every time a new demand is made, the process begins anew, due to a lack of general return policies.

However, with increasing calls for return of stolen and colonial loot, like the Rosetta stone and the Moai, now being in news consistently, the process has taken on momentum. Citizen activists now want legislations and laws that make deaccessioning and repatriation a smoother political process rather than a case by case issue.

A UNESCO declaration released after the World Conference on Cultural Policies and Sustainable Development held in Mexico in October saw cultural ministers and representatives from 150 countries commit to open, inclusive international dialogue on illegally acquired artifacts and concrete measures to battle the illicit trade in antiquities.

Speaking on the sidelines of the event, Ernesto Ottone, a senior UNESCO official, referred to the recent bilateral deals that have led to the return of artefact. He said, “In the last three years there has been a change, a turning point, on how restitution can be made. Today, doors are opening for us.”

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