Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more


Can repatriation heal all wounds? Dr Donna Yates explores the importance of repatriation in addressing colonialist injustice and oppression.
Is it possible to atone for the sins of the past? This is something to consider when we think about the repatriation of cultural objects. Much of the collecting in the early 19th and 20th centuries be it by museums, collectors, or scientists was done under deplorable conditions. During times of conquest and empire building, indigenous people were deprived of their land, their freedom, and even their lives. At the same time, the conquers help themselves to the cultural riches of the territories they invaded, looting that was done when indigenous people when unable to protect themselves from the onslaught. Many lost their most sacred and most culturally significant objects at this time.
This looting extended to the dead and throughout Africa, Australia, Polynesia, and other places of conquest. Human remains, people’s parents and grandparents were unearthed and collected in the name of dubious racist and debunked science. How would you feel if you knew for a fact that your great, great grandmother’s grave has been robbed and her bones were sitting in a box in a European museum’s storeroom? There are people right at this moment who have to live with that reality, a lot of them. Indeed, the loss of tangible heritage, physical objects is just a facade for the real loss, the loss of intangible heritage due to the systematic racism of colonialism.
Each sacred indigenous object in a foreign museum represents hundreds of songs, stories, and memories lost. Whole languages forced into extinction. Whole ways of life annihilated. Many indigenous people feel that the continued presence in Western museum of objects taken under colonial duress seems to almost validate colonialism by keeping looted cultural objects. They believe that the former colonial powers key part of indigenous culture enslaved, literally locked in a glass cage. It’s interesting to note that the word loot itself, a word that we’ve used throughout this course, came into the English language as a result of colonialism. The word is Hindi. And the English didn’t start using until their occupation of India. They used one of India’s own words to describe it’s plunder.
Yet, repatriating cultural objects during colonialism will not change the past. The damage is already done. However, repatriation can go a long way towards cultural survival or better yet cultural renaissance, rebirth. A high profile triumph of culture repatriation on a world stage and the reunion of a stolen item with its community in context maybe far more valuable and impactful than keeping the artefact in a box in a museum far away.

How can repatriation heal the wounds of past colonialist injustice and oppression? How can it contribute to cultural survival and revival? Dr Donna Yates explores the importance of repatriation in addressing historical wrongs and contributing to the survival of living cultures.

This article is from the free online

Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now