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Who Owns the Past? Museums and Cultural Heritage Repatriation

(00:43:18)

In November 2018, a report commissioned by French President Emannuel Macron called for artifacts taken to France during the heyday of European imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to be returned to Africa, sending shockwaves throughout the museum world. “I cannot accept,” said Macron, “that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France.” The expropriation of material culture has proven controversial in a variety of contexts, from the acquisition of Native American remains by American museums to the complicated provenance of Greek and Roman antiquities held by such major art institutions as the Getty Villa in Los Angeles and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, debates about the rightful ownership of conquered cultural artifacts are almost as old as imperial conquest itself, as evidenced by Cicero’s 70 BCE denunciation of the Roman plundering of Greek temples in conquered Sicily.

This month, your History Talk podcast hosts Lauren Henry and Eric Michael Rhodes speak with two experts in material culture and museum studies — Professor Sarah Van Beurden and Origins editor Steven Conn — about how cultural heritage repatriation debates have played out differently around the world, as well as what these debates reveal about the very nature of cultural heritage itself.

To learn more about museums and cultural heritage, check out Putting Race on Display: The National Civil Rights Museum, A Postcard from Warsaw, Poland: POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and China Dreams and the “Road to Revival” For more information about the history of Congo and Central Africa, check out Dr. Van Beurden's Origins article, A New Congo Crisis?.

- Posted January 2019 [A transcript of this podcast is available here.]