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Transcript: Who Owns the Past? Museums and Cultural Heritage Repatriation

Benin
 
[Listen to the podcast audio here.]
 

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?.
 
 
Beginning of transcript:
 
Lauren Henry:  
Welcome to History Talk, the podcast that brings together experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. My name is Lauren Henry, and I'm here with my cohost, Eric Michael Rhodes. On today's episode, we'll be discussing the debate over the repatriation of objects held by foreign cultural heritage institutions.
 
Eric Michael Rhodes:  
During the 19th and 20th centuries, administrators and academics brought nonWestern artifacts to European and American shores under the banner of imperialism at the outset of the modern colonial era. Napoleon filled his Louve with objects from the new French Empire, ranging from Italy, Egypt. The old adage goes "to the victors go the spoils". However, the expropriation of colonized material culture has always been controversial. Cicero spoke out against his fellow Roman senator Varonns for plundering cultural property of a defeated nation. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815 the Duke of Wellington returned thousands of works of art to Spain, Prussia, Italy, and the Netherlands, claiming that their theft was, quote, contrary the practice of civilized warfare, unquote.
 
Lauren Henry:   
Nevertheless, many museums retain ownership of plundered objects, to this day, 90 to 95% of African cultural heritage, for example, is held by nonAfrican institutions. The New York Times reports that the Musee Quai Branly in Paris alone holds over 70,000 SubSaharan African objects. Last year French President, Emmanuel Macron created a commission to look into the restitution of African artifacts to the continent, claiming that quote, African heritage can't just be in European private collections and museums, end quote. The commission's report released late last year advocates the permanent return of objects seized under European colonization to any postcolonial nation desiring to reclaim their works. Many other institutions, however, from the Berlin forum to the British Museum have been far less sanguine about the precident being set by France. For example, displayed an Italian judicial decision to Getty Villa in Los Angeles stated last month that had no intention of returning the Roman bronze known as victorious youth. So what is at stake in this repatriation debate? And what is the history of cultural heritage repatriation? 
 
Eric Michael Rhodes:  
To help us sess out these questions, we're very fortunate to be joined by two esteemed scholars. Up first is Dr. Sarah Van Beurden. She is Associate Professor of History and African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University. Dr. Van Beurden's multi-disciplinary work takes both an historical and art historical lens to colonial and post colonial Central Africa. Thanks for joining us from Europe, Sarah. 
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:   
Hi.
 
Lauren Henry:    
Next, we welcome Dr. Steve Conn, the W. E. Smith professor of history from Miami University, where he focuses on American cultural and intellectual history. Dr. Conn is one of the nation's foremost experts on museums, and is also a managing editor of our parent publication Origins: Current Events in Historical perspective. So glad to have you on, Steve. 
 
Dr. Steven Conn:    
Thanks for having me, guys. It's great to be here.
 
Eric Michael Rhodes:    
So let's start with the very basics. How do we define cultural heritage and what is meant by cultural heritage repatriation?
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:   
Cultural heritage, what falls under that definition is a range of things that represents the past and particularly the cultural past. It includes both tangible object and buildings and untangible elements such as languages such as ceremonies such as dance practices, for example. And then the cultural heritage repatriation is used currently in current debates and sort of designate the return of objects to a location or community of origin Repatriation is the more neutral term. The other term that gets used in current debates is restitution which is a lot less neutral than repatriation is also the reason that a lot of European museums like to avoid it. Because restitution implies making up for a past wrong and that past wrong and a lot of these contexts and all of them is colonialism.
 
Lauren Henry:   
In what context then did Western institutions come to hold on to non Western artifacts in the first place?
 
Dr. Steven Conn:    
In my own understanding, cultural artifacts have moved around quite a lot over the centuries, I think you can discover that the Chinese gathered things from the hinterlands of their empire in the early modern period. West African empires also gobbled up things from other cultures as part of warfare and, and conquest. But I think for our purposes, what we're really talking about, and you said this, you hinted at this at the, in the introduction, once the European Imperial project really got underway in the 18th and 19th centuries in a in a big way. That's when the wholesale importation, of these things started to happen to places like London and Paris and Berlin, that goes hand in glove with the development of what we think of as the modern museum. In some sense, the museum, capital M, was created to be the warehouse of all this stuff that was coming in from around the world, we don't really have museums in in the modern sense, the sense we understand today before the 18th century.
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:   
We use the term collecting and collection are also terms like repatriation that are selectively neutral, and that actually cover a very wide base of avenues of acquisition and the type of larger acquisitions that Steve also reference that happened the late 19th century and in the 20th century, in the context of empire come via various avenues, via missionaries, via so called explorers and pioneers, often in the context of military exhibitions by colonial official scientific expeditions they bought from art dealers and collection collectors. With few exceptions, we tend to know very, very little about the specifics of the conditions in which these were acquired. What we do know is that particularly in this context of conquest and colonialism, the threat of violence in a large number of these exchanges was probably a factor as was the unequal relationships of power and economic resources. But we shouldn't forget that there was also a certain category of that material that from the 19th century on was made to be sold to museums and collectors. So communities came to realize fairly early on that there was a foreign interest in their material culture, and they responded to this demand. And they responded to this interest by producing material so that that category of objects is certainly also represented in museum collections.
 
Dr. Steven Conn:   
Yeah, and I would I would just also add that well, that's certainly true in Africa, which is Sarah's expertise. I think that kind of a market also began to develop in the United States. In the West, especially among Pueblo Indians groups where they recognize that the textiles and the ceramics had a value, so they started producing them for a market. I would just reiterate and emphasize that this is really muddy. How did these museums acquire this material? It comes through a variety of avenues, all of which tend to be pretty murky, if we try to look into the details of it deeply.
 
Eric Michael Rhodes:   
So far, we've heard about statues, textiles, what sort of objects are we talking about when we have these debates? And are there particular types of artifacts that are especially controversial?
 
Dr. Steven Conn:   
Well, in the American context, far and away, the most controversial material is human remains. So it's not even cultural production in that sense that Sarah described it at the outset. It's not the ceramics and the textiles so much as the skeletons and other kinds of physical remains that that these museums, many of them affiliated with universities in the United States as well accumulated especially early in the 20th century.
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:   
In the European context, human remains are certainly part of the debates. But the larger focus of the debate is actually on the category of so called authentic arts. So the pieces, often large sculptural pieces that are sort of reconceived as art in the context of these Western museums. And in the context of Western art historical scholarship in the early 19th century,
 
Lauren Henry:    
What is the scope of this situation nowadays, to what extent do Western museums continue to hold objects of cultural import to non Western nations? 
 
Dr. Steven Conn:   
A great deal, part of what's at stake here, and Sarah's also just hinted at this is that objects may have resided in a museum for 100 years. But the vocabulary with which we described them, the categories into which we put them have shifted a great deal. And so while the object itself may just still be sitting there, it has meant a variety different things across the decades. And it's in those changing meanings of all of this, that the controversies have erupted. Depending on how you want to begin to define these questions, the problem gets bigger, or it gets smaller, it becomes controversial or not controversial. Again, depending on the fights we're having over the language we use to describe all of this stuff in the first place.
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:    
It is certainly true that very big and important collections with some of the oldest material is often in the West at the studies the case for Africa. But I have to create some nuance there. Because Lauren, as you said, the number of 90 to 95% of African cultural heritage being in the West is often thrown around lately. And I believe, actually that that number is exaggerated for one that doesn't take into account the intangible cultural heritage, which of course, still exists in location. And there are also a number of large museum collections on the African continent itself. So the number of 90 to 95% is is likely to be greatly exaggerated in the case of Africa.
 
Dr. Steven Conn:  
But I think it's also fair to say, what we ultimately wind up fighting about in specific examples tends to be what we would all acknowledge are the remarkable, the spectacular, the singular, the unique. Museums are filled to bursting with broken pot shards, from archaeological excavations, small pieces of busted pots that are thousands of years old. Nobody's really fighting over those. What we're really fighting about are those remarkable objects that you would want to go see in a museum in the first place. Those tend to be where these fights erupt. 
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:   
We should also not forget that museums are important, but there are also very large collections that are in private hands in the west and this material you have a lot less sort of understanding of how large exactly the amount of that material, those collections, are and where they are exactly. So that is also  something to take into account.
 
Dr. Steven Conn:   
That's a great point. museums in some ways are on the front lines of this controversy, because they are more transparent in the first place than those private collections are. So that's a great point.
 
Lauren Henry:    
Just to follow up, Steve, if you could maybe talk us through how the parameters of this debate do change based on language. And what are some of the different ways in which these questions have been interpreted and the scope has changed as a result?
 
Dr. Steven Conn:  
When Sarah was describing the variety of ways in which this material comes into Western hands--and it includes adventurers, and colonial administrations and missionaries, missionaries--hugely important in all of this includes the private market, especially for East Asian material, it falls into a variety of categories. Some of this is simply curiosities. Some of this is souvenirs of travel. Some of this is categorized as anthropological or ethnographic material. By the middle of the 20th century, more and more people began to view at least a lot of this material in the category of art. And once it becomes art, then it has a value in an art market that it didn't have, if it was simply a souvenir from a travel adventure. And so I think it's at that moment that the terms of this debate begin to shift. When people see this cultural material now, in the category of fine art, then it has a value that it might not have had previously, let's say, in the 19th century, or even early in the 20th century. In the United States, there's a pivotal moment here, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the temple of fine art, opens a gallery of non Western art, the Rockefeller gallery, and that's really symbolically the moment in the United States context, at any rate, where people say, Aha, this isn't just I anthropological curiosities, this is art capital A, that's an important moment in this shift in people's attitudes.
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:    
I absolutely agree with that, that it is sort of that shift that has made these objects more valuable as financial resources and as resources in the tourist industry. So that also contributes to the reasons that these objects have sort of become the focus of recent debate added to that is that they're often seen as a representative of a pre colonial past. And, and this last argument, I think, is very important is protection of these objects. And the possession of these objects by Western museums was often used as a justification for colonialism actually. The fact that these populations that these communities and these cultures needed somebody else to protect their material culture for them. And that also connects to the post colonial context, because post colonial regimes then try to sort of reclaim these objects and these collections because they have become the symbol of sovereignty.
 
Dr. Steven Conn:   
So there are two things that are happening simultaneously in the mid 20th century. If we tie some of these threats together. On the one hand, some of this material is moving into the category of art, and therefore we take it more seriously. We, the grand collective we, take it more seriously. At the same time, of course, the European empires are dissolving, and these newly independent post colonial nations are emerging now on to the world stage and now want to demonstrate that their cultures to compete with the Western cultures on these terms of art and artistic production. So these two things happen at the same moment, which sort of leads up to the why the United Nations initially gets involved in some of this in the 60s and 1970s.
 
Eric Michael Rhodes:   
Sarah, can you tell us a little bit about the history of repatriation during the 20th century, particularly regarding African artifacts in Europe?
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:  
Yes, there's actually very little history of actual repatriation, quite the opposite. But the United Nations and subsidiary UNESCO play an important role into discussions around heritage, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, of course. A convention that is particularly important is UNESCO convention of 1970s, it had a very long title, it was called the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. What it really was, was sort of a discussion about the rights of nations to possess their cultural heritage. But there was a very, very important caveat to discussion, even though this discussion has come about because there were so many newly independent countries in the United Nations that were pushing for this discussion. That particular convention of 1970 was actually non-retroactive, which meant that it didn't apply to the colonial period, the period that many of these newly independent countries wanted to discuss. So even though that is a very important convention, it has actually been the opposite of helpful for debates about material that was removed during the colonial period. It is helpful in the context of debates of objects that are removed illegally after 1970. So that it is a strong argument for the return of those objects. UNESCO has established an intergovernmental commission to sort of look at the cases that--where this convention can be applied. But since 1980, when this commission became operational, only six cases have been resolved before the commission. And only one includes an African country, which was Tanzania, which I'll claim for the return of a mask from us with New Zealand in Geneva. And that was a mask stolen in 1984. And it's not returned until 2010, actually.
 
Dr. Steven Conn:    
Sorry, you said six cases since 1980? 
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:    
Yes. 
 
Dr. Steven Conn:    
Good grief. Thank you. I didn't know that. That's, that's remarkable.
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:  
But aside from what the UNESCO has facilitated, there are also bilateral negotiations that have taken place around the subject of cultural artifacts and the return of cultural artifacts. And there have been instances of success. A well-known one is the return of human remains, and particularly those of Sarah Baartman to South Africa. There's also the example of the return of an obelisk from Aksum to Ethiopia from Italy. That was also a case that was debated for a very long time. And it was also a case in which the UNESCO eventually stepped in to help with the negotiations. And there is also the example of 114 objects that were returned from Belgium to their former colony, Congo, which at the time was called Zaire in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The latter sounds like sort of unique events in terms of a return. But if you look at it, in context of the collections of the big African Museum in Belgium, which contains 125,000 objects they estimate, then 114 objects, of course, looks quite different.
 
Lauren Henry:    
The question of remains, I think, is a really nice point to draw in a transatlantic comparison. So, Steve, you mentioned NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act earlier. I was wondering if you could talk to us about how these debates have played out differently with regards to Native American cultural heritage and American museums?
 
Dr. Steven Conn:    
NAGPRA is a product of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it began to get shaped in Congress in the late 80s, and President George H.W. Bush signed it in 1990, or 91, I can't quite remember which. So NAGPRA  does a couple of things, first of all, it applies only to institutions that receive federal funding. So once again, the question of those private collections gets left to the side. Now, it is also the case that virtually every Museum in the United States gets some kind of federal funding one way or another. So effectively, it applies to virtually every Museum in the country. And it sets up a legal process for federally recognized Native American tribes to initiate a repatriation process. And there are a whole set of steps that have to be followed, there are all kinds of paperwork that have to be done when it was passed. I think there was a fair bit of hand wringing on the part of museums, that this was going to create a rush on the museum's that it was going to be kind of a chaos. In fact, in the 25 odd years since it's been enacted, that has been, I think, a remarkably smooth and in some cases, low key, and in other cases, really quite constructive interaction that has taken place between museums and Native American groups. Many American museums with Native American collections, now have somebody on staff designated as the NAGPRA representative so that every time a Native American group wants to explore the question, there's a person on staff there at the museum to do this. The way in which NAGPRA is framed privileges religious claims over everything else. And so what you have to demonstrate if you're a Native American group, is that the object is somehow religiously significant. And that means that again, a lot of those broken pottery shards, nobody's interested in those. What they're interested in is things that have a religious significance. And that's been the bulk of the NAGPRA activity at least as far as I understand it since the Act was passed.
 
Eric Michael Rhodes:   
Well, repatriation seems to be gaining momentum in 2019. It's also generated much controversy. Sarah, what are the dividing lines in the repatriation debate?
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:    
Well, there are many fault lines but generally speaking, the pro camp points to the need to address the injustices of colonialism and points to the value of having heritage representation accessible for one's own population. You could say that if the return of plundered Nazi arts, if you can justify that, then it becomes difficult to not also justify the return of some of the things that were removed, at least during colonialism. The no camp, the firm no camp, can rationalize a range of our documents. Often they argue that the possession of these collections and these objects in the West is not illegal, because, for example, because there were no laws about these kinds of things in the late 19th century, when some of these objects were removed. That doesn't come til later. Another very common argument is about the scientific value of these collections as they exist. So that means that if we pull these collections apart, then we won't have the added scientific value of being able to look at this material together. A very commonly heard argument is also that conservation is much more secure in Western museum than in African museums, or you sometimes also hear that there are probably no museums in Africa, which is very far from the truth. So there is also the Cosmopolitan argument that says, will you want global audience to have access to this kind of material, it is important that people in the West can go and see this material, because it will help with existence that they feel and was the othering process that happens with regard to, for example, African population. I would like to note that that argument gets used in favor of keeping things in Europe, but it never gets used in favor of creating more universal museums in Africa. So it's also unevenly applied, those arguments are easier to refute than the arguments that points to the complexity of the process of return. For example, who do you return objects to? Do you return them as the French report says to a state? Do you return them to communities of origin that exist within states that are smaller than these states? What do you do if the communities of origin are at war, or in conflict with the state in which they exist? Then who do you return objects to then? Or do you return objects to the descendants of families from whom they were removed? There's a lot of complexity. Some of the debate is much more nuanced. There's a group of people that argue, so yes, return should absolutely be possible. But we should look more closely at the material and decide on the basis of what we know about the material whether something can be returned or not. For example, there is a very clear category of material that is the consequence of documented violent confrontation. And the Benin plunder is a famous example of this, when England plunders the Royal Court of Benin in the late 19th century those objects are the easiest, I think, to discuss what is much more difficult is this much broader category of objects of which we know very little about the provenance we simply don't know very well, where they come from. An important potential criticism is that this is actually a very Eurocentric debate, because it is only able to see these objects as museum objects. And it focuses on this figurative art that is considered to be quote unquote, art with it, they gave the space and while some of these objects might have been discarded by their communities of origin after youth, for example, or would not be objects that are considered as museum objects in the context of return. That doesn't apply to all of them. But it's certainly the case that there might be a heavy dose of Eurocentrist.
 
Dr. Steven Conn:  
Let me pick up on Sarah's point about the trickiness when you actually go from abstract principles to enacting a repatriation on the ground. And so I'm going to pick on my favorite example here, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Euphronios crater. The Euphronios crater is a beautiful piece from the ancient world that came into the Met's collection in what everybody acknowledged what sketchy circumstances. The American Museum Association has a set of ethical guidelines that everybody's supposed to sign on to. This started also in the '70s. The Met was always very slow to do this, because a lot of the stuff that it buys, it buys in ways that we might not approve of. So the Italian government had been demanding this back, because the Italian government maintained that it had been looted or purchased illegally, or that the chain of provenance was not adequate, and legal, so back and forth, back and forth. And the Euphronios crater was finally returned to Italy just a few years ago. So though the Italian government has been fighting this for a long time, it only just returned the piece relatively recently. But of course, the irony here is that the Euphronios crater is Greek. It had originally been plundered from Greece by the Romans, and then put in a Roman tomb there. So it's not clear to me why the Italians get it back. Why don't the Greeks get it back if it was originally a Greek piece, which had been plundered by the Romans 2000 years ago, give or take? So this is where I think this problem of who gets it under what circumstance gets really complicated. And what troubles me is that in some sense, it posits that there are these continuities of history that the group of people that produce this object in the mid-19th century is exactly the same as the group of people who now make a claim to it in the early years of the 21st century. And of course, we know that's not really true. The Romans are not the Italians and the Greeks today are not the Greeks of Pericles. I think when we think about how you actually do these repatriations, it gets pretty complicated pretty quick I mentioned before that one of the things that troubles me about NAGPRA, is its privileging of religious claims. And so I have this sense that part of the reason NAGPRA passed at all in an otherwise relatively conservative presidency was precisely because it's part and parcel of the increasingly obtrusive role of religion in public life. When we begin to talk about ownership, it seems to me that we are pretty close to the kinds of trademark fights that go on among big corporations. Who gets to use the Coca-Cola logo? Who gets to use the Ashanti logo? Who gets to use the Navajo logo? It seems to me that turning this material into yet another trade marketable commodity, does damage to that, yes, admittedly cosmopolitan and perhaps even Western notion of a kind of universal commons.
 
Lauren Henry:    
We've talked a lot about the American context and we've also talked a bit about what happened in France with the report that the Macron government commissioned I wondered if we could look a little bit beyond and maybe in questions of how these controversies have taken shape outside of France in the United States. You mentioned Italy for example.
 
Dr. Steven Conn:    
Well you know in some ways the first repatriation controversy maybe the longest enduring is the demand for the Elgin Marbles back. Lord Elgin absconded with those early in the 19th century, put them in the British Museum, and the Greek government has wanted them back for a very long time. When those marbles were taken, of course, there was no Greece, it was part of the Ottoman Empire. So here we are, again, and who owns them, when they were taken off the Acropolis. Part of what makes NAGPRA work is that it is an intra-national process, everything gets exponentially more complicated when we're talking about sovereign nations having these kinds of negotiations. The Chinese government has made demands on American museums for the return of material it claims was pillaged, or otherwise illegally removed from China. The Italian government is going after the Getty. One of the most high profile examples of this is the Peruvian government going after Yale University for the material associated with Hiram Bingham's expedition to Machu Picchu early in the 20th century. So this is an international issue to be sure. But as I said, I think part of what makes the American situation different, and in some ways maybe smoother, is precisely because you don't have to deal with international jurisdiction. It stays in house as it were.
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:  
That's a very good explanation of how complicated these things become on the internet national level, because states have to be involved in order to make official claim. The number of official claims that have happened today and in the past is much, much smaller than the contours of the public debate that is taking place today. That doesn't mean that they have not happened to the more successful ones and have often come from smaller Pacific communities, from indigenous communities in Australia, for example, from smaller Pacific Islands. Indonesia, for example, has made successful claims against the Dutch claims. There have been official demands from African nations as well, but a lot less. That the idea of claims for restitution knows a very long history. And these claims often go back to even before independence. And that was certainly the case in the history that I know best, which is the Windsor restitution that came from Congo, that asked for museum collections in Belgium. That debate is going even before Congo becomes independent. And in the context of Congo's, independence, Congo asks for the resources of its nation. A very important part of that world, the very famous mines in the Katanga regions, the diamond mines, the gold mines, and the uranium mines, of course, the copper mines. But in the same breath, they also asked for these museum collections in Tervuren, because just like the economic resources, these were seen as cultural resources for the construction of a sovereign nation, and these demands come back again and again and again. It is also the case with the the Benin Bronzes that were taken from the Kingdom of Benin which today is in Nigeria. The claims on those objects have existed for a very long time as well. There is a history to these claims, and there is a large public debate. But it is true that there have been fairly few official claims in comparison.
 
Lauren Henry:   
So it seems like there's a range of different claims being made by states, both in Africa and in Asia and groups within states, for example, in the case of NAGPRA and Native American groups. Has there been a range of responses to these claims internationally? Are there some states that are better off or more willing to countenance repatriation than others?
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:   
Yes, I would say that there is a good range of responses. The most well-known one, of course, comes from France were Macron in addressing, I believe it was an audience of university students in Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, said that African heritage should be returned to African nations. And as a follow up to that, he ordered a report on this from two academics:  Felwine Sarr, who's a Senegalese economist, and Benedicte Savoy, who's a French art historian who actually works in Berlin, and they wrote this report that has to become a manifesto for the return of all the material that was removed during colonialism. I think that is sort of the more quote unquote, progressive response that we see in Europe at the moment. Germany, where this debate has been taking place for the last 10 years is more careful. And in Germany, people are more united around the idea that this material is shared heritage, and that we should develop ways of circulating this material without necessarily changing the ownership of the material. So ways of sharing that material, I think that concept of shared heritage can be a little bit dangerous, because the reality on the ground is that this material is not shared at all. The term shared heritage hides that a little bit, if you will. The debate in Belgium on the other hand, and takes place in different contexts as well. In Belgium, the African diaspora is a very important part of this debate, and is actually pushing a lot of this debate. Although the government has now, with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as the director of the large African museum in Belgium have now both said that they do believe that conversation around restitution should happen. But I think the largest response has come from France. And actually, in response to that report, new claims for restitution are starting to be made by former French colonies. So I think that that is the situation where things might evolve the quickest. 
 
Dr. Steven Conn:    
If we were to look at what the Soviet Union took out of Eastern Europe during and in the wake of the Second World War out of private collections, but also even out of national museums in places like Poland and Hungary and whatnot, I don't think the Soviet Union, now Russia, has been particularly forthcoming about any of that. So while we talk, you mentioned a moment ago, Lauren, the question of looted Nazi art, we've talked a lot less about things that were looted by the Soviet Union. And that may be another frontier in this conversation in the coming decades, depending on the politics that go on in Russia.
 
Lauren Henry:    
And I think what's interesting there, again, is that we have this in the same way that the Metropolitan Museum repatriated something to Italy that had then been looted from Greece, I know that for example, Priam's Treasure which is the famous collection that the Soviet Union took out of Berlin in 1945, was itself the product of an archaeological dig in Turkey. And I believe that those materials are still with the exception of some which were returned to East Germany, I think in the 1960s are being held, I think, as collateral in a very sort of interesting debate about restitution for the losses that the Soviet Union suffered during the Second World War.
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:  
Sometimes, of course, these claims are a way of actually addressing--and actually often I think these claims are a way of addressing which larger problems, right, problems of inequality, particularly in the African European case today,
 
Dr. Steven Conn:    
Well, and that's what makes me also a little uncomfortable about repatriation, I'd like more clarity about why we need to do this. Sarah, you started off by making this distinction between repatriation, which has a kind of neutral valence, and the word restitution which obviously implies repayment. And Lauren just mentioned that this is the way the Soviet Union at least initially viewed what it was taking back as a kind of payment for all of its pain and suffering. I think in the end, if we think of cultural material as somehow making up for the sins of the past, we're asking that stuff to do too much. If what we really need to do is think about the politics and the economics of developing nations and nations that suffered under colonialism, then we should talk about politics and economics. But I think what I worry about is that culture becomes a proxy for these essentially political debates that we therefore aren't really having. And I don't want us to somehow put the burden on Benin Bronzes or on Priam's Treasure treasure to do political work that's necessary. If those Benin Bronzes wind up back in Nigeria, nothing about the lives of Nigerians is going to change.
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:  
I think it's right to be critical of that question from that point of view. It is certainly legitimate to ask the question, why did Macron bring this up at this point. Why is discussion being steered into direction of debates about cultural heritage, instead of talking about immigration politics, for example? There's obviously something thing going on here, we certainly have a right to be critical of the emergence of this debate at this time. However, that being said, I do think that certain acts of restitution can have a real effect on bilateral relationship. So I do think that saying, okay, there are political reasons for this debate to be coming up right now. And to be saying, This is incredibly complex, let's not talk about it. Those are not reasons enough, for me, at least personally, not to have the discussion and not to have to debate because it is also a way of talking about different things. And I say this, of course, as a Belgian, it is a way I believe that we need to have this debate in Belgium, because we don't talk enough about decolonization and we don't talk enough about the colonial past. So I think it is a debate that is very important for Africa. But it is very important for Europe as well and it is important to have it and if we have it in the context of cultural heritage, but it might have some effect upon African European relationships, and that, again, might then reverberate in other contexts as well come in political and economic context.
 
Eric Michael Rhodes:  
Sarah, you write about these issues in the Congo. How do African governments invoke moral and political justifications to call for repatriation? How have they done so in your research?
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:   
Well, in my research, the demand for restitution at the point of independence, as I said, sort of stands for the broader issues of self representation and a control of resources. And that is also how this demand was formulated in the very beginning later on in the 1970s, with the emergence of the Mobutu regime and its cultural politics of authenticity, which was sort of a resourcing of Zairian society based upon pre colonial cultures in that context, that demand for resources and cultural resources, is of course, also formulated in the context of National Cultural politics to construct that sovereignty with.
 
Dr. Steven Conn:    
And I would add to that for Native American groups NAGPRA has been also a way to assert sovereignty in a very complicated legal web. NAGPRA, becomes part and parcel with tribal police forces and tribal health systems and all sorts of other things where by individual native groups are trying to reassert their in a sense national sovereignty as against the sovereignty of the United States.
 
Lauren Henry:   
How has the international art market affected questions of repatriation
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:   
Art markets have played in the past and still play a considerable role. It is crucial in determining the financial value of these objects is crucial in determining what objects are considered to be art and what objects are considered to be ethnographic artifacts. For example, there is an artist circle and anthropological input as well, but the art market is still very much part of that world as well. 
 
Dr. Steven Conn:    
In as far as the art market in total has just exploded over the last, I don't know, call it quarter century as one percenter money has poured into the art market that necessarily has driven up the prices for the kinds of materials that we're talking about, even as people are paying hundreds of millions of dollars for Leonardo as well.
 
Eric Michael Rhodes:   
I'd like to ask the both of you, what is the difference between heritage and history, and to what extent is culture bound up in objects?  
 
Dr. Steven Conn:    
History is bound up in objects at two levels, the first of which has to do with what the object represents about the moment in which it was created. And that's usually what anthropologists and our historians are interested in discerning. What does this tell us about a moment in time when this particular thing, whatever the thing is, was produced? But I think one of the things that we've been really talking about here is that second level of history. What happens to the object after it gets produced and what are its travels what are the ebbs and flows of its meaning and its value, both monetary and otherwise? And the biographies of these objects are themselves really quite interesting and often quite complicated.
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:    
I would absolutely agree with that. And that is something that I sometimes find missing in exhibitions on African objects is the fact that these objects have accumulated multiple meanings in multiple contexts at this point. And that it is that the history of accumulation and the way in which these different meanings of use in an initial context, meanings as a trade object, meanings as a museum object, meanings as an art object, meanings as a sort of scientific specimen, if you will. That large range of meanings needs to be exposed more, I think, in order for us to not only understand the cultures that these objects come from, but also understand sort of the travel that they have made these objects.
 
Dr. Steven Conn:   
Yeah, I got to tell one story. I'm sorry about this, because it's about my daughter. And she's really cute. I first started thinking about this years ago when I was in a museum in Philadelphia with my then about six year old daughter, and we were looking at the Egyptian mummies and the information that you get, and I'm trying to be tedious and pedantic and explaining this to her is about the, the dynasty and the this and of that, and how old this thing is. And she looked up at me, and she said, but what's it doing in Philadelphia? And that question, which is kind of obviously brilliant, right, because it does have some very interesting backstory that the museum was not telling me that explained how this Egyptian thing got buried, dug up and then wound up in Philadelphia, right? And, and every museum object has that kind of a story and I think those are the things that we we need to explore more thoroughly.
 
Lauren Henry:   
Well, I think that's a perfect place to wrap it up for this month. Thank you to both of our guests Dr. Sarah Van Beurden and Steve Conn.
 
Dr. Steven Conn:   
Thanks so much.
 
Dr. Sarah Van Beurden:    
Thanks so much for having us.
 
Eric Michael Rhodes:    
This episode of History Talk was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the public history initiative, the Goldberg Center and the history department at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are David Steigerwald, Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Lauren Henry and Eric Michael Rhodes. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more on our website Origins.osu.edu on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, as well as wherever else you get your podcasts and as always, you can find us on Twitter @OriginsOSU and @HistoryTalkPod. Thanks for listening.