Stolen or Gifted?


If you have ever visited New York, Istanbul, Paris, or Rome, chances are you have stood in front of the 20- to 30-meter-tall obelisks that adorn the cities’ public spaces. As fascinating as they may appear, adding a sense of antiquity to our contemporary metropolis, these structures date back more than 3,000 years. 

Having said that, when one sees the glories of a conquered civilisation, such as those of Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, or the Aztec Empire, dispersed across the world, one cannot help but wonder how they got there in the first place.

The official story behind the removal of most historical relics, such as Egyptian obelisks, contends that these were handed to colonial powers as presents for various reasons. Indeed, historians will argue that the most iconic pieces of history discovered abroad, such as Moctezuma’s headdress, the Rosetta Stone, and Greece’s Elgin Marbles, all found their way into the halls of foreign museums after their colonized owners voluntarily renounced ownership rights.

Nonetheless, as public opinion shifts away from the eurocentric viewpoint, a new debate about the displacement of historical items has arisen: were they gifted, or were they stolen?

Most people you meet in Egypt will tell you that the obelisks ended up overseas as a result of corrupt and weak governance imposed during and after colonization. The truth is that before the creation of UNESCO, colonized countries lacked regulations aimed at preserving cultural heritage. As a result, authorities in these regions were fully able to control the future of ancient objects that were not even theirs to give away, allowing for the establishment of intricate black markets based on the exotic tastes of European collectors. 

It is also worth noting that these so-called “gifts” were given to the conquering force on behalf of the conquered, which has its own set of implications. The reality is that colonialism was entirely predicated on a power dynamic in which the colonizing power was labeled as dominant and the colonized as submissive. In short, the submissive was not allowed to say no due to widespread economic, social, cultural, and even religious manipulation. It is undeniable that during colonization, people were coerced into idolatrazing and fearing the conquering powers to the point of blind submission. 

Why are museums in Latin America not full of artifacts from the Middle Age or paintings from the Renaissance? Why can’t we find European cultural heritage adorning governmental institutions in Africa or in the MENA region? Why, unlike others, did Europe never give away its own history, pride, and memory? 

Questions like these demonstrate that the displacement of historical artifacts is more than just a result of gift-giving. They demonstrate, instead, a pattern of behavior in which European countries took but never fully gave. They represent a reality in which, in contrast to the numerous civilizations sacked, Europe possessed the necessary regulations as well as the sense of respect and nationalism to save their own cultural heritage.

Consider the instance of the Egyptian obelisk discovered in Paris. According to one version of the event, the obelisk was given to France in 1829, barely 20 years after the French takeover, in return for a mechanical clock that never worked. Indeed, cases like these show that even when cultural material was lawfully given away, the colonized were frequently disadvantaged by such trade. Was the monetary trade of these items fair, educated, and legal? Were the colonized aware of the consequences and seriousness of their actions? Were they fairly compensated for the trade?

While the answers to these issues have yet to be articulated, we may get a sense of what they might be by looking at the current situations of communities that formerly “gave up” their cultural heritage. Egypt’s fallen ruins and abandoned historical sites, for example, reflect the same quality as its economy, which has been dominated by greed, corruption, and weak regulation. Similarly, the loss of Aboriginal artifacts and heritage in Australia also manifests as an economic divide between the country’s indigenous and north-western European populations. This is not to say that stealing and/or donating cultural heritage is to blame for the current situation of such societies, but rather to show that, like economic instability and weak institutions, the displacement of cultural heritage is a trait most commonly found in postcolonial communities. 

Beyond ensuring an equal economic transaction, was the cultural significance of colonial heritage respected? On the one hand, you could claim that it wasn’t. Returning to the Parisian obelisk, while it may look conserved on the surface, it is steadily deteriorating due to pollution and other environmental circumstances in France. Not to mention the one in New York, which has been placed in the middle of a public park with little to no security despite its 3,000-year-old age. Regardless of their conservation efforts, the obelisks have demonstrated that when artifacts are displaced, they may become victims of the new environment they are housed in.

However, other displaced structures tell a different story. Consider the Turkish Pergamon in Berlin, which was excavated by German archaeologists who claimed that “they had rescued it from a destruction that was becoming ever more complete.” We cannot deny that, for whatever reason, European countries have more resources and income to conserve historical objects. Furthermore, the European Union has strong regulations in place to safeguard the long-term preservation of these artifacts and decrease the likelihood of them ending up on the black market.

In the end, whether cultural heritage was stolen or given away is determined by our subjective understanding of what “stealing” implies. Yes, in certain situations, the displacement of cultural material was permitted by authorities in colonized countries, and today, what is found in European museums is conserved and protected to the maximum extent possible. Nonetheless, many contend that such gifts should be viewed as a result of colonial manipulation and as another symptom of eurocentric indoctrination. 

Whatever your thoughts are, the ownership of many of these items and structures can no longer be contested. Not only would locating legal paperwork confirming actual ownership of cultural assets be exceedingly expensive, if not impossible in many cases, but just transporting these to their original locations may jeopardize their safety. Consider Moctezuma’s headgear, which cannot be carried from France back to Mexico because the material would decay.

What we can agree on is that the implications of colonialism and cultural displacement can still be felt today. Nowadays, countries whose heritage is scattered all across the globe suffer from economic demise while international museums charge tourists to view what is not theirs. Furthermore, the displacement of cultural objects continues to prevent people from connecting with their own history, as only those with high disposable incomes can travel abroad to observe the past of their communities displayed in a foreign land. Whether or not you believe that iconic monuments, such as the obelisks, were stolen, it is vital to observe the role that colonialism as well as people’s socioeconomic status plays into our access to history and education on a global scale. 

Featured image by: Peter Bucks / Unsplash

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