Many European countries have once again been faced with the dilemma of whether or not to return colonial-era artifacts to their country of origin.

Questions of rightful ownership have been around for decades. But, they have found new momentum in recent months partly due to the widespread success of Marvel’s Black Panther. A scene in the movie shows a central character looking at an exhibit of African artifacts in the British Museum. He then proceeds to take one, saying that it had been stolen from the people of (the fictional) Wakanda.

The scene from Black Panther where Killmonger prepares to steal back a looted Wakandan artifact (Image courtesy Disney/Marvel)

Recent decisions by French president Emmanuel Macron and German culture minister Monika Grütters have reignited the debate. Grütters released a code of conduct for German museums to follow. This includes providing context to consumers and looking at joint custody, or long-term lending of the objects in question.

This is said to apply to both colonial-era artifacts and Nazi-looted art. Grütters has said that “the colonial era has been a blind spot in our culture of remembrance for too long”. Berlin also recently returned nine artifacts found to have been plundered from a burial site in Alaska to the indigenous community.

Museums Faced With Dilemma About Colonial-Era Art
Colonial-era artifacts
Many of the Benin Bronzes are still displayed in the British Museum

Macron recently paid an official visit to former French colony, Burkina Faso. There, he declared that “Africa’s heritage cannot just be in European private collections and museums”. He also assigned experts to negotiate a “temporary or permanent return of Africa’s heritage”. France also plans to revisit a request from another former colony, Benin, to return certain artifacts.

Such acts of returning objects to their countries of origin are unfortunately rare. The British Museum has famously refused to return various plundered items, including the original Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Greece, the Koh-i-Noor diamond, and many of the Maqdala Treasures from the Kingdom of Benin in modern day Nigeria. A spokesperson claimed that “there is great value in presenting the Benin collection in a global context, alongside the stories of other cultures”.

the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum
The Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in the British Museum

Though most would agree with the idea of returning such artifacts, the reality can be a very complex process. When it comes to long-term lending, in many cases it requires that the country receiving the objects agree that the UK, or France, or Germany are, in fact, the legal owners of the artifacts in question before the transaction can take place.

There is also the issue of security and preservation when it comes to many priceless ancient treasures. Without adequate provision or political stability, it is often feared that some of these treasures may become lost.

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