RETURN AND REPATRIATION: ETHICS

Nationalists (and pan-nationalists) often demand the 'return' or repatriation of works of art, archaeological material, or human remains. These claims have no ethical or moral basis. They are similar, in form and purpose, to established nations claims to 'heritage'. The location of the artefacts can not in itself legitimise such claims: repatriation and "patriation" (keeping the object where it was found) are both wrong. I question the validity of the principles, specify the nationalist claims, and consider the specific issue of human remains. .

The ideas here attract hostile reactions: archaeologists use their academic authority to dismiss them - or alternatively, they claim to consider such ideas already. And it is true: all the experts in archaeology value ancient cultures, and their material remains. But then, that is why they chose to study archaeology in the first place. The longer archaeologists have worked, the less objective they are. Ask how to treat ancient remains, and their answer will always be: "treat them with interest and respect". In this, they reflect the general cultural values of the middle-class in western societies. They do appeal to emotional responses: few people have ever read anything so hostile to these cultural values. The sacrality of the ancient is fully accepted in Europe, it has been 'politically correct' for centuries. Promoting the destruction of ancient remains is about as socially acceptable, as advocating slaughtering babies for meat.

Nevertheless, the claims about return, repatriation, or simple preservation of ancient remains, have no logical basis - they rest entirely on those emotional responses. (The word repatriation is used here in a general sense, for relocation in accordance with a nationalist claim - not just of human remains). Consider the following claim:

"Half the gold miners in the world are Catholics, therefore half the gold in the world should be stored in the Vatican."
Here is essentially the same claim, the same logic:
"Half the chemical workers in the world are Catholics, therefore half the chemical waste in the world should be stored in the Vatican."
The claims are ethically equivalent as they stand: if one is accepted, then the other (logically) should also be accepted. However, both claims are not equivalent in practice. As formulated, they ignore the different effects of accepting the claim. A ton of chemical waste is not as useful as a ton of gold: a million tons of chemical waste is very dangerous. The first claim is pro-Vatican, the second is hostile: yet the internal logic of each claim is the same. Now consider this pair of claims:
"All the ancient works of art in Africa have either been destroyed or removed to western institutes for study. They should be returned to the place of their origin: Africans have the only valid right to contact with African art."

"All the smallpox viruses in Africa have either been destroyed or removed to western institutes for study. They should be returned to the place of their origin: Africans have the only valid right to contact with African viruses."

Or this pair:
"It would be morally right for a group of Africans to steal African art from a western institute where it is held, and give it to people in Africa."

"It would be morally right for a group of Africans to steal Ebola virus from a western institute where it is held, and give it to people in Africa."

Again the second act in each pair would be clearly hostile: it would be biological warfare. But who says art or heritage is undisputedly good? Who says it is not harmful? Evidently the people who want to "bring it back home" think it is good. So do the people who want to keep the art - otherwise they would gladly get rid of it. Underlying the conflict about return and repatriation of art, archaeological material, and human remains is a common ideology. Both sides assume the effects of the repatriation are positive, and both sides implicitly claim the right to impose this value preference on third parties. Unfortunately both sides in the 'dispute' are convinced their common world view is self-evident. In practice, they do act like people who dump chemical waste - and then expect the 'beneficiary' to be deeply grateful.

I do not want any heritage, I do not value the past, I think Europe is suffocating in heritage. I believe Europe will be far better, if and when it gets rid of its heritage and its art. If I was an African, I would resent the return of African art, and consider it an act of war against Africa. I support the transfer of art and heritage from Europe to the US to Europe, partly in order to damage the US. Let the Americans live in a museum. Yet I can understand why some people demand the return of material, which I consider dangerous: attachment to the past is at the core of nationalist politics. It will clarify this issue, if I state clearly the opposing view - opposed to both sides in so-called 'repatriation disputes'.

It is wrong to project the past into the future. All ancient artefacts should be destroyed as soon as feasible. Knowledge of the past also projects the past into the future, and is wrong in itself. No relationship of human beings to an artefact can justify its continued existence. For example, the existence of an artefact can not be justified by...
Contrast that with the views of the museum and an indigenous people, in a typical 'repatriation dispute', and you will see that they share a belief in the continued existence of the disputed remains or artefact.

The ultimate logic of treating this cluster of values as a 'dispute', is to attempt a process of 'reconciliation'. In this way the entire cluster can be legitimised emotionally and politically. In a similar fashion, Protestant and Catholic politicians in Northern Ireland legitimise their claim to power, by agreeing not to shoot each other. If you start a war and then make peace, you are more likely to win the Nobel Peace Prize than someone who never started a war. Rick Hill uses the rhetoric of reconciliation in this way, in a book on the Larsen Bay repatriation dispute: Repatriation must heal old wounds, in Restoring the Dead (Tamara Bray and Thomas Killion, editors. Smithsonian Institution: Washington 1994). He may want reconciliation between ethno-nationalism and science: I do not. Sometimes, it is better that there is no 'healing'. Many nationalist movements in Europe have drawn on archaeological material for their claims and propaganda: the sooner this coalition of science and nationalism disappears, the better.

The apparent parties to such 'disputes' are, on the one side science, and on the other side some nation or people. The similarities of their positions suggest that that 'conflicts' are ritual or symbiotic in nature. The supporters of 'science' claim that there is a general social obligation to know the past - part of a general moral obligation to knowledge, usually derived from the intrinsic value of the state of knowing. The claim of the nations and peoples is presented by ethno-nationalists. They say that every person belongs to a transgenerational collectivity called a people or nation, and that there is a social and individual obligation to transmit the culture of this people from past to future generations. They see this culture as linked to a particular territory, and that link is itself transmitted to succeeding generations.

The claims of nationalists cannot be understood without referring to the nationalist world view. For nationalists the only issue is whether they do speak for a people, or belong to a people: if that is the case, they consider their claims valid. Nationalist claims to heritage, the relocation of heritage, and even of human remains, parallel in structure their claims to territory. For nationalists, every nation or people has at least one specific territory, over which it has an overriding claim. Similarly, establishing that remains are the 'heritage' of a specific people or nation invalidates all other claims to it - as far as nationalists are concerned.

The most relevant structural feature is the inclusivity of the claims, which are expressed in metaphors of ownership. All nations, collectively, claim all land. All land 'belongs' to some nation or people, according to nationalists. Similarly, all art and artefacts are claimed as heritage of some people, often with overlapping claims. And so too, all human remains are claimed to be those of ancestors of some nation or people. Therefore, so says the claim, they have value for some existing nation: a value which is claimed to be beyond question.

However, it is logically impossible for the remains of a baby to be remains of an 'ancestor'. Only people who had children can be ancestors. Given the historically high infant and child mortality rates, it is probably true that most humans died without descendants - as non-ancestors. However, the nationalist claims are based on transgenerational links between communities, not on biology. These links do exist, but they are cultural, social, political and geopolitical, not given or 'natural'. In themselves they have no ethical value which inherently makes a claim valid. In fact any claim to art or artefacts, by any nations or people, has no inherent value or status: it is just a claim, that's all.

Two points apply specifically to human remains. First, they are not very important, in themselves, for the transmission of culture. Secondly, the claims referred to in repatriation disputes are typically double claims - the heritage 'disputes' are between three parties. They are not seen as such because the existence of one party in the dispute, a nation state, is typically taken for granted. Consider this typical description of a repatriation dispute: "Native American protesters called for the return of 1,800 skeletal remains of Native Americans being stored on the M(issouri) U(niversity) campus." That seems a two-party dispute. However, the University of Missouri was established by a former British colony on land purchased from France: it also represents a territorial and heritage claim. Britain or France could also claim the skeletal remains. In that case, Native Americans, the US Government, and the State of Missouri would probably join to oppose the claim, and the multi-party nature of the dispute would be visible. So long as these British and French claims are not made, the implicit claim of the US as a nation state to the skeletal remains is not visible. What appears to be a dispute between science and ethnic tradition, is in fact a quarrel among nationalists, who share a common tradition of preservation. They just can't agree on ownership.

The US, Britain, France, all nation states, preserve heritage. Nation states sometimes honour the dead collectively, in some form of national memorial ceremony. Because most people have in fact grown up in nation states, all this is considered normal. It goes unnoticed, and it is only made visible by heritage disputes. However, it is probable that most heritage (art, artefacts, remains) is undisputed. That does make nationalist claims valid. Neither dispute, nor lack of dispute, nor agreement following dispute, justify the preservation of heritage. The word heritage conveys a relationship of ownership, but this aspect is also ethically irrelevant. Being 'heritage' of any group, people or nation can not legitimise preservation of ancient artefacts. Nor is there any social or individual obligation to respect human remains, on the basis of their status as 'members' of a transgenerational community.

In summary what is visible in the issue of return and repatriation is: the translation of certain structural characteristics of nations into moral imperatives. If we are to have nation states on this planet, then it probably is necessary for nations to preserve the past, to study the past, and to honour past generations. However, that does not make it morally right. The planet can exist without nations and nation states - and without art, archaeology and heritage as well.


Should art be destroyed?
Memory as ideology