The European colonisers looted them not because they cared about preserving the local heritages, but because they wanted to impose hard power.
If that wasn’t the case, not only they would try their best to not damage the artefacts, they also wouldn’t massacre the humans who created the heritage and imposed western cultures upon the survivors. We know damn well it was the exact opposites.
And yes, even the contemporary westerners who oppose repatriation also don’t care about cultures.
Even without those vultures of private collectors, the artefacts still end up in museums in faraway lands, trapped behind glass panels. Yes, the visitors are able to admire the unique aesthetics and read the descriptions on the plaques. But, they only perceive them as mere foreign and exotic items and will always do. They won’t understand how culturally significant the artefacts are.
If they are in their “natural habitats” (they are often small bits of a huge archeological site), we can see how they make important parts of entire cultures. In fact, we may witness them being used in the rituals.
Never mind the immersion. How can the artefacts help us witnessing the still-living cultures in action if we don’t see them being “utilised” as originally intended?
No, the “they-don’t-care-about-their-own-cultures” argument is invalid. If you even bother trying, you can find those who still cling onto their heritage. The ones who don’t care are the westernised big city dwellers and government officials and, believe it or not, they don’t represent their entire countries.
Now, what if the cultures represented by the artefacts are already extinct? Surely, it doesn’t matter where they are kept. Well, it still does.
Just take a look at those dinosaurs. They went extinct sixty five million years ago and yet, we still see their descendants not only as modern day reptiles, but also as birds.
Extinct cultures also have left legacies.
Egypt has been an Arabised and Muslim-majority territory for a long time and yet, its Coptic Christian citizens still use Coptic – a Greek-influenced, modern descendent of Ancient Egyptian – as their liturgical language.
Indonesia, my home country, is a Muslim-majority country with Christianity as the biggest minority religion. But, you still can see hints of our Buddhist and Hindu pasts.
Not only we have Sanskrit loanwords in some of our languages (including the national one) and we occasionally use the sembah gesture (which is based on Añjali Mudrā), our official national symbols are derived from Hindu and Buddhist mythologies and most government institutions use Sanskrit mottos.
I don’t have to use non-western countries as examples. The entire western civilisation has its roots in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, two long-extinct civilisations. Latin and Greek are still studied as the classical languages.
If you take a look at western individual countries, you can see some uniqueness as well.
In the United States, one can sees Native American and West African influences through its many different music genres and some of its regional cuisines, even though Native Americans are now an unbelievably tiny minority due to genocides and most black Americans are descendants of slaves who were forcibly uprooted from their homelands.
Even though Al-Andalus has ceased to exist for half a millennium, you still can see the Middle Eastern influences in the Iberian peninsula: from the abundance of Arabic loanwords in Spanish and Portuguese to the abundance of Moorish architecture in, unsurprisingly, modern-day Andalusia.
Nothing lives in a vacuum. Just because something happened a long time ago, that does not mean it won’t leave its marks. The immersion may be weak. But, it still there.
I am also certain learning languages and cuisines is a more effective cultural immersion method than simply staring at goddamn objects.
Obviously, the arguments I stated above are not entirely mine; I either paraphrased them or added my own personal thoughts to them. But, there is one argument which also isn’t mine…. and it is an argument so obvious, I hate myself for not thinking about it earlier: political stability.
Some argue the artefacts should stay in the west because it is the only place free from any political instabilities. But, Youtuber Andrew Rakich – better known as Atun-Shei films – reminds us to expect the unexpected.
In a video which title I forget, he asserts that just because places like London are stable, that does not mean they will always; we cannot certainly predict the future… because we humans are so goddamn unpredictable.
That statement reminds me of what I have learned about history.
Places like Syria, Afghanistan Somalia and Iraq were peaceful (at least, on a surface level as I am deriving this info from photos and videos). Now, they are synonymous with wars, wars and wars.
Less than a century ago, Europe was involved in two world wars; the second started just twenty one years after the first one ended. Now, it is often one of the main destinations for war refugees.
Basically, unless you are into historical denialism and see humans as nothing but predictable androids, the political stability argument does not hold water.
Just like the British Museum’s roof.
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