Ethics of Expropriated Art Research Paper

The word museum comes from ancient Greek, essentially meaning “a place or palace for the muses.” These proud structures were made to house that which was inspired by the muses and served as a tribute to the power of these gods, as well as to the nation itself. This notion persists as museums continue to be sources of national and cultural pride. Interestingly, though a museum is a symbol of national pride, the art within is often not just from that nation. Throughout the ages nations have removed art from other contexts to be housed in their own museums for a variety of reasons, including the need to preserve endangered artworks as well as demanding the art as war reparations. There are clear positive and negative impacts from the act of expropriating art. Thus, the question: is the process of expropriating art ethical and therefore justifiable, or not? In this paper I will present two main arguments in support of expropriating art, followed by three main arguments against the act of expropriating art. I will conclude with my own position, as well as proposed remedies for the difficulties that arise from this controversial topic.

There are several arguments that support the long-upheld tradition of nations having other nations’ art. In broad terms, access to new ideas and cultures through art leads to a plethora of benefits and advancements. Seeking out foreign art has been a cherished practice that has, in fact, recently been furthered. On May 6, 2014, the House of Representatives passed the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act. “This change will make it easier for U.S. museums and educational institutions to borrow works of art and other objects from abroad, increasing Americans’ opportunities for cultural and educational development,” (Breeding, par 5).

The act received overwhelming support with 388 of the 392 votes. Access to other nations’ art, according to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and his colleagues, will lead to significant benefits for Americans. “…[the act] increases access to foreign art in the United States and fosters a culture of learning and creativity. This legislation will make foreign artwork and artifacts more accessible to the public to view, study and appreciate in American schools and museums,” (Breeding, par 4). Thus, as lawmakers have affirmed, access to foreign art enhances cultural appreciation and educational development. One of the earliest examples of displaying foreign art to the public in order to serve an educational purpose is the Louvre in Paris.

What began as a fortress in the early thirteenth century was altered into a palace, most notably for Francis I. Under Francis I and his son Henri II, the palace underwent reconstruction and new design (Edwards, 195). However, the first emphasis of art came from Henri II’s wife, the powerful Catherine de Medici. Catherine had paintings and drawings placed in what was soon to be known as the Apartments of the Queen (Edwards, 195-196). The works were often depictions of the royal family and other nobility. The next installation of art was considered to the Apollo Gallery, decorated by a favored painter by King Louis XIV (Edwards 198). However, public access to these art installations did not begin until the dawning of the French Revolution in 1789. The doors opened to the public on August 10th, 1793 and the works, consisting mainly of royal portraits and taken church art, were on full display (Alexander, 24). The nature of artworks quickly changed, and so, too, did the popularity and nature of the Louvre itself with the success of Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquests. In 1797, Napoleon forced conquered Italian cities, including the Vatican, to sign the Treaty of Tolentino. Under this treaty, France acquired exceptional works of art from Italy to parade through Paris and eventually be housed in the Louvre, shortly thereafter renamed the Musée Napoléon. The Egyptian Campaign of 1798 to 1801 was another conquest resulting in a large procurement of Egyptian art and artifacts, including the famous Rosetta Stone (Alexander, 27).

The Louvre Museum, founded in 1793, illustrates the revolutionary thrust of the museum as institution: its initial purpose was to exhibit the spoils wrested from the aristocracy by the Revolution. Art, heretofore the plaything of noblemen, high clerics, and princes, suddenly became the official property of the nation (Maleuvre, 10).

Public access to these foreign acquisitions was not the only benefit of the newly improved Louvre Museum. Art students flocked to the halls to study masterpieces and imitate novel artistic styles. In fact, priority was given to art students. “In the décade, the ten-day period that had replaced the week, the museum reserved five days for artists and copyists, two for cleaning, and three for the general public,” (Alexander, 24). According to Napoleon, the spoils in the Louvre were there to bring national glory to France and educate its people and artists; it did just that for many years.

As the history of the Louvre Museum demonstrates, public access and educational development are immensely important aspects of a museum’s foreign art collection. A young Parisian art student had likely never seen Egyptian hieroglyphs before their installation in the Louvre at the end of the 18th century. Such encounters often lead to different and exciting inspirations for artists. For example, the famous Pablo Picasso heralded in the new concept of Cubism after witnessing a display of African art and artifacts. Due to a French conquest in Africa, Paris came to possess a collection of African masks and other artworks. Though many sneered at such “primitive” art, Picasso was gripped by the shapes, exaggerations, and originality of the pieces. Picasso soon after underwent his African period in the early 1900s during which Cubism began to take shape through paintings like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Picasso…, para 1-9).  In other words, foreign art inspired an important art movement. Multicultural artistic exposure and education continues to be promoted in art schools. Art educators Christine Ballengee-Morris and Patricia L. Stuhr assert in the journal Art Education that a diverse curriculum for art students enhances creativity, understanding, and critical thinking, all of which are regarded as goals for any educational system.

We believe the purpose of multicultural school reform is to help students identify and deal with cultural complexity…Culture confines our possibilities for understanding and action. This is one reason it is so important to learn about the culture and values of others. In this way we see broader possibilities for ways of thinking… (Ballengee-Morris & Stuhr, 7).

Therefore, central museums in major cities with foreign art collections bring different artistic styles and ideas steeped in other cultures to a wider audience, as well as clear paths for inspiration and innovation in the art world.   

A second justification for nations to have art from other nations is in the name of preservation. War and economic downfall create destruction and decay as appreciation and attention to art is often replaced with mere survival. Through centuries of difficult times, nations have not always been able to protect and maintain their art and artifacts. Likely the most famous case of art removal for the sake of its preservation is the that of the Parthenon sculptures held in the British Museum. Often referred to as the Elgin Marbles, Britain obtained the pieces of the Parthenon from Greece after Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, removed them in 1812 (Editors of…, para 5). Since then an extensive series of explanations and defenses for Elgin’s act have emerged. Elgin originally went to Athens in 1801 bearing an interest in Greek art, and a deep concern for the safety and well-being of the sculptures and art in the Parthenon. His concern was certainly warranted. The Parthenon had endured an unfortunate history, beginning with bombardment that destroyed large sections of the building as it had been the site for munition storage during the Ottoman Rule. The Ottoman Empire had control of Greece for over 500 years. Greece did not gain its freedom until the success of the Greek War of Independence in 1821 (“Ottoman Greece”, para 18). When Elgin arrived to Athens in 1801 he asked permission of the Ottomans to take mold casts and sketches of the statues and sculptures that were still intact on the Parthenon. Though the original is lost, an Italian translation of a document stated that the Ottomans gave Elgin permission to do as he asked, as well as “to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon” during his excavation (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, para 2). Though this line is highly contested─questioning whether or not the document explicitly granted Elgin permission to remove the entire statues themselves─Elgin nonetheless did so and was found justified when he was later brought to court over this issue. From 1801 to 1812, Elgin and his team casted, sketched, and then removed numerous friezes and sculptures. When Elgin and the marbles arrived in Britain, Elgin sold them to the British Museum for 35,000 euro, half the amount he personally spent to transport them (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, para 5). Since then the marbles have been housed in the British Museum, now complete with their own space: the Duveen Gallery. The British Museum and government have both argued that for years they have protected the statues from further extensive damage and potential destruction as Greece continued to be war-torn and dangerous for the pieces. However, after Greece gained independence, built the new Acropolis Museum, and began repairing the Parthenon, the country asked Britain to return the sculptures so that they may be added to the rest of the collection in the Acropolis Museum, and be restored to their true cultural context and heritage. Britain has refused, sparking a heated debate between the two nations. Though the controversy potentially shines an unfavorable light upon Britain and its current decisions, the initial action of Elgin is the that which is most relevant to justify the removal of art and artifacts from other nations. As Britain claimed, the safety of the Parthenon sculptures was in jeopardy, and their removal ensured their immediate preservation. Had Elgin not removed them, these sculptures─manifestations of some of the finest ancient Greek sculpting─could have been lost. Therefore, if art must be removed from its country and culture in order to ensure its survival, acts like Elgin’s certainly seem justifiable.

Though the British Museum’s justification for having the Parthenon statues in the name of preservation is centered around an act that took place over 2000 years ago, this practice is far from unique to Britain. As aforementioned, Napoleon took many works as spoils from his conquests; but he did not just have the pieces kept in the Louvre. He also ensured that they were cared for and restored.

The French say with some justice that many of these works by being sent to the Louvre were saved from destruction. Many of them, too, though falling into decay, were restored with the greatest care; and some were transferred with success from worm-eaten panels to canvas, thus receiving new brilliancy and a new life (Edwards, 203).

Art removal in the name of preservation continues to be relevant today as just last year the terrorist group ISIS destroyed ancient statues and other historical art in various locations throughout the Middle East. Most recently, the group recorded a video of members taking sledge hammers to antiquities dating back to the seventh century B.C. in the Mosul Museum and at the Negral Gate (Hartmann, para 11-12).  The group continues to reign with terror as videos show ancient temples, shrines, mosques, mausoleums, and museums falling from explosives or sledge hammers. There are response efforts in the works attempting to catalog, document, and ultimately preserve precious pieces before they, too, become artistic victims. Named after a similar group during World War II, Syria has a small band of Monument Men consisting of academics and scholars working quickly and quietly to find, and hopefully send ancient pieces to other safe locations in order to preserve them (Parkinson et al. para 33-42).

The pieces ISIS does not destroy are sold on the black market to support their efforts. “Last year, an Iraqi intelligence official claimed the Islamic State had made as much as $36 million from looting a single area around al-Nabek…,” (Parkison et al. para 19). The group is encouraging locals to loot the destroyed sites; as a result, the black market for ancient antiquities in this region has skyrocketed. In fact, a scandal surrounding the founding family of the popular American store Hobby Lobby is facing serious allegations of possessing illegal Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. Being that these tablets’ origins are in the same region as ISIS’s path of destruction and looting, there is a strong likelihood that the tablets are one of many artifacts sold by ISIS or looters (Ghorashi, para 2). The Green family is not the only one obtaining art and artifacts from Syria and surrounding areas being affected by ISIS. “In the U.S. alone, government data show the value of declared antiques imported from Syria jumped 134% in 2013 to $11 million. U.S. officials estimate the value of undeclared pieces is many multiples higher,” (Parkinson et al. para 13).  Certainly there is a tragedy in the fact that so much of Syria’s culture and history imbedded in art is leaving its land of origin for places like the United States. However, by having pieces sold, smuggled, and disseminated to other locations, the artifacts are in fact being moved out of harm’s way. As aforementioned, the process of removing art and artifacts to other safe locations in order to preserve them is a historical practice that has been used for years to justify why places like France and Britain have Syrian winged bull statues, like those at the Negral Gate, or sculptures from the Parthenon. These nations argue─as will the countries that are currently obtaining Syrian antiques─that surely their possession of these pieces have preserved them, and that their preservation is more important than cultural ownership or context.

Though access, education, inspiration, and preservation are all strong justifications for the act of removing art from nations and placing it in others, there are certainly drawbacks to this process. Expropriating art can prove harmful to the art, the art’s patria, and even international relations. First and foremost, the means of acquiring foreign art are often questionable and raise moral concern. For example, art looting during wartime is one of the oldest and most consistently used means of expropriating art. “The history of cultural looting dates back to the Roman Empire in 400 B.C. The Romans did not display their loot for its artistic value, but rather to demonstrate the prowess of their own victories,” (Myerowitz, 1962). As aforementioned, Napoleon is accredited with making the Louvre Museum an amazing spectacle of art from all over the world. However, his means of doing so were not as amazing. His conquests would conclude with a surrendered city and free rein to take treasured artworks. For years Napoleon would use war and violence to loot precious art and assert dominance and power. Expropriating art hardly seems ethical when such means are employed to remove it (Myerowitz, 1962). Napoleon was not the only conqueror who used war and power to take from those unable to defend themselves and their possessions. During World War II the Nazis infamously took art from Jews, as well as took other antiques or cultural works from nations Hitler conquered, such as Russia. “As Hitler slowly cleared out any art he found offensive, he started collecting works that satisfied his artistic tastes. Hitler’s seizure of art escalated as his power increased,” (Myerowitz, 1988). Hitler’s taking of art was as strategic and deliberate as his military acts; he ordered art experts to obtain any and all works considered worthy by Hitler’s standards. “These experts were to acquire works through mass acquisitions and seizure of paintings from public and private collections in the occupied countries such as France and the Netherlands. In these countries, they not only forcefully ‘bought’ art, but they also had works previously held by Jewish art collectors at their disposal,” (Falconer, 395). The aftermath of World War II has revealed Nazi-looted art scattered throughout Europe. Ongoing efforts continue to return the misplaced art, but there are no truly legally-binding agreements to enforce returning the art. One effort was recently brought to light in the 2015 movie The Woman in Gold. The film is based upon the true story of Maria Altman, a Jewish woman who brought the Austrian government to court over its possession of her family’s exquisite painting by Gustav Klimt. Nazis looted her home and stole the painting. After the war, the painting became the property of the Austrian government and was placed in one of its art museums. However, Maria Altman had true ownership rights and eventually won those rights back after an extensive legal battle with the government (Panther & Manger, para 6-15). Her family’s experience is not unique, though her winning of the rights to the painting back certainly is. Not only is removing art through force during war unethical, the practice can also cause physical damage to artworks. Napoleon and Nazis alike would take pieces out of their intended, safe environments like churches, homes, and museums to transport them across miles of terrain or store them in secret caches. From a purely practical standpoint, expropriating art through war can be extremely dangerous and damaging to art.

Though using military might to directly take art has happened for centuries, recent articles are revealing the indirect effects war has on art, and how it still manages to be displaced during times of war even if the invading nation never officially seeks to expropriate art. For example, the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 wreaked havoc on Iraqi people and art alike.

Where are these tablets [ancient priceless artifacts predating the Iliad] now? Nobody knows. They are just some of the thousands of artifacts stolen or destroyed in April 2003 during the widespread looting and destruction following the invasion of Iraq. In the months following the military offensive, U.S. and Iraqi investigators began to find priceless pieces of art turning up in the most peculiar places (Miller, 49-50).

As areas were destroyed from invading forces and security was greatly weakened, art looting became extremely easy and common in Iraq. Moreover, structures housing precious pieces were damaged. A precious, ancient vase was recently discovered shattered into 14 fragments in a man’s car (Miller, 50). “…Iraqi police and U.S. soldiers discovered the 5,500 pound marble Warka sculpture. Experts value the sculpture at thirty million dollars and it represents the most valuable possession of the Iraqi National Museum stolen during the mass looting. Police located the sculpture, which depicts a female head, under a few feet of soil in a private orchard outside of Baghdad,” (Miller, 50). Even if a war is fought with no intentions of looting art, art expropriation inevitably happens, and often irreparable damage to the art ensues. Despite former President Bush declaring the Iraq War as a means of ending terrorism, the war still lead to removing art. “Over 10,000 artifacts remain missing from museums, galleries, and excavation sites in Iraq and many scholars believe that these objects may remain covertly protected in private collections forever,” (Miller, 51). Such scholars have strong evidence to support such beliefs. The Iraq War was said to have begun to combat terrorism, but it is not unlikely that the opportunity was also used to claim art. The United States is guilty of this practice after World War II. “The Gold Train was a hopeless effort by the Nazis to collect everything of value from Hungary before the Red Army arrived. The train was captured by U.S. troops in Austria in May 1945… the American authorities handed over much of the loot to Austria while at the same time American troops took a large amount of property as ‘war booty,’ ” (Falconer, 398-399). Less blatant looting also took place under the guise of protecting specific collections that the United States uncovered during the aftermath of the war. “…the governor supported temporary removal of the ‘most precious’ works to the United States. President Truman thus had approximately 200 of the most important German-owned works ‘temporarily’ removed to Washington,” (Falconer, 398). Thus the claim that the Iraq War and others like it intentionally involved art expropriation is not an impossible one. As previously discussed, if the artworks are under considerable threat where they are, as is often the case during times of war, then the argument to remove them from those circumstances to a better place does carry weight. In contrast, using military strength to take advantage of countries in weaker dispositions and expropriate art because one can and one wants to do so, whether blatantly or inadvertently, hardly seems justifiable.

A second argument against expropriating art from its nation of origin and into the hands of

another is that the damage done to the nation of origin and its art in terms of culture and cultural preservation. In many respects, art is considered an entity that possesses and often transmits ideas of specific cultures. According to anthropologist and “ethno-aesthetician” Richard Anderson, art is defined as ” ‘culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium,’ ” (quoted in Freeland, 77). Though admittedly this is a very broad and vague definition, most would agree that cultural significance is inherent to art. How art and culture are bound can be attributed to a number of factors, one of which includes the intention of the artist. According to philosopher R.G. Collingwood, artists create as an act of expression or cognition, explained in Collingwood’s Expression Theory and Cognition Theory. Expression Theory dictates that artists create with the intention of expressing emotion or even undergoing a process of discovering and defining certain emotions that the artists have. Conversely, Cognition Theory describes artists creating art as a means of communicating ideas and thoughts (Collingwood, 160-168). In both cases, art can be used either to express emotions unique to a member of a given culture, i.e., the artist, or to share ideas and thoughts that may also be about the culture. This practice is common. Stone busts are carved to preserve the memory of members of a specific society, detailed paintings are painted to capture historical events of a culture, and objects like ornate pottery are crafted to transmit practices and ideals of a culture from one generation to the next. In many respects art is essential to cultural preservation and continuation. Before books, histories and traditions were transmitted orally through stories, or physically through art. Thus, taking art from a culture can leave a grave impact upon that culture. Art is often considered a treasure and vital piece of its culture and nation; removing it is essentially robbing a country of said culture, frame by frame.

Removing art does not just harm its native culture, the act also harms the art itself. A loss of cultural context can cause misunderstanding, misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, and even a lack of appreciation or devaluing of the now “foreign” art.

Like tropical fruits plucked from their trees and transported to temperate zones, artworks can still be enjoyed, but they have lost the savor and freshness they had in their original habitat. All that remains is the works unconnected form and the archival knowledge that seeks to imagine its former circumstances (Maleuvre, 25).

As Collingwood states, the intention of the artist is often either to express emotion or share ideas, both of which are vital aspects of culture. Remove the artwork from its cultural context and the intention, steeped in its own unique culture, is lost. Foreigners are far less likely to be able to understand the ideas and significance of the work so inextricably bound to its culture. According to philosopher John Dewey, art is like a window into another culture (Freeland, 63). Unlike other critics and philosophers, “He did not define art as Beauty or Form, but said instead that it is ‘the expression of the life of a community,’ ” (quoted in Freeland, 64). Cynthia Freeland, author of But is it Art?, describes her experience with African nkisi fetish statues in a museum. She states that initially the statues appear frightening and fierce. She later learns that their intended purpose is to settle disagreements amongst villagers in the Congo region. Without this knowledge, she says, the statues’ social meaning would be lost on her (Freeland, 65). Culture context is essential to the artwork, and is impossible to fully recreate in a foreign museum. “When Westerners collect non-Western art or view it in a museum, we probably miss much of its original context. And ignoring the context can lead to cultural appropriation─collecting work from ‘exotic’ cultures like trophies,” (Freeland, 67). Even removing beautiful altarpieces from churches and hanging them on museum walls is destructive both to the church and the artwork. The artwork’s context is essential to its being, and its function. “By wrenching artifacts out of their original contexts, the museum deprives them of their cultural lifeblood. Once removed from its environment in the church, the temple, or the agora, the statue is neutralized, washed of its cultural, political, religious, spiritual functions,” (Maleuvre, 15). As discussed, the Elgin marbles are at the center of the “global ethics of expropriating art” debate. Elgin preserved, and likely saved, these pieces when he brought them to Britain. However, they are on display in a sterile gallery with monochrome walls and a sense of odd displacement. The room is so large compared to the fragments of marble statues on pedestals. The statues slope, beginning with a smaller, shorter statue and gradually continuing in a succession of progressively larger, taller statues. They are crafted and arranged this way because the Parthenon’s face has gently sloping sides at the top. In other words, these statues were built very specifically for that space and context. In the British Museum they appear isolated, and admittedly, uncomfortable. The loss of their cultural context is evident. Now that Greece has a modern museum, the New Acropolis Museum, built with a room to match the exact dimensions of the Parthenon, as well as detailed walls to emulate the temple, Britain’s original claim to preserve the pieces evaporates, and in its wake lies the argument for the return of the pieces to a fully equipped Greece. Though the British government still will not work to resolve this matter despite Greece’s ongoing requests for the statues since 1832, the British citizens themselves think the statues ought to be returned to Athens. “…An Ipsos-Mori poll found 69 per cent of those [British citizens] familiar with the issue were in favour [sic.] of returning the sculptures,” (Johnston, para 14). Now that Greece can maintain care of the marbles, the loss of cultural context that has harmed both the marbles and Greece itself becomes a strong argument. Perhaps attorney to the Guggenheim Museum Elissa Myerowitz summarizes best the issue at hand with harming art and its patria through a loss of culture:

Cultural property is unique in that once cultural property is destroyed or stolen it cannot be replaced. Cultural property is important because it offers scholars unique insight into the minds of the people and the nations who created the cultural objects. Furthermore, protecting these original cultural objects assists historians in understanding the past. Beyond these intellectual and educational reasons, cultural property enhances a country’s sense of its present and future. For some people, cultural property can be a remind of the creativity past, or a symbol of quality, while for others it serves as an inspiration to create new cultural objects,” (Myerowitz, 1967-1968).

Overall, removing art from its original cultural context does have negative impacts and should be greatly considered in the analysis of how ethical art expropriation is.

Lastly, the ways in which art pieces are displayed have the ability to drastically affect the audience. According to Timothy Luke, author of Museum Politics:

…exhibitions formalize norms of how to see without being seen insamuch as the curators pose as unseen seers, and then fuse their vision with authority. In the organization of their exhibitions’ spaces, the enscription [sic.] of any show’s textual interpretations, and the coordination of an exhibit’s aesthetic performances, curators are acting as normative agents, directing people what to see, think, and value. Museums become culture-writing formations, using their acts and artifacts to create conventional understandings that are made manifest or left latent in any visitor’s/viewer’s personal encounters with the museum’s normative performances (Luke, 3).

As Luke states, textual interpretations, arrangements, labels and titles, lighting, and general presentation all affect how the object on display is viewed, understood, and valued. According to Amy Cunningham, current director for community programs for the Vermont Humanities Council and former curator to the Montpelier History Museum, the process of arranging exhibits is an arduous task. Dr. Cunningham was given bare rooms and the task of turning them into a museum using the artifacts the institution provided. She shared that the process involved considering every aspect of how a certain arrangement would speak nonverbally of the pieces. In some ways she was in charge of writing history in a very specific way, one that could easily be manipulated with certain display techniques. “Which pictures are mobilized, how they are displayed, where they are situated, and why they are chosen all constitute a persuasive rhetorical scene…,” (Luke, 14).

The challenge to display art and artifacts correctly is one that affects even the world’s most-visited museums, such as the British Museum. To demonstrate the potentially negative impact upon expropriated art through mere display, I will describe and then compare the techniques used in the British Museum with the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, France. Both museums have impressive permanent collections of pieces from all over Africa. Beginning with the British Museum, the African art exhibit is in the basement with dim lighting. There are roughly three rooms, moving from modern art pieces to ancient ones, left to right. The glasses cases containing sculptures, masks, pottery, and textiles are sometimes rather cluttered while others are large and sparse. Some permit a 360* view while most are against the walls, allowing for predominantly one angle at which the items can be viewed. The labels tend to be descriptive; likewise, large accompanying texts have titles like “Magic, Ritual, and Religion.” Some pieces rest on shelves while others hang suspended in their glass cases, the most alarming of which are several sculptures depicting people who therefore appear as though they are being hanged. As mentioned, the lighting was dim; much of the light provided on the works themselves is sourced from lights at the bottom of the cases, creating strange shadows, especially on any pieces with faces.

The Quai Branly Museum has a different approach. The building is fluid with very few actual walled rooms. There are big open spaces that twist and turn subtly with the cases or open pieces─quite a few pieces are not in cases. The lighting is dim in some areas and bright in others with natural light from large windows. Most display cases contain only one object and allow for a 360* view. There are simple labels such as “Wooden Mask” or “Bronze Sculpture” with no interpretations as to what purpose or role the pieces may have had. The experience was, in general, quite different, and I was not able to articulate why at first. After several weeks of contemplation, I realized that the way in which I as a viewer interacted with the pieces in the Quai Branly felt less like observing foreign objects on display and more like a chance to walk among remnants of other people’s lives, and to encounter different cultures with nothing but the objects to speak. My impressions of the two museums resonate with the previously mentioned words of Timothy Lake; curators can say a great deal with accompanying texts and specific arrangements. These texts and arrangements have strong influences on viewers and can even alter viewers’ perspectives to match those of the curators. “Over the course of history, artworks have provided valuable sites for representing many ideals of such individual and collective subjectivity. Putting such systems of acculturation out at public museum sites may push and pull individual members of their audiences to impersonate the values assigned to their images,” (Luke, 13). The British Museum appears to give a very Western perspective on African art, or at least, Western interpretations with its provocative plaques next to cases of bottom-lit masks that cast eerie shadows and create a scary aesthetic that, in some sense, seems to undermine the artistic skill and value. On the other hand, the Quai Branly makes no attempts at stating the cultural functions of the pieces with their simple labels and tasteful and artistic arrangements that make the pieces seem less like foreign objects on display and more like just art. In fact, the museum appears to un-“exoticize” the art and instead humanize it, therefore  displaying its artistic value. Though I cannot and would not claim that my experience somehow reveals the true nature of the British Museum and the Quai Branly’s curations, I will say that the experience certainly speaks to the significance of display methods. How art is displayed affects how art is perceived and interpreted; hence, removal of art can cause damage in purpose and value to art with the altering of its context and the new context imposed upon it. The two museums have very similar exhibits in terms of types of works in their collections, yet the depictions of the pieces and subsequent impressions and “take-away” information are, in my experience, quite different. While it is hardly fair to expect art museums to display foreign pieces in a way that perfectly conveys the artistic functions, meanings, or cultural significance, appropriate display that at least acknowledges a lack of knowledge and therefore makes no attempt to impose such ideas upon the works is essential. Otherwise nations cause great injustice to the art and art’s culture that can easily misinform audiences. Thus, expropriating art and displaying it in another country can greatly harm the integrity of the work and misrepresent entire cultures, if not done so properly.

Considering both the benefits of expropriating art─increased access, education, and preservation─and the dangers of expropriating art─unethical means of acquisition and the negative impacts of cultural loss─there is no obvious response to the question: is expropriating an ethical or unethical practice? I believe that the process can be ethical, following specific guidelines. Ultimately the strongest arguments for and against expropriating art are both the name of preservation. One aims to preserve the physical piece of art itself while the other seeks to preserve its cultural integrity and context. In many respects, art is designed to preserve something, be it an emotion, thought, tradition, or idea. If the function of art is primarily to communicate and preserve an emotion or idea etc., then preserving the piece of art itself has to be the greatest factor in deciding the morality of expropriating art. The physical preservation of the art is necessary for the cultural preservation of the art, thus placing greater importance to expropriating art in order to conserve it. However, once the art’s physical existence is no longer threatened, the importance of its preservation shifts to that of the art’s culture and context.

Applying this argument to international conflicts is challenging yet necessary in order to maintain ethical treatment of nations and to strengthen international relations. I suggest that nations be justified in the expropriation of art only during situations in which the existence of the art in question is threatened. Once the nation of origin is fully equipped and stable to provide and care for its art, then, regardless of time past, the nation that removed the art is responsible for the art’s safe return. In reparation, the nation of origin would seek to compensate the other nation for the protection of its art. From an ethical standpoint, all other reasons for expropriating art are not worth the harms and negative impacts that result from expropriation. These reasons for expropriation should not continue to justify the act. In their wake, there are other solutions. As in the case of expropriating art for the sake of spreading new ideas and educating, working towards a system of sharing among all nations─not just those select few wealthy countries who currently share artworks─would bring about the benefits of having foreign art but by ethical means and with the assistance and approval of the nations of origin. This is an idealistic hope for global politics and relations; thus, perhaps a less lofty solution could involve digital technologies. With rapidly evolving technologies comes great potential to continue to, inspire, educate, and share ideas without removing art from its rightful context. For example, virtual reality technology such as the Oculus Rift are digital constructions of spaces that allow for interaction within the confines of a different physical context. Such technologies could provide museum visitors the opportunities to explore other areas of the world and interact with its art remotely, thus increasing accessibility to spaces, ideas, and culture in ways that a website could not. Likewise, 3D printing has become more advanced and suddenly rather integrated into the artworld. This new, highly precise digital tool could change the nature of increasing access to art, as well as alleviate conflicts over expropriated art. Such work is already underway; artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles scanned the famous Egyptian Bust of Nefertiti and then were able to recreate the most detailed, exact replica of the bust using 3D printing. The 3,330-year-old bust is a highly-debated piece that has caused conflict between Germany, the current “owner” of the bust, and Egypt, the country from which the bust originally came. Despite the fact that the piece was discovered by German archaeologists in 1912 and removed from Egypt, the bust has become a symbol of national pride for Germany as it sits in the Neues Museum (Voon, para 1). Al-Badri and Nelles did not just create an exact replica, they also released the information from the scan and made it available to anyone with a 3D printer. Now with over 1,000 downloads of the data and the remarkable copy sitting in Cairo, Germany’s symbol of pride is receiving far more attention than it anticipated. The artists scanned and created the 3D print as an act of protesting the current state of the artworld regarding foreign art. They dislike how colonialism lives on through the prevalence of foreign art being so often found and kept in Western museums rather than in original contexts. Furthermore, they, too, note the loss of cultural context and misunderstanding as harmful to the artworld stating that “…the Neues Museum’s method of displaying the bust, which apparently does not provide viewers with any context of how it arrived at the museum…[creates] a new history tantamount to fiction, they believe,” (Voon, para 7). Logically, one might argue that with such a good replica made, Germany ought to return the original bust to Egypt and accept the copy in its place. In fact, this is exactly what Al-Badri and Nelles hope happens. “Ultimately, the artists hope their actions will place pressure on not only the Neues Museum but on all museums to repatriate objects to the communities and nations from which they came,” (Voon, para 8). I concur. With such astounding advances, digital technologies could serve as an excellent means of resolving international disputes, spreading artistic and cultural ideas, inspiring viewers, and educating citizens.

In conclusion, though there are many benefits to expropriating art, the only benefit that I find ethical and necessary is the preservation and protection of art from threatening conditions. However, the removal of the art should be seen as a temporary solution, provided only until the art’s original context can care for the art again. Furthermore, all other benefits of removing art from its nation of origin to another nation are still attainable through other means such as a better international system of sharing art as well as advancements in digital technologies.


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This is the intellectual work and property of Taylor Elyse Mills protected under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.