Books: A history of the development of an international restitution ethic

Giving things back—the how, when, where and why


To commemorate the 30th anniversary of Unesco’s Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (say that in one breath!), the Republic of Korea and the US government agreed to fund a volume illustrating the development of views on the issue of what many call repatriation, but which can also be termed restitution, recovery, restoration, or simply return. This is that compilation. It is very much a product of Unesco. Its editor, Professor Lyndel Prott, co-wrote Law and the Cultural Heritage (1983-89), the earliest major legal treatise on this topic, before serving as director of Unesco’s Cultural Heritage Division for many years.

The book includes some legal essays, but is more broadly focused on politics and ethics. Though most of the pieces have been previously published, many will not be easily accessible. Prott has also been fairly ruthless in compressing the essence of extended essays. The longest piece in the volume is the 33-page report of a forum held in Paris in 2007 on museums, memory and universality, an entry that includes presentations from several speakers. As a result, the volume covers a wide range of situations involving claims for the return of cultural objects and effectively demonstrates the immense variety of kinds of heritage, the diverse contexts involved, and the range of rules or norms that might be invoked. Although a lawyer, Prott does not see many successful returns as the products of legal efforts. She provides dozens of examples of alternative approaches, some of which have been effective. Sometimes a simple request is enough, as in the case of the “ghost dance” shirts in the Kelvingrove Museum. Other situations, like the case of Saartjie Baartman, require major political change—the end of apartheid, as well as major attitudinal change—that collecting and displaying human remains without consent is impermissible.

At first glance, I took this to be a reference work and was glad to add it to my library because it contains a variety of documents not in my other books. But after spending more time with the volume, I now see it as almost a history of the development of a new international ethic, one that replaces the right of the conqueror to the spoils of war or the right of the coloniser to the riches of the colony with a presumption that every people should be able to be able to see and access the objects of heritage produced by their ancestors or by the place they now reside. Prott herself is naturally sympathetic to claims for the return of cultural objects from victims of war or colonialism; she has spent years fighting the trade in illicit antiquities. Most of the other contributors have been on the same side of the cultural property wars of the last 30 years as well. In that sense, despite contributions from leaders of universal museums and the sophisticated Kwame Anthony Appiah, this is not a balanced work. But it is still instructive. Prott interposes many short essays throughout the work that add coherence and provide a useful context.

Scholars or those with a deep interest in cultural property will no doubt want this work. So will those who want to see how the community of international organisations—Unesco especially—and peoples throwing off the yoke of colonialism are joining forces to produce an emerging right of return.

The writer is Henry N. Ess III librarian & professor of law, emeritus, Harvard Law School, and visiting professor of law & interim director of Research, Jamail Center for Legal Research, The University of Texas Law School, Austin, Texas

o Lyndel V. Prott, Witnesses to History: Documents and Writings on the Return of Cultural Objects (Unesco Publishing), 440 pp, E25.00 (pb) ISBN 9789231041280

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Giving things back—the how, when, where and why'