Nefertiti and the legacy of artifacts
Artwork and artifacts from all four corners of the earth fill galleries and star in exhibits in museums across the world. In the world’s most prestigious museums and galleries, taking a stroll through the corridors has become synonymous with meandering through the history of cultures and civilizations that represent every continent on this planet. However, as we move forward into a new age of global awareness and understanding—and past the mantra of rampant imperialism that dominated the last five centuries—it is becoming clear that some of the artifacts that millions of global citizens marvel at today were originally taken from their place of origin illegally.
Recent news has reported the return of stolen artifacts and artwork such as painted reliefs from an ancient Egyptian tomb by the Louvre and the thousands of treasures that have been smuggled out Afghanistan during wartime by Britain.
However, the cry for the return of significant artifacts to their home country still remains unanswered. Some examples are Turkey’s request for the Knidos Lion and Nigeria’s request for its Benin bronze heads. For the country that holds these priceless treasures, the justification for keeping the artifacts usually includes points about how they are representative of world culture and do not belong to any country, or that the quality care these ancient works receive ccould be matched if they were returned.
Most recently, Egypt’s request for the return of the iconic bust of Queen Nefertiti from Berlin has come to the international stage. The request was made by Zahi Hawass from Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and coincides with the reopening of the Neues Museum, which has lain in ruins in the heart of Berlin since World War II. Another factor that impedes Egypt’s quest is that Farouk Hosny, Egypt’s culture minister, lost an election to head UNESCO, the United Nations culture agency. If the bust was stolen, it seems that Egypt has every intention to get it back and let its relationship with Germany sour in the meantime. Although the truth about what happened when Nefertiti’s bust was found in 1912 has been lost in history, the conflict must nevertheless be resolved today.
But unfortunately, it seems that an issue like this—political agendas aside—comes down to the answers to some hard questions. For example, is there a clear distinction between art and artifact? Can either be owned or traded for? Who has the authority to speak for something that represents an entire culture and, more importantly, who is an individual to decide to give it away? Does an historical artifact belong to a specific country, or rather, does it belong to all as a record of the greater journey in human civilization?
Although I do not know the answers to all of these questions, I do believe that Germany has a unique opportunity to set the tone in this coming age of global understanding and equality by doing something completely unprecedented. By returning a symbol of history, culture and art back to its homeland, Germany would acknowledge Egypt, and by extension other countries facing similar issues, as counterpart curators of world history.
Kemi is a freshman in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.