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Atualizado: 10 de set. de 2019

Vitória Acerbi (Espanha)

      Words such as these have been at the forefront of media coverage, academic and public debate in the last few years. The legitimacy of the permanence in European institutions of cultural heritage taken from non-European societies under colonial rule is being progressively more and more challenged. 

     Some factors explain this. The rise of postcolonial studies, the empowerment and growing visibility of formerly marginalized communities, the greater political insertion of the so-called southern countries. Also, an erosion of paternalistic discourses on the insufficient material conditions of transfers from the global north to the south, due to the increasing possibilities for cooperation to create or improve them.

     However, the topic of return of cultural heritage is far from new. After World War II, the international community witnessed a historical process that reconfigured political and territorial borders of the world: the independence of African and Asian states. These newly independent states needed to assert  themselves, internally and internationally.

     For this end - more specifically, to shape and consolidate their national identities - the appropriation of and closer identification with their own past was essential. Recovering cultural heritage maintained as colonial spoils in European countries that have "managed" their territories since the The Berlin Conference (1885) was, thus, of paramount importance. From then on, they sought the approval of texts in the international legal system that promoted the such return and made specific and concrete claims to that effect [3].

      Nevertheless, the beginning of repatriation/restitution processes is commonly identified [4] as much before the aforementioned period: the year of 1815, when the fall of Napoleon gave room to requests from all over Europe for the return of works of art kept in the Napoleon museum, the Louvre, as spoils of the military campaigns. This is the first known case of great magnitude, mobilizing diplomatic bodies, press, as well as intellectuals and artists of the time, such as Goethe and the Grimm brothers. 

      Interestingly enough, the positions expressed then give us a glimpse of the two main lines of thought about the belonging of cultural heritage today: the "legalists" defended the permanence of the works of art in the Louvre for the best universal enjoyment. The "moralists", on the contrary, believed they should be returned to where they were taken from, and remain with those who actually and rightfully owned them [5]. 

      Today, the debate is basically dominated by two conceptions, opposite to each other, alligned with these cited ones. [6] They have their pillars in matters of a moral and ethical nature, giving substance to different treaties concerning the matter and at the same time indicating the relativization of the weight of certain legal definitions - appopriation, possession, property, inalienability, sovereignty - in the current discussions on repatriation and restitution of cultural goods.

      Cultural nationalism, on the one hand, argues that objects belong to their countries of origin and legitimizes requests of return. In this view, the core value of cultural goods lies in their symbolic and living importance, that tend to be more powerful when they are present in their homeplaces. In other words, objects have special meanings in specific traditions, shared memories, narratives, rituals of the society where they were made. This significance cannot be fully aprehended or lived by a global public, that does not necessarily share the same cultural background, in a universal museum - that hosts so many other objects in its glass domes, numerous sections, sometimes generalizing exhibitions. Besides, this way of thinking privileges the reparation of a historical injustice, perpetrated in the taking and subsequent long absence among a group of items of religious, artistic, community importance to them.

      Cultural Internationalism, on the other hand, does not admit a nationality or local belonging inherent to cultural heritage, which thus belongs to the whole of humanity. Therefore, cultural goods have no legitimate home and should not be the object of claims by the population or government of the place they came from. This perspective primes for notions of preservation and physical integrity, research and display of the objects, which can, according to it, be better executed in the rich countries that own, study and custody them in their institutions, and promote greater distribution range of access to them - since they are seen by people from all over the globe, say, in Paris or Berlin; people who would maybe never have access to the remote tribes of Africa, Oceania, America where they came from originally (and who might even be already extinct).

    These ways of thinking apply more precisely for one type of circumstance culminating in dispute for return or retention of cultural goods - that of colonial rule. There are other two [7], namingly, theft or illicitly trafficking in our contemporary times, and the oldest and more frequent in history illegal appropriation in the event of armed conflict, which demand different criteria of analysis and thinking, opening a whole lot of windows to discuss the fascinating and complex theme of international return of cultural heritage.

       In some countries, such as Brazil, given the fact that visits to museums and cultural centers are not accessible for all, for geographical or economical reasons, as well as for the fact that they are simply not part of the life of a significant sector of our population, culturally confined/excluded/marginalized, it is important that such debates on art, history and historical justice happen on platforms such as this website and schools, for the sake of awareness of our (multiple) origins, our position in the complex nets of colonialism(s), as much as of the subtleties of the writing of history and the making of exhibitions, that have many other (possible) narratives other than the official one, that is chosen at a certain moment, by a certaing group, with a certain view or purpose.   

To go further

* Debate of the Oxford Union about the topic, presenting the two sides of the argument, in 6 videos of 5-15 min. Available at:

[1] British Museum scene, The Black Panther movie, 2018. Available at:

[2] Speech of Emmanuel Macron in the University of Ouagadougou, November 28th 2017. Available at:   

[3] PROTT, Lyndel V. The History of Return of Cultural Objects. In:_______(org.). Witnesses to History: a compendium of documents and writings on the return of cultural objects. Paris: Unesco, 2009. p. 12.

[4] SAVOY, Bénédicte. 1815. Année zéro. L’Europe à l’heure des restitutions d’œuvres d’art. CHAIRE HISTOIRE CULTURELLE DES PATRIMOINES ARTISTIQUES EN EUROPE, XVIIIᵉ-XXᵉ SIÈCLE. Année académique 2018-2019. Available at:

[5] PERROT, Xavier.  La restitution des œuvres d’art en 1815 vue par la doctrine internationaliste du XIXe siècle. La victoire du moralisme sur le légalisme, in Les univers du droit. Mélanges en hommage à Claude Bontems, Paris,L’Harmattan, 2013, p. 345-359. 

[6] MERRYMAN, John Henry. Two Ways of Thinking About Cultural Property. The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 80, No. 4. (Oct., 1986), pp. 831-853. Available at

[7] PROTT, L. V. The ethics and law of returns. In:_______ (org) Return of cultural objects: the Athens Conference on the Return of cultural Objects to their Countries of Origins.v. 61, n°1-2, 2009. Atenas, 2008. p. 103.

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