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Famous Museum Exhibits The Original Countries Want Back

May 18, 2021 14k votes 1.5k voters 32.1k views15 items

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Artifacts that adorn the halls and walls of museums in the Western world are not always acquired through reputable means. Some of the most famous museum exhibits and objects on display at places like the British Museum in London were taken from other countries.

From Africa to Iraq to India, leaders from these nations continue to speak out and request the return of their cultural heritage.

  • 1

    Kingdom of Dahomey Anthropomorphic Statues

    Current Museum: Musée du quai Branly, Paris

    Region Of Origin: Benin, Africa

    Exhibit History: The French government under President Emmanuel Macron has made a pledge to repatriate artifacts and artworks taken during colonization. Among many objects from Africa are 26 pieces taken during the looting of the Abomey Palace in 1892. These anthropomorphic wooden statues, elaborately detailed and painted, include royal crests that represent different rulers from the Kingdom of Dahomey, which thrived between the 17th and 19th centuries in modern-day Benin.

    In 2019, France and Benin signed a deal that ensures both the return of these artifacts and the French government's financial support to build or remodel museums in Benin. Macron's promise to return all 26 pieces by the beginning of 2021, however, was not fulfilled. Patrick Mudekereza, a museum professional in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, doubts Macron's commitment to restitution. Mudekereza said he believes Macron is "not keeping his word."

    Return ASAP?
  • 2

    Burial Mask Of Ka-Nefer-Nefer

    Current Museum: Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis

    Region Of Origin: Saqqara, Egypt

    Exhibit History: In 1951, archaeologist Mohammed Zakaria Goneim excavated the funeral mask of long-deceased Egyptian noblewoman Ka-Nefer-Nefer. Also known as "The Twice-Beautiful Ka," Ka-Nefer-Nefer lived during the 19th Dynasty in Ancient Egypt. Made of plaster, linen, resin, glass, wood, gold, and pigment, the funerary mask is an example of New Kingdom sculpture.

    In the 1970s, the Egyptian government discovered the Ka-Nefer-Nefer Mask was missing. Fast-forward two decades, and the Saint Louis Art Museum in America purchased the mask from the gallery Phoenix Ancient Art of New York for just under $500,000. When the mask became part of the museum's permanent exhibits, Egypt cried foul, claiming it had obviously been transported out of the country under felonious circumstances and needed to be returned.

    The United States government, in an unprecedented move, sued the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2011 in hopes the mask would be repatriated to Egypt. The case fell apart when US attorneys didn't meet a filing deadline. It remains in St. Louis to this day.

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  • Photo: British Museum / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Beard Of The Sphinx

    Current Museum: British Museum, London

    Region Of Origin: Giza, Egypt

    Exhibition History: Constructed during ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom as the living image of Fourth-Dynasty Pharaoh Khafre, the mystical and cherished Great Sphinx of Giza is missing an important element: its beard. Fragments of the limestone Beard of the Sphinx are actually scattered around the world, and the British Museum houses what it claims to be a "small fragment" of the iconic sculpture. According to the museum, the beard was likely added to the mythical creature later, during the 18th Dynasty.

    The museum purportedly acquired the piece from Giovanni Battista Caviglia, who excavated it in 1817. Theories abound about how the beard fell off. While some contend Napoleon's troops damaged the monument, records dating back to the 15th century mention the Great Sphinx's missing beard. No matter how it ended up detached from its head, Egyptians want the Beard of the Sphinx returned to its original spot, where it serves as a buttress for the "somewhat unstable head."

    Return ASAP?
  • Photo: James Miles / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Hoa Hakananai'a Head

    Current Museum: British Museum, London

    Region Of Origin: Easter Island, Oceania

    Exhibit History: Easter Island's dramatic basalt statues have shown up in museums around the world since the 19th century. Known to natives as moai, these large structures in the shape of human heads were erected from 1100 to 1600 CE. Although most of the estimated 887 paleolithic monuments remain on the Polynesian island, the missing statues are a major cause for concern among the indigenous Rapa Nui. 

    The Hoa Hakananai'a, which translates to "lost or stolen friend," is a popular exhibit at the British Museum, acquired after the British ship HMS Topaze removed it from the island in 1869.

    In 2018, the governor of Easter Island, Tarita Alarcón Rapu, went to the British Museum in hopes of convincing its administration to return the sacred cultural artifact to its home. She said:

    We all came here, but we are just the body - England people have our soul. And it is the right time to maybe send us back (the statue) for a while, so our sons can see it as I can see it.

    In 2019, representatives from the British Museum traveled to Easter Island, but no further progress has been made toward repatriating Hoa Hakananai'a.


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