Last month, Jean-Luc Martinez, the President of the Louvre from 2013 until 2021, was charged for his involvement in the illegal trafficking of millions of dollars’ worth of Egyptian artifacts under his leadership. In the process of bringing the works into the Louvre, Martinez was allegedly aware that the artifact’s location of discovery had been actively erased from documentation, ridding any ability to trace these pieces back to their origins. Under this belief, stolen artifacts dating from Tutankhamen’s rule were used as pons in the art official’s game of increasing his own, and the Louvre’s global acclaim, all while hiding his wrongdoing. Upon his arrest, Martinez was serving as the French Foreign Ministry Ambassador of Cultural Heritage Cooperation—this role included extensive work to prevent art trafficking (The Washington Post).

Museums are compiled with revered art. That is essentially the foundation of what a museum is; teaching people about other cultures, times and civilizations through pieces from the past. Yet we often ignorantly gawk at these artifacts, taking them at face value from how the museum labels them without thinking about the now-empty spaces which they originally inhabited, and within the hearts of those culturally connected to the art. Artifacts are taken so that overseas audiences can have the pleasure of feeding their curiosities through a thick layer of glass.

Throughout history, art looting has been a reliable method for displaying a group’s superiority. Sacred artifacts were taken to generate emotional weakness and helplessness in their targets and, though generally meaningless to the captors, were ceremonially displayed. The Roman and Byzantine Empires are remembered as some of the most powerful civilizations throughout antiquity. Not only have they gained historical recognition for their many conquests but just as much for earning their place among the most notorious art looters. These efforts inspired many infamous colonizers and dictators who saw art as the global symbol of power. Napoleon commonly financed paintings depicting Roman ceremonial art processions to serve as the muse for his own endeavours. 

During WWII, Nazi officers were authorized to confiscate art within Jewish homes across Germany and Austria. Those who would not give up their art were killed, and the rest forced to flee, leaving behind fragmented families and art collections still hoping to be pieced back together today. Such events inspired the 2015 film Woman in Gold starring Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, the niece of the golden woman in renowned artist Gustav Klimt’s painting. Following the Nazi’s invasion, her uncle was forced to flee, leaving the painting behind that was eventually taken and displayed at the National Austrian Museum until 2006. Altmann was successful in reacquiring her family’s piece but not without a 6-month trial against the Republic of Austria who held that the museum was entitled to her family’s artwork. 

While we rightfully condemn Nazi’s, who caused a genocide of millions for looting art works both of familial and global importance, where is the condemnation for government’s and museums holding art captive? Culture is fluid and dynamic, changing how groups communicate, think and act. The significance of art in reminding cultures of their past and allowing opportunities for innovation points to how looting goes beyond just a physical tragedy. Altmann’s story serves as an example of how usual it is for museums to take works from vulnerable places and reclaim them as their own.

In Canada, the return of Indigenous art and artifacts remains an ongoing barrier in the country’s reconciliation efforts. In a March article by CTV News, they emphasize that “ceremonial items were taken from Indigenous communities after the Canadian government outlawed cultural practices through the Indian Act of 1876”. Consequently, Indigenous artwork has not only been reclaimed in Euro-Canadian hands but has, among many outcomes, been displaced across oceans to the Vatican gallery in Rome. On April 1, 2022, Pope Francis apologized for the abuse suffered in residential schools under the Catholic church. There have still been no moves to return Indigenous art and artifacts displayed at the Vatican gallery and the countless pieces boxed away in their collection.

In the years since, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015) has brought to light the darkness of Canada’s past and opened eyes in the art world specifically towards the acknowledgement of “items [with] intrinsic cultural value” (Macleans). In 2019, the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) announced it would no longer collect or study ancestral remains. As well, they vowed that any art collected between 1885 and 1951, during the peak of residential schooling, would be eligible for return. RBCM’s Lucy Bell provides an Indigenous perspective and active voice in the handling of art and artifacts, a necessary presence within all museums that a representative be at the forefront of all actions pertaining to their culture’s art (The Walrus).

Over the last decade, art restitution efforts have taken impressive strides in an art world, which once prioritized turning its back to such questions as “where did it come from?”  and “how did it end up here?”. However, by not returning stolen Indigenous art automatically—especially considering how reconciliation efforts have become incredibly diffuse in Canadian politics and media— it is evident that Canada still places the wants of non-Indigenous museum goers above the rightful owners of the art. Even art that has been agreeably taken from a country must take into account the hierarchy in who is accumulating and who is losing art. Sacrificing aspects of a country’s cultural identity and heritage may sometimes be a last-resort for generating economic vitality. The economic turmoil that places so many countries in this situation draws even more attention to the disparities within our world today—more than it provides any acceptable reasoning for denying a country their art back.

It is no question that museum officials are among the main opposers to art restitution. There have been countless instances of museum experts asserting heritage museums, which are fully operated by Indigenous peoples, as unfit for proper conservation of Indigenous art. Remaining in National and Provincial Museums, artifacts automatically obtain a western identity—one failing to accurately present the cultural meanings of the pieces when they are stripped of their purpose, proper care and true environment.

In most instances, the return of art fosters bittersweet reactions; excitement towards the return of important pieces of culture, but sadness and anger towards the generations who missed this moment of success. It is the knowledge that these artifacts would have received endless cultural care and respect had they never been taken, that haunts so many.

The stories and cultures embedded within these artifacts on display are not mine. As a white, cisgender Canadian, it is rather unsettling that the practices of colonization and art looting more accurately reflects my background’s history—that I am more connected to the way the art was acquired than to the meaning behind the art itself. With that said, advocating for reconciliation and restitution efforts must remain at the forefront of both minds and actions not only in museums and government, but for all of us as well. Media attention towards art looting has been essential for the accomplishments of the art restitution movement, but it can only do so much. And as millions of art pieces still remain displaced, on display and unaccounted for, it is imperative that we hold ourselves accountable until full restitution is made.

About The Author

Rachel Dunn (she/her) is one of the Heads of Publishing for MUSE. She loves the smell of rain, yellow Vitaminwater and wishes she could have been the fifth member of the Cheetah Girls.

About The Illustrator

Valerie Letts (she/they) is an Online Illustrator for MUSE. They specialize in portraiture and representational artwork. By primarily working with oil paint, graphite, ink and new digital media, their art provides a focus towards ideas of humanity, identity and sensibility.

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