Why western museums should keep their treasures

With victimisation as the moral basis for the ownership of artefacts, there could be no end to competitive claim-making. The Louvre was founded on the French king’s art collection before it was seized by revolutionaries, right before they executed him on the guillotine. It could be said that the descendants of the dispossessed royal families are the rightful owners of many of the exhibits in that museum. Maybe they should issue a claim.

Turning the past into a morality play, in which grandstanding politicians and academics act as saviours, can have deleterious consequences for the way we understand it. Looking back on earlier times is a privileged and elevated position from which to view it, one that is often distorted by current preoccupations and interests. It’s easy to launch a press conference and condemn colonialism, after all; what’s harder is tackling contemporary social problems, and Macron faces and ignores many of those. It is important to guard against the simplistic and all too easily acquired feelings of superiority that we can have by surveying the past through contemporary mores, centuries later.

When history is judged through the simplistic prism of right and wrong, it flattens it. And as the accusations about the sins of the past grow louder, we hear less about the objects that are at the heart of the disputes and of those people that once created and so admired them.

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