Artefacts of historical and cultural significance which are displayed in major museums around the world should not be returned to their country of origin according to British Museum director Neil MacGregor. During an address in Australia recently he sprang to the defence of museums holding contested cultural property “The value of an object is to explain history to as many people as possible and explain the present to as many people as possible and that may not be achieved by it being returned to the place where it was made”, he said. “When you see these objects they will mean more to you in your own experience than they would in the place they were made.”
MacGregor has an ally in British Prime Minister David Cameron who shares his view on the repatriation of cultural property. In a 2010 interview he explained why the Kohinoor diamond, which was seized by the East India company to become part of the Crown Jewels when Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877, could not be returned. “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty”, he said.
Image: Interior carving and panels in the Mataatua Wharenui or meeting house. Originally built as a symbol of unity and strength by Ngati Awa, it was uplifted by the New Zealand government and shipped overseas to represent the country at anthropological exhibitions. After enduring a century of foreign travel it was finally repatriated in 1925 to be housed at the Otago Museum where it remained for another 70 years. After being lost to its people since 1880, Mataatua Wharenui finally returned to its rightful place in Whakatane in the 90s. After 15 years of work to restore the house to its former glory, it opened on 17 September 2011 with a traditional dawn ceremony. The meeting house is now a central point in a complex that provides a maori cultural tourism experience for visitors, allowing them to hear the story of the wharenui and learn the traditions and history of the tribe – all brought to life with the latest interactive digital technology.