Harvard’s museums are a centerpiece of our university’s intellectual offerings, and rightfully so — their collections are vast and provide students an opportunity to study art and artifacts from around the world, just a few feet from their dorms. However, many of the items in Harvard’s museums were acquired before international restrictions on the expropriation of cultural artifacts were imposed and with disregard for countries’ preservation of their native culture. While Harvard’s collections are impressive, they were often taken at times when their native cultures were neither highly protected nor regarded. Harvard must return any such artifacts and hold all its collections to the same standards.
Visit the Peabody Museum in particular and one can explore the world through an ethnographic lens. You can find beautiful, intricate and breathtaking artifacts from countries around the world and from native nations in this country. Many of these collections are not new. The Peabody Museum was founded in the 19th century and has long housed collections from around the world. However, its older collections are troublesome because of how they came to rest in Cambridge.
The museum is largely a testament to imperialism — opened in 1866, a few years before the rise of the United States as an imperial power, and at a time when wealthy Americans could plunder foreign lands seemingly at-will with few protections for countries whose cultural and ethnographic heritage was being stolen. Through these collections, Harvard and its students today benefit from the spoils of imperialism and colonialism that maimed and depleted the resources and populations of countries around the world.
As such, these artifacts should not be Harvard’s to keep. Though Harvard might legally own all the items in its collection, their origins might largely be incompatible with modern international standards.
The Peabody Museum currently requires proof of the provenance of donated or acquired items, and the Harvard Art Museums’ policy states that it “will not acquire an object if there is reasonable cause to believe that, since November 17, 1970, it may have been stolen, illegally excavated or removed from a monument, site, or wreck contrary to local law or otherwise acquired in or exported from its country of origin or any intermediate country, in violation of that country’s laws or any international treaties.” The seemingly arbitrary date originates from the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. While this prohibition on the acquisition of stolen artifacts is an important step toward ensuring that countries retain and preserve their own culture and heritage, this rule does not apply retroactively to the immense amount of items collected before this date.
Harvard’s museums should apply their current standards of refusing stolen or wrongfully expropriated art not just to new acquisitions but to their entire collections.
The Peabody Museum has an extensive collection of prehistoric artifacts from Costa Rica, my own home country. These artifacts reveal an incredible amount about the abilities and artistry of the first Americans, but Costa Ricans who do not have the means to travel to Cambridge will never have the opportunity to view their ancestors’ work because Harvard owns them.
One of the biggest items in Harvard’s collection from the small Central American country is the “Diquís Ball,” a 4,800 pound stone sphere made some time between 700 and 1300 C.E. Today, Harvard would not be able to expatriate that artifact from Costa Rica. The country’s current law prohibits the movement of these spheres from their resting place and considers them “patrimonio nacional,” national heritage that belongs to the state. Yet, because Harvard’s collections were put together centuries ago, this and many other items are exempt from laws seeking to protect cultural artifacts and to preserve national heritage around the world.
This is not an issue unique to our university’s museums. There have been and will continue to be calls from around the world to American museums for them to return and repatriate articles with foreign origins. Our university should take the lead on this issue – our museum collections should always be a source of pride for Harvard and the United States, but our pride must not come at the cost of other countries’ ability to preserve their native art.
As a leader in higher education, Harvard has the moral responsibility to lead the repatriation of cultural artifacts and set an example for other museums to follow, returning these works to their native lands. Though it may greatly diminish our collections, this a correction long overdue for centuries of American and European looting that stole aboriginal culture in the name of museums, preservation and education.
It’s time we accept the fact that our collections house stolen culture and act to right this centuries-old wrong.
Patrick C. Barham ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.