The restoration of monuments was often made in colonial states to make natives feel as if in their current state, they were no longer capable of greatness. Furthermore, sometimes colonial rulers argued that the ancestors of the colonized people did not make the artifacts. Some scholars also argue that European colonialists used monumental archaeology and tourism to appear as the guardian of the colonized, reinforcing unconscious and undetectable ownership. Colonial rulers used peoples, religions, languages, artifacts, and monuments as source for reinforcing European nationalism, which was adopted and easily inherited from the colonial states.
In recent years, museums across the United States and Europe have begun returning objects to their countries of origin. Each case tells its own story. While much attention has focused on the act of repatriation, The New York Times looked at what happened to several objects after they went back. Some works, returned with great fanfare, have taken on greater meaning back on view in the countries or cultures that produced them. Other times, after the triumphalism fades, they fall victim to benign neglect, or are not always easy to reach.
In the 19th century, many groups were violently forced from their ancestral homelands onto reservations. This is an important factor to remember when reading the essays and watching the videos in this section because the art changes—sometimes very dramatically—in response to these upheavals. You might read elsewhere that objects created after these transformations are somehow less authentic because of the influence of European or Euro-American materials and subjects on Native art. However, it is crucial that we do not view those artworks as somehow less culturally valuable simply because Native men and women responded to new and sometimes radically changed circumstances.
In some cases, this may mean parting with objects we have known for decades. When I was growing up, a reproduction of the Euphronios Krater, flattened onto a small varnished panel, hung on a wall of my family home. I used to wonder at the scene and its coded urgency: who were the strange winged and masked figures, and why were they grappling with the muscular body of the young man? When I finally saw the original, it seemed to be a flashback to a death I had actually witnessed, so visceral were the outlines. Encountering more of the vase’s history, I wasn’t happy to discover that my education in art had been facilitated by looting and smuggling. Neither am I happy that the Krater is no longer in New York, where other schoolchildren might have profited from it. But I’ve also learned that a productive approach to this controversy requires seeing the good side of the bad and the bad side of the good. Perhaps the Euphronios Krater has finally come home; but “homecoming” is a concept as many-faceted as the people who wish to shelter and treasure such an extraordinary object.
War and the subsequent looting of defeated peoples has been common practice since ancient times. The stele of King Naram-Sin of Akkad, which is now displayed in the Louvre Museum in Paris, is one of the earliest works of art known to have been looted in war. The stele commemorating Naram-Sin's victory in a battle against the Lullubi people in 2250 BCE was taken as war plunder about a thousand years later by the Elamites who relocated it to their capital in Susa, Iran. There, it was uncovered in 1898 by French archaeologists.