In December 2016, gold artifacts were stolen from the Stevenson-Hamilton Knowledge Resource Centre at Skukuza, a museum under the jurisdiction of South African National Parks. As of late August 2017, the museum had still not confirmed the theft. As a result, the theft has not attracted widespread attention, but the loss is significant. The stolen artifacts include a golden necklace, bracelet, and beads dating from sometime between the 13th and 17th centuries, all excavated from the Thulamela site in Kruger National Park. Gold items from this era are rare and of great significance. Thulamela was a center for the massive South African gold trade in the centuries before European colonization and analysis of these objects could have revealed invaluable information about the sources of gold in this era and the composition of ancient trading networks. The University of Pretoria has custody of these artifacts and the manager of their museums, Sian Tiley-Nel, has called this theft a “travesty” in large part because of the rarity of gold artifacts from this place and era. An incalculable loss, this event raises some questions around the issues of repatriation and museum security.
The loan of high profile artifacts can bring tourism to parks and museums that need the revenue stream. It also increases access to these heritage items, making a physical connection with history more readily available to people who cannot travel to London or Paris or New York. More than that, repatriation is in part a push to move past colonialism, to move away from a system where the majority of rare and valuable artifacts end up in western hands and museums. Communities descended from the people who made these remarkable items, understandably, want access to them. The achievements of past people is often a point of pride, and can be significant in nations and cultures trying to re-establish themselves after centuries of colonial rule. For example, political pressure led archeologists to downplay the significance of excavations at the majestic ancient city of the Great Zimbabwe. The achievements uncovered there showed a complex and wealthy African society with the ability to build remarkable structures, complete with drainage systems that still function as intended to this day. The colonial government of Rhodesia suppressed these discoveries because they believed it undercut the apartheid state they sought to maintain. They promoted stories of Phoenician or European origins for the city, appointed overseers who destroyed parts of the ancient city to search for evidence of white builders, and even pushed archeologists who would not fold to pressure out of the country. It served Rhodesia’s colonial narrative to deny evidence of native African achievement.
In an effort to reclaim this proud heritage, the independent nation of Zimbabwe named itself after the ancient city. The Great Zimbabwe still serves a central ideological role in Zimbabwe’s government and culture, even influencing the nation’s flag. In a world where colonial governments have denied history to achieve their ends, the reclamation of heritage can be especially powerful for many peoples who have been dominated by such governments. In practice, however, this often means housing artifacts in less secure locations. Museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre have spent years building up complex security systems, storage areas, and contingency plans to protect the artifacts in their care. Many smaller regional museums do not have access to these resources, putting objects they care for at greater risk. Of course, larger museums are not immune to theft or vandalism. No space open to the public can be completely free from risk. On a larger scale, museums in Europe or America may currently seem safe because of the relative peace of those regions. As we have seen through the destruction of museums in Iraq and Syria, war brings with it incalculable loss of heritage. But, of course, the museums that are now in peaceful countries were not always so safe. Massive efforts were made to evacuate objects from the Louvre during World War II, and the British Museum was under threat from the Blitz. Safety is never guaranteed.
These issues are complicated and contentious, and there are no easy answers. How can we best keep objects safe and available to the public? What is the best way to safeguard heritage so that we can continue to learn from it? At the very least, security requires communication between organizations, as well as careful planning. The University of Pretoria has expressed concern about the collection still on loan to SANParks, citing poor conditions and curatorial practices revealed by inspections. These museums were not built to house ancient artifacts, and it seems like the lending process was not accompanied by a plan for long-term conservation of these items. Museums must work together to ensure that artifacts are cared for no matter where they are. Currently, a SANParks spokesman says the parks are working to upgrade their museums in an effort to “tell the full story about its parks,” arguing that ongoing criticism does not acknowledge this work. However, University of Pretoria curators say these events raise doubts about future loans. No matter how or why museums lend to each other, open conversations about practical concerns are necessary or continued cooperation and the safety of priceless artifacts.
One important piece in all this is the work of raising awareness, the work undertaken by organizations like SAFE. After a theft in 2006, Zimbabwe’s National Gallery published images of the stolen carved masks and headrests. Six months later, they were contacted by US law enforcement agents in Poland who had recovered the items, and in 2013 the items were returned to Zimbabwe. The gallery raised the alarm and the international community worked together to return these priceless artifacts to their legal and cultural home. This victory shows how awareness and cooperation can help safeguard items of cultural value both to specific nations and to the entire world. Through working to raise awareness of looting, organizations like SAFE help to put pressure on the black market and encourage law enforcement to take these thefts seriously. It’s important to stay informed and to continue to educate people all over the world about the importance of heritage artifacts.
To support SAFE’s efforts to raise awareness about our shared cultural heritage and to prevent the looting of priceless artifacts, please consider donating, volunteering with us, or raising awareness in your own communities through sharing the work that SAFE does.
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