Last week two artefacts were returned to Nepal from a museum in the US. The two pieces, which are carved in stone, date back to the 12th century. They were donated to a museum in New York in 2015, and it was recently brought to the attention of the museum that they were both stolen in Nepal in the early 1980s. It was possible to prove that they were stolen, since they were both described in the book “Stolen images of Nepal” by Lain Singh Bangdel. With the Nepalese consul in New York as intermediary, the two artefacts were returned to Nepal.
During a visit in Burkina Faso in November 2017, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, announced that African art in French museums should be repatriated to their countries of origin. For ethnographic museums in France – and elsewhere – the statement is extremely problematic. But it raises an interesting question: who owns ethnographic artefacts? And what does ownership mean?
Take the artefact in the photo in this blogpost. It is from Nepal, and it is called a torana. They are placed above the doorway to the inner sanctum of a temple. They are also placed above windows of temples as decorative elements. Toranas are the most decorative and integral feature of temple architecture in the Kathmandu Valley. Intricately carved in wood or made of metal repousse, they incorporate a variety of figures associated with the main deity of the temple, set in a beautiful composition with vegetal decorations. They help identify to whom the temple is dedicated when the doors of the temple are shut. Being placed in temples, toranas, are owned by the community who runs the particular temple.
This torana was acquired by Werner Jacobsen in Nepal in the late 1950s. How he bought it, we do not know. We must assume, however, that he bought it from a local person. Other collectors from that period describe how they bought pieces, and that was typically through a local person, who came at night holding an object or two in their hands. Since the torana is and was considered to be ‘public property’, no individual could have the right to sell it.
During my fieldwork in Nepal from January 2017 to January 2018, the question regularly popped up: who has the ownership of these objects? Or rather: who should have the ownership? Many of my interlocutors – among the Newar population in Nepal – think that the objects that Werner Jacobsen collected should return to Nepal. And some of them are vocal about the fact that they believe without doubt that the objects. Perhaps not by Werner Jacobsen, but by someone. In any case, most of my interlocutors think that the Jacobsen artefacts should indeed return to Nepal, pointing to the fact that so many objects have left Nepal during the last 30 years.
But if returned, where should the objects be placed? In their original place – like a specific temple? And what if we do not know that exact location? Or should they go to a museum in Nepal?
There are more questions than answers. But there is no doubt that the question of repatriation is hot at the moment. Macron has put it on the global ‘heritage agenda’, with potentially enormous consequences – not the least for ethnographic museums. And in Nepal some artefacts have begun returning. For now, at least, the Werner Jacobsen collection will remain in Denmark, where they are, and will be included in exhibition making and research projects.
//Ulrik Høj Johnsen