Alexander Adams: The Road to Reparation – May 2018

Alexander Adams
May/June 2018

The Road to Reparation – The Restitution Question

This essay will discuss reparations. The definitions of “restitution” and “reparations” used in this essay are as follows: restitution is the return of specific unlawfully acquired goods to the lawfully determined owner or descendants (or estate) thereof; reparations are the return of goods or payment of compensation by one state to another, punitive in basis, regardless of how legal the acquisition was. I do believe in the correctness of restitution of property stolen in the recent past and for which there is a provable provenance. Likewise, objects illegally acquired by looting or illegal excavation must be returned to the country of origin if there is some certainty about the point of origin, when the acquisition is recent. However, this essay will argue against reparations on the grounds of cultural inequity. Items assigned new owners will not be called “returned” because (as discussed below) many of them will not be going back to rightful beneficiaries; these items will be described as “reparated”. Advocates will be called “reparationists”.

Recent disputes – and those which would emerge en masse if repatriation of artefacts were to become widespread – are closer to reparation rather than restitution, as the exact legality of the original acquisition is considered largely irrelevant by the claimants and campaigners, so this essay dwells of reparation. Additionally, restitution is widely accepted in legal and social terms and though there are fringe cases that are contentious, the principle seems just. The case for reparations is quite the contrary.

Moral Victories over the Dead

In November 2017, President Macron of France announced the return of artefacts from a French public collection to Burkina Faso. This was lauded in an article titled “The restitution revolution begins”. Note the triumphant activist tenor of the author, a professor of art history in Paris and Berlin universities.

There are some apparently reasonable grounds in favour of reparations: some cultural goods and human remains were taken from a people or territory without consent of the occupants; some artefacts were bought under duress or without fair compensation; and some artefacts were grievous losses to the communities which prized them for symbolic or religious reasons.

The claims for reparations are made by aggrieved groups, foreign states and anti-colonialists, especially Leftists. The motivations are not as straightforward as they seem. It is not merely that artefact X is important to a non-Western culture and unfairly gained. For example (as we shall see below), the artefact is often not important to the claimant and was not gained unfairly. We must understand that reparations are symbolic victories over long-gone colonists, states and social attitudes by activists seeking emotional gratification. Specificities undermine the idea that any particular act of reparation is clear and just because the truth (legal and factual) is murky and not always in favour of the claimant. The truth does not matter to reparationists because reparation is a moral contest between today and yesterday. Each act of reparation is an act of courageous revenge upon an opponent that is dead and mute. As long as we understand this, we can comprehend why the drawbacks of reparations do not deflect reparationists.

Reparations are a form of retroactive historical justice. Another example is the recent mass pardoning of soldiers from the Great War executed for desertion. It is reasonable to criticise the executions and wish that psychiatric medicine had been more advanced than it was. It is unreasonable to presume to apply standards of our era to actions of a long-past era. We assume that we would have acted differently in their place and that we can judge on a subject of which we know little set in a world of which we know less. Retroactive justice is founded upon monstrous hubris and vast ignorance. Retroactive justice is indicative of overweening vanity and a dearth of self-knowledge. The way to address previous perceived injustices that are beyond the reach of current legal resolution is to conduct our lives and shape our laws to prevent future injustices. The dwelling upon historical injustice is one of the core tenets of ideological extremists who loathe the status quo.

Reparationists fixate upon symbolic repatriation of objects because it looks easy. As we will see, reparations are as entangled, intractable and impossible to resolve as any aspect of historical justice.     

Deaccessioning Leads to Reparations

This summer Deaccessioning and Its Discontents: A Critical History by Martin Gammon will be published. In this book (which I hope to review in full), the case will be made for deaccessioning as a financial necessity for museums. One of the principle problems with deaccessioning is that it will breach the golden rule that museums do not deaccession items, something almost universally observed by British museums. If it becomes possible and increasingly common for museums to deaccession, we would see an immediate intensification of claims upon non-Western artefacts in Western museums. The pressure of anti-colonialist activists will increase against administrators and politicians who do not seem confident in the value of the Western civilisation. Presidents such as Macron will give away artefacts for a favourable headline. Politicians could hardly be bought more cheaply.

Deaccessioning would allow social activists to dispose of art they think should not be owned by public institutions: some non-Western historical objects (including human remains), nudes, hunting art, art donated by slave owners and a dozen other categories. If you think this is an exaggeration, consider what is commonly discussed in universities to glimpse the mindset of the next generation of curators and museum directors. For example, here is an abstract of a published paper from 2012: “Anarchist and militant forms of social movement research serve as a starting point for theorizing ethically oriented and embedded social movement research, and theoretical connections with Gramsci’s notion of the organic intellectual are set out. These positions are brought into conversation with an anti-colonial paradigm that recognizes colonialism as a continuing process of imposed and dominating relationships that needs to be both critiqued and resisted in theoretical and activist spaces. This makes it possible to articulate an ethical conception of (militant) activist research with an anti-colonial orientation.” Does any reader think that if such individuals had power in an era when deaccessioning were possible that they would not enact extensive reparations?

Gradations of Duress

If reparations are not to be arbitrary, there must be an effort to judge the legality of acquisition. A core tenet of reparationists is that any transaction between colonial power and subject is inherently unequal. According to a Marxist analysis, there is a fundamental division in power between coloniser and colonised; resultant economic systems are weighted in favour of colonisers. To the anti-colonialist, the system of empire is coercive and therefore the basis of colonisation is illegitimate. Therefore any transaction which has legal sanction is not only unfairly weighted through its institutional, legal and economic disparities, it is actually illegal. This is not a position derived from actual analyses of situations but a goal-determined attack on colonialism. It is post hoc justification for an emotional position and is not a legal assessment.

Western colonisation was only one stage in a series of invasions. Colonies previously enslaved neighbouring territories and confiscated chattels. Anti-colonialists frequently overlook the invasion and colonisation by non-Western powers such as the Han, Mongols, Ottoman and so forth. Many of the items acquired from colonies were booty of that colony’s own colonial imperialism. Anti-colonialism as an ideology (as we know it in the West) is not actually anti-colonialism; it is an analogue to Marxist anti-Western anti-capitalism.   

If unfavourable trading situations, restrictions resulting from artificial exchange rates, proscriptive property laws and a number of other examples of disparity in trade law delegitimise transactions then almost every historical transaction becomes suspect, regardless of colonialism. How can we assess the correctness of a valuation or exchange rate in a distant historical period? We might consider the trading of a totem pole for a couple of axe heads to be unfair, yet the tribe may have considered the transaction very favourable to them. Perhaps the tribe took pride in having something of theirs taken to a foreign land to be venerated. Totem poles were traditionally left to decay to nothing. The only 19th-century totem poles in existence are those that were acquired by colonists, who preserved them from erosion. Who are we to speak on behalf of those other groups? Is that not simply another form of colonial presumptuousness? Likewise, what legitimacy do claimants today have to speak on behalf of the dead? Reparations will lead to claimants portraying fair acquisitions as cultural theft in order to gain material advantage. 

Gradations of duress are essentially arbitrary. The lines we draw accord to our political outlooks and practical goals rather than being determined by ethical principles or legal precedent.

Reparations are Arbitrary Justice 

One of the core tenets of reparations is that the original owner of the object should have the benefits of ownership. How is that to be determined when the society, state or people have undergone radical change, been divided or disappeared? The recipient people or state may not be the same. There may be rival claimants. Reparation may not correct injustice but only vary the injustice because justice – in any meaningful sense – may be impossible.

Consider the fictional case of a stone lion in the British Museum. It was commissioned by a Hittite tyrant. He conquered a neighbouring tribe and used their treasure to pay for the carving of sculptures to commemorate his victory. The lion sculpture was lost then later unearthed by the Greeks and taken to Byzantium. Byzantium was conquered by the Ottomans. In the late eighteenth century an English duke purchased the lion illegally from an official at the museum in Istanbul. The lion was taken to the duke’s estate in England and eventually donated by his descendants to the British Museum. To whom does this lion rightfully belong? The British Museum, the museum in Istanbul, the regional government of Anatolia, the Greek state, the descendants of the Hittite king or the descendants of the defeated tribe? Exactly how far back is this moral accounting to go? One suspects it will go back only as far as is convenient. In other words, the beneficiary will ultimately be arbitrary. At this point, any assertion that reparations are moral recompense for the benefit of wronged parties becomes the obvious absurdity it always was. In retrospect, justice of our age will be understood as limited as that of past ages.

Reparations Fuel Corruption

Any reparated objects would become the inalienable property of states or museums, which could legally sell the artefacts. This undermines the idea that reparations mean the returning of objects to the societies that previously owned them. Reparations might not lead to people of the recipient state having access to reparated artefacts. The people might not even benefit from proceeds of the sale of reparated artefacts. Many former colonies in the developing world have a serious problem with corruption. That is not to assert that corruption is not present in Western countries but it is widely disapproved of and legislated against here. Government ministers and museum directors in the West cannot legally personally benefit in material fashion from sale of items in public ownership.

Reparations are considered ethical but they would fund the unethical practices such as corruption. The effects of reparations would be to swell the bank accounts of dictators and support their police states. Reparations would deepen rather than alleviate the problems of recipient countries. Reparations allows reparationists to salve their consciences and dictators of former colonies to enrich themselves, while their people get nothing and centres of learning lose the core of their scholarship. The argument is not that we have a duty to interfere within any other state but that we have to consider the ethical consequences of reparations.

Reparations are Ineffective

Reparations will never be enough, because emotional hurt will be sustained for political advantage. Every political ideology has its own simplified narrative, with villains, heroes and shared aims. Reparations will feed into those narratives and artefacts will become cultural prizes, like flags to be captured in a board game. Rather than healing divisions, reparations will lead to endless struggle nurtured by politicians and activists.

Reparations will incentivise misrepresentation of history. Rival states will compete for reparation of the same object, claiming to represent the descendants of the colonial territory. Museums and scholars will distort facts in order to support a legal case. Courts will have to decide between multiple interpretations of disputed research. States will divvy up spoils in bargaining processes divorced from notional justice. Far from rectifying injustice, reparations will multiply injustices.

Reparations will fuel social activism in the culture wars. In an age when many curators have little faith in the importance of their institutions and the value of Western civilisation, who will resist social pressure with rational and principled argument? People on social media will swarm from one petition to another, seeking to strike against bastions of imperialism and restore artefacts to ancient noble societies. In reality, it is the gamification of cultural policy masquerading as justice. Individuals will click on a button to receive a jot of pleasure, follow their nomination, gain pleasure when their nomination is reparated or experience indignation when their nomination is rejected, all the time not understanding anything of the history of – or fate of – the object. These people are not campaigners for justice; they are mice in a maze following a trail of micro-rewards. 

The effect of reparations will be an endless series of one-sentence summaries of colonial history bandied around by ill-informed opinionated individuals within an apathetic population, weakly opposed by demoralised historians. The actual fate of the artefacts – possibly to be sold to enrich corrupt officials or fund a dictator’s police state – is not something to be dwelt on.

Welfare of Artefacts & Scholarship

The reason many Chinese visitors come to the British Museum is because much of China’s history was liquidated in the Cultural Revolution. Europe and North America have been relatively safe for portable treasures. Western museums are determined to protect and research artefacts from all cultures. We do not make a habit of destroying, suppressing or deaccessioning artefacts – at least while Identarians are kept at bay. This is not the case in societies where deeply entrenched enmities and political issues lead to the destruction of objects and the distortion of science by the parties which have custodianship of artefacts. 

Centres of learning have developed, typified by the university museum, where students and scholars can develop knowledge through direct contact with artefacts and devise new scientific processes which allow conservation and non-invasive analysis. This means that objects are cared for nowhere better than in Western museums, extending their existence and benefitting civilisation at large. Through the transfer of ownership the train of knowledge is broken. We lose the insights that derive from centres of learning which further the science through incremental yearly research. Western institutions make research available through publication and internet access. Western institutions make world culture accessible to the world’s population.

Consider the conservation of items. In Saudi Arabia, the dominant Wahhabi sect has destroyed many historical buildings connected to the life of Mohammed because of the potential idolatrous veneration of important earthly objects. If a reparation judgment assigned an artefact to an owner which we could expect to destroy that object, would the current holder be obliged to send that artefact to its destruction? That is an extreme case, but what about those countries that engage in harmful practices such as the overpainting or destructive alteration of artefacts to restore them? (The issue of our own museums engaging in such practices is ably covered by the ArtWatch organisation.) What about those museums in developing countries which are not able to sufficiently protect items by using dehumidifiers, dim lighting and anti-pest measures? In many cases, if the welfare of artefacts is the priority then Western museums are the safest places for them to reside.


To summarise the case against reparations: objects are safest and most accessible in Western museums; objects are best analysed by Western institutions; reparations will unfairly benefit many recipients; reparations will fuel politicking, sectarian division, international disputes, corruption and theft; reparated objects will not necessarily benefit the countries or populations they are given to; the implementation of reparations will damage objects; once started, reparations is a process that will be continuous and expensive, with irreversible results; any reparation process will be impossible to administer fairly and will be subject to counter litigation; reparations will not provide satisfaction.

Reparation is a process which implies that property – and by extension, the experience of appreciating that property and interacting with its culture of origin – is under the control of a national, sectarian or tribal group which has a claim to authority over that property in perpetuity. This entrenches the Identarian position – that experiences of peoples are discrete and that humanity is a divided population.

While my previous arguments against Identarian positions of quota programming, suppression of free speech and so forth have had strong and explicable ethical foundations, this argument against reparation relies on pragmatism. It rests on the basis that reparations are impractical, unworkable and unfair rather than unethical per se. Again, like tacit support for “diverse representation” and “affirmative action”, the case for reparations is an extreme position supported by well-meaning moderate people who have not thought through the implications. How can diverse representation be an “extreme position”? The extreme position of identity politics is that people should be classified by surface characteristics and treated collectively rather than judged on personal merit. The underlying idea is dehumanising. The extreme position of reparations is that history should be retroactively engineered to provide us with emotional gratification. The underlying idea is repugnant.

People who are in favour of the concept of reparations should consider if these are the principles deserving of their support.