Finders Keepers? Returning Historical Objects

The return of historical artefacts to their place of origin is an issue loaded with controversy and debate. It’s also an emotive subject for many, and discussion can quickly descend into argument about historical guilt, right and wrong, and a ‘them versus us’ rhetoric. The subject is too large and unwieldy to do it full justice here, but it’s always worth reminding ourselves that this is about more than old bits of rock or statues of dead rulers. The debate over historical artefacts demonstrates just how important history can be to matters of modern identity and foreign relations.

On the face of it, the debate is quite simple. Many of the world’s greatest museums hold pieces of art, sculpture, jewellery and artefacts that have come from other countries, often acquired under contentious circumstances. Some governments/organisations are asking for these items to be returned to them, but many museums do not want to do this. Mixed in with this seemingly simple argument about ownership are far more complex matters of nationalism and internationalism, as well as feelings of anger, patriotism and blame. So what are some of the key issues in this debate?


Advocates of returning historical objects often argue that such items should reside in the country from which they originated, plain and simple.

The problem with this argument is that throughout history, the borders of many of the countries we recognised today have been malleable, porous, or non-existent. Indeed, many modern countries did not exist a few decades ago, let alone centuries. India was only united as one country in 1947 (Pakistan did not exist until this point). Italy as we understand it today was only created in 1861. What makes a country a country (is it ethnicity of the people residing within certain internationally recognised borders? Is it a particular all-encompassing structure of government? Is it a language? A religion?) is not only debatable, but it is also unfixed and ever changing.



Closely related to this issue of origin is that of ownership. Returning historical artefacts to their original owners sounds straight forward enough, but determining ownership (like country of origin) is fraught with difficulty. Is it the original creator of the piece that owns it? If so, how do you trace the creator? This may be feasible for certain items like a painting or a sculpture, but what about an ancient death mask or a carving on a temple, which was created by an unnamed, unknown person or people? Does such work belong to the state? What if said state did not exist at the time of the artefact’s creation? Which brings us back to the issue of origin.


This is an interesting and tricky issue, mainly because how an artefact is ‘valued’ is so hard to define. Illustrative of this is the Koh-i-noor diamond. Perhaps the world’s most renowned jewel, it was first recorded in the history books around the 14th century. Originally 793 carats, its size was reduced by various botched attempts to cut it, until, in the 1850s, it was cut by the Victorians to its present size and shape (105 carats). Since cut is one of the ways a diamond is valued (together with carat and clarity) it can be argued that although the operation reduced the size of the diamond, by cutting it properly, the British increased its value (and can thereby claim ownership).

Yet the Koh-i-noor is a good example of an item that is worth more than its intrinsic characteristics. This diamond’s value lies not just in its cut, clarity and carat, as most diamonds do, but in its history and thus the meaning that is placed on it. Its symbolism of empire, monarchy (sitting in the crown jewels as it does), subjugation and the spoils of war means more to people than its monetary worth.



Indeed, some might say that more important than financial worth (or a better way of measuring value) is meaning. The Rosetta Stone is simply a piece of rock; its meaning lies in the fact that it allowed Western scholars in the nineteenth century to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs, which opened the door to understanding ancient Egyptian life.

Because meaning is so subjective, it is hard to evaluate a historical object in this way. The meaning of an item like the Rosetta Stone (or the Koh-i-noor) might be different for different people, cultures or countries, so how do you judge to whom the item has more meaning?


Seeing an artefact in its original context is in large part what can give an object value and meaning – so argue those who want the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece. Only by seeing the frieze in the Acropolis Museum, as close to their original position as possible, can people appreciate not only the aesthetics but the context (and thus meaning) of the sculptures.

Context, however (like meaning), can be a tricky measure by which to evaluate where an artefact should be held. The Rosetta Stone is a case in point. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo might want to hold the stone themselves, arguing that it needs to be seen in the context of other Ancient Egyptian artefacts for its full meaning to be understood. Nonetheless, on display as it currently is in the British Museum in London, the piece tells the story not only of Ancient Egypt, but of the Napoleonic Wars, of Western scholarship, of the development of Egyptology and the almost obsessive pursuit of understanding this ancient culture which gripped Britain, America, France and other countries in the nineteenth century.


A strong argument often in favour of keeping historical artefacts in certain museums is that of access. In 2013/2014 the British Museum received 6.8 million visitors; the Acropolis Museum just over one million. Numerous factors attribute to these figures, but the ultimate conclusion is that more people get to see the contents of the British Museum than the Acropolis. Another key point to consider is freedom of access – the British Museum, along with others like the Smithsonian in the US, do not charge an entry fee. Which means anyone, regardless of economic background, can access great works of art and historical objects.



A further point to take into consideration is which institution is better able to take care of an historical artefact, both in terms of preservation and/or restoration of the object, but also in regards to security. Certain museums attract the most talented of the world’s curators, conservators and scholars, so that a piece will be properly looked after and be available for the enjoyment of future generations. Certain countries also have more stable governments than others, and are less likely to witness war or extremism, which can prove fatal to historical pieces.

Slippery slope

A poor argument in favour of retaining such objects where they presently are is that of the slippery slope – ‘if we return this item, we will have to return all items and then our museum would be empty’. Unfortunately, the slippery slope argument is always a fallacy and comes across as an excuse not to engage with the debate. Each artefact is unique, with an individual history, meaning and value. Each case needs to be considered on its own merit, rather than a blanket rule applied to all. The slippery slope argument only adds to discord between countries arguing over the return of historical artefacts, and does not serve reasonable and considered deliberation.

In conclusion

There is by no means an easy answer to the matter of returning historical artefacts, and those who try to reduce the issue to one or two factors do not do the debate any favours. Each object needs to be dealt with on a case by case basis, and the important measures by which return should evaluated appear to those of access and care, closely followed by meaning and context. Trying to remove emotion and negative discourse from the discussion is difficult, but it can blur the matter at hand. Ultimately, historical objects are the possessions of humanity and only those who can ensure the greatest care and best access, so that millions of people across the world can enjoy these pieces, should be allowed the great privilege of looking after them.



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Feeding the world in 2050

Feeding the World in 2050-infographic-IIEA-621x875


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The election and UK defence policies

HMS VIGILANT. Nuclear powered Trident Submarine.CLYDE AREA OF SCOTLAND.03/04/1996.

With the election only a few days away it’s worth taking a look at some of the main defence policies of the parties. The war in Afghanistan may be finished, but with ISIS still in existence and tensions with Russia mounting, not to mention the issues and challenges we cannot forsee, it’s important to understand where each party lies on the major policies that will effect the UK’s future security and international stability.


One issue that has already been thrown around in this election fight is Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The Conservatives and Labour are both committed to keeping Trident – and ultimately replacing the submarines when they become obsolete in 2016. The Liberal Democrats would reduce the number of subs from four to three, and would not have them on constant patrol but deployed only when the threat level increases. The Green Party would get rid of them entirely, as would the SNP.

The sticking point seems to come if there were to be another coalition government. It has already been suggested that if Labour have to share power with the SNP, they would renege on their promise to keep Trident. Labour have denied this and reiterated their intention to stick with the four subs.

Foreign Aid

In March of this year, the UK passed a bill that enshrines in law its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of its gross national income (GNI) on aid every year, making it the first G7 country to meet the UN’s 45-year-old aid spending target. The bill was in the manifestos of all the major parties in the 2010 election and NGOs have rejoiced at the news that this promise has finally been delivered.

The Conservatives argue that aid is essential to both the UK’s interests and those of the developing world. Labour is promising to rebalance the budget to target their funding of the poorest countries in the world while the Lib Dems have said they will work to fight climate change, offer humanitarian aid, and promote trade, development and prosperity. Plaid Cymru also supports the 0.7 per cent legislation. The Green party, meanwhile, goes much further than the others and pledges to increase the overseas aid budget to 1 per cent over the course of the next parliament.

The one party against the bill is UKIP. They have pledged to slash Britain’s overseas aid spending by more than two-thirds, as well as abolish the Department for International Development (DfID). This would bring the UK’s aid contributions in line with those of the US, which currently spends 0.2 per cent of its national income on overseas aid.

The EU

The Conservatives have pledged to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s relationship with the EU, to get a better deal for Britain, followed by an in/out referendum in 2007 if they win power in this election. Some have argued that this pledge is in response to UKIP and their well-known commitment to withdrawing from the EU. Meanwhile Labour’s Tony Blair has warned against Britain leaving the EU, arguing that there would be great instability should this happen. The Lib Dems want to stay in the EU but try to reform it to make it ‘more competitive, efficient and accountable’. The Green Party’s policy has been described as “Three Yesses” –Yes to a referendum, to major EU reform and to staying in a reformed Europe.

The German Defence Minister, Thomas de Maizière, has previously warned that leaving the EU would have profound defence implications for the UK. In April 2013 De Maizière argued an exit would weaken Britain’s influence within NATO and reduce its influence in the world. Others have argued that UK withdrawal from the EU would have little impact on its defence policy.

Defence spending

With matters of austerity dominating the headlines, it’s no wonder that cuts to Britain’s defence budget are being debated. In a recent briefing paper, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) argued that defence cuts were likely whichever party was to come to power, and that Britain would fall below the NATO target of spending 2 per cent of its GDP on defence. Indeed, no party except UKIP, has pledged to meet the 2 per cent target. The Conservatives have promised no more reductions to the size of the regular army and an increase in spending on military equipment by 1 per cent. Labour has committed itself to an immediate strategic defence review if it wins power at May’s General Election. The Lib Dems have said that they think it is ‘sensible’ for the UK to share and pool resources with other EU and NATO members while the Green Party would drastically reduce the defence budget and ‘abolish the army’. As well as pledging to meet the 2 per cent target, UKIP have a range of policies aimed at helping veterans (including creating a Minister for Veterans).

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Bridging the Divide

Recently, I gave an interview to a website known as Women in Foreign Policy. Aside from being an opportunity to shamelessly plug myself (if you want to read the interview it’s here) it made me think about the connection between foreign policy and history. I suddenly had a small panic: ‘what if readers wanting to know more about working in foreign policy stumble across my profile? Will they be disappointed by my history qualifications?’ It also made me think about this blog, and how many posts were about international relations and how many about history. Again, if foreign policy devotees read my blog, would they find it lacking?


In thinking on the topic I came across this post by George Lawson, an Associate Professor in the International Relations department of LSE. Ultimately, Lawson argues that history and social science need each other:

…the eternal divide is more imagined than real. Indeed, there are various tools that can help to construct an alternative understanding of the relationship between social science and history Much of the time, these differences are elevated into insurmountable barriers. [My] argument…is that history and social science should be seen as a common enterprise. 

Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School also believes that those interested in foreign policy should know their history:

Trying to understand international affairs without knowing history is like trying to cook without knowing the difference between flour and flounderAmong other things, it’s useful to know how other societies see the past even if you don’t agree with their interpretation, so make sure you read histories written by citizens of other countries.

Both writers extort foreign policy devotees to understand history better. On the other hand, what can historians learn from practitioners of international relations? Gordon A. Craig, late president of the American Historical Association had this to say:

Th[e] audience is interested in foreign affairs, as can be seen from many signs and portents, ranging from its continuing fascination with diplomatic memoirs to the nuclear freeze movement, and not excluding the revival, on some campuses, of international relations programs outside and at the expense of history departments. The general public has a right to feel that our work should bear some relevance to its concerns…

Craig was a renowned scholar of German history and his point about what the public wants from historians is particularly interesting when considered in the light of Nazism, the Second World War, the Cold War and so on. There is a danger, however, of practitioners of foreign policy using historical example to support their current Gordon Craigdecisions – for instance, ‘appeasement’ seems to have become a dirty word following Chamberlain’s failed attempt to deal with Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Likewise, it becomes unfortunate when some historians feel the need to prove the value of their work by shoe-horning in a connection between history and current affairs.

The editors of Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists and the Study of International Relations, talk about this in further detail. The book is a collection of pieces written by historians and international relations academics; some chapters discuss key aspects of the study of both disciplines, others look at world events from each perspective. It’s an interesting read, although it does focus on the academic study of these two subjects. How useful debate on theory is, for example, to those working outside of academia, I am not sure. It’s certainly a book I’ll explore deeper later on – but perhaps in a different blog post. In fact, I think this entire topic is one that requires more thought and discussion. For now, I’m happy to end this short post with the corny saying that there is more that unites us than divides us.


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Female Leaders



Taking from the Brighton School of Business and Management.




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History Carnival #143

In a celebration of some of the fantastic blogging done by historians, I’m proud to be hosting this month’s History Carnival.

Let’s kick off with a little soul-searching and the question of how we study history, in George Campbell Gosling’s post Flattening History: ‘As historians, we spend half our time insisting the past was more complex than is typically appreciated and the other half simplifying everything beyond our central focus at that moment.’ Following this theme of looking at some of the deeper questions in history, the many-headed monster site asks ‘who were “the people” in early modern England?’ This etymological research discusses the rhetoric of ‘the people’ during moments of political crisis and in an ecclesiastical or geographical sense too.



More questions are asked by Emily Rutherford on the JHIBlog when she looks at why Edwardian costume dramas are so popular. The answer takes us on a journey into the history of popular perception of the British Empire. Evolutionary ecology is discussed in Natural History Apostilles with a nineteenth century argument about plagiarism between Patrick Matthew and John Claudius Loudon.

In the latest post on Doing History in Public Patrick Seamus McGhee uses three cases to take a look at the history of atheism between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Meanwhile, on Thoughts on Military History, we learn something about leadership styles and the issue of control during the Battle of Britain.

The reach of history is born in mind when we read about Sophie Coulonbean’s work for the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers scheme on the CRECS site. Sophie has been looking at the trials of agitators for reform to the British political system in the wake of the French Revolution and we look forward to seeing the film on the BBC Arts website in March.


Sticking with television, we read about Loretta Young in Jack Le Moine’s History Moments before moving to some classic literature with a discussion of the historical significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its ability to shape discourse on American race relations, in US Studies Online.

In a recent post on Zenobia: Empress of the East, the Amazons are discussed and we literally take a look at the face of a female warrior, ‘Princess Ukok’, buried in a Siberian burial mound around 500 BCE. We follow on our look at ideas of femininity and beauty at Early Modern Medicine and Katie Aske’s discussion on beauty spots. This French cosmetic fashion of the eighteenth century was also used to conceal scars and signs of disease. In England, they even took on a political meaning, with the Whigs and Tories adopting opposing sides of the face.

And lastly, the Medical Heritage Library announces its creation of recommended practices for those looking to access manuscript and archival collections containing health information about individuals.

So enjoy your fill of reading and we’ll see you again for the next History Carnival!


7 Things Everyone Should Know About: Pancake Day

1) Otherwise known as ‘Shrove Tuesday’, Pancake Day precedes ‘Ash Wednesday’ which is the start of Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent marks a period of fasting in the run-up to Easter. Shrove Tuesday became a day of using up all fatty foods before Lent, like butter and eggs.

2) ‘Shrove’ comes from the old English word ‘shrive’ roughly meaning ‘to confess’.


A pancake race in London. By Pedro Figueiredo


3) Before Christianity, Pancake Day was originally a pagan holiday. The Slavs believed that the change of seasons was a struggle between Jarilo, the god of vegetation and springtime, and the evil spirits of cold and darkness. The most important part of the celebration of the arrival of spring, Shrovetide week, was the making of pancakes. It was believed that the hot, round pancakes symbolised the sun and by eating them the Slavs got power, light and warmth from the sun. The first pancake was put on a window for the spirits of the ancestors.

4) According to sources, Britons eat roughly 52 million eggs on pancake day – this is approximately 22 million more than on a regular day.

5) The tradition of tossing pancakes is said to originate from 1445 when a housewife in Olney, Buckinghamshire, was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing for the service. She raced out of the house to church while still carrying her frying pan and pancake, tossing it as she went.


Playing football on Shrove Tuesday


6) Around the world, different countries have their own name for Pancake Day:

  • Mardi Gras in France.
  • Fastnacht Day for German-American populations.
  • In Portugese, Spanish and Italian speaking countries, it is known as Carnival (or carne levare, meaning ‘to take away meat’). It’s often celebrated with street processions or fancy dress, like the Brazilian Carnival in Rio de Janerio.
  • In Maderia, on Terça-feira Gorda, they eat malasadas (using up the lard and sugar in the house, much the same was as Pancake Day in the UK). This tradition was taken to Hawaii as Malasada Day.
  • In Denmark and Norway it’s known as Fastelavn.
  • Iceland = Sprengidagur (Bursting Day).


7) In London, the Rehab Parliamentary Pancake Race takes place every Pancake Day, with teams from the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Fourth Estate doing a fun run to raise awareness of the charity. Elsewhere in England, many towns had traditional ‘mob football’ games which date from the 12th century until the practice died out in the 19th century.


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Events that shaped our world: 2014


As 2014 draws to a close, let’s remind ourselves of the big occurrences that shaped international affairs this year. I’ve kept the list purposefully short (and in no particular order) because I want to hear what you think: what were the important events of 2014? Leave a comment below.


  • February saw the Winter Olympics take place in Sochi, Russia and a spotlight was shone on the country’s human rights record. One month later, Russia annexes Crimea.

  • Ebola breaks out in West Africa and spreads rapidly throughout the region, particularly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, causing over 6,000 deaths thus far.

  • For four days in June London hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, chaired by the then British Foreign Secretary, William Hague and Special UN Envoy, Angelina Jolie.

  • ISIS gains territory in Syria and Iraq, and a reputation for medieval-style violence with the beheading of western journalists and aid-workers.

  • A resounding No was heard around Britain as Scotland voted against independence in the referendum.


  • After a ten-year mission, the Rosetta spacecraft lands on a comet orbiting between Jupiter and Mars and everyone goes wild.

  • Western troops leave Afghanistan and Ashraf Ghani is sworn in as the country’s new president.

  • 219 Nigerian schoolgirls are kidnapped by Boko Haram militants. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls goes viral on social media, but to little effect. The Islamic extremist group claims most of the girls have been converted and ‘married off’.

  • The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is marked with conferences, documentaries, museum exhibitions and art installations.

  • On 8th March Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 goes missing on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing carrying 239 passengers and crew. Despite the largest and most expensive multinational search effort in history, no debris or crash site has been found.

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The 35 Most Powerful Militaries in the World


Taken from Business Insider UK.

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7 Things Everyone Should Know About: ISIS

A soldier from the RAF Regiment on patrol near Basrah Air Base, Iraq.

Some blame the Iraq War for the rise of ISIS

1. The organisation has variously been known as AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq), ISI (Islamic State in Iraq), ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), SIC (State of the Islamic Caliphate), ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Da’ish (an abbreviation of the Arabic for ISIL).

The numerous names demonstrate the changes the group has undergone (from being aligned with al-Qaeda to claiming to have founded a new caliphate*). They also give an insight into the ambition of ISIS, which has pretensions to rule territory spanning the Middle East and even North Africa. There has also been some debate as to what foreign governments should call the organisation: while the American and British governments prefer ISIL, France uses Da’ish – a term which the group itself very much dislikes but which, the French government points out, denies the terrorists any air of legitimacy.

* (an Islamic state ruled by a supreme religious and political leader, the caliph).

2. Muslim groups in Britain have stood out against ISIS

The situation is far more complex than simply Christian vs Muslim. For, while the group may claim to have founded a new caliphate, many Muslims reject ISIS’s self-professed religious authority. Organisations such as the Islamic Society of Britain and the Association of British Muslims have argued that the terrorists are neither Islamic, nor a State. Meanwhile, however, a number of young British Muslims have been travelling to Iraq to join ISIS. Just how far these men (and women) are motivated by religion is debateable. As Thomas Babbington Macaulay, MP, historian and poet, put it in 1848:

“The experience of many ages proves that men may be ready to fight to the death, and to persecute without pity, for a religion whose creed they do not understand, and whose precepts they habitually disobey.”

3. Some have blamed the Iraq War for the rise of ISIS

ISIS is made up of Sunni Muslims. Under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis held much of the power in the country, despite the fact that the majority of Iraqis are Shias. After the Western invasion of Iraq, Shia militias seized upon the chance to seek revenge against their erstwhile repressors, as Frank Ledwige describes in his book Losing Small Wars. Today the Iraq government is dominated by Shias, which provides ample recruitment propaganda for ISIS. As long as sectarian violence continues in Iraq and as long as either Sunnis or Shias feel under-represented in government, Iraq will struggle to find peace.

4. Al-Qaeda broke their association with ISIS because the group defied orders to not kill so many civilians.

ISIS is too violent even for al-Qaeda. Which is worrying. The high-profile beheadings which the terrorists have carried out of journalists and aid-workers has further fuelled their reputation for brutality.

The killing of war photographer, John Cantlie, shocked the world. Photo: War photographer John Cantlie in the Pech valley, Afghanistan June 2012. via Wikimedia Commons

The killing of war photographer, John Cantlie, shocked the world. Photo: War photographer John Cantlie in the Pech valley, Afghanistan June 2012. via Wikimedia Commons

5. ISIS gets a large amount of revenue from the sale of oil and electricity, and from extortion.

As well as being ambitious and extremely violent, ISIS is organised to the point of looking like something of a mini-state. The capture of Syrian power plants and oil fields means the group does not have to rely on funding from outside sources. Add the money ISIS gets from ‘taxing’ local humanitarian and commercial operations and the organisation is a well-funded terrorist outfit. This money allows the group to pay high salaries to its fighters, making them better paid than the Iraq military. It also apparently allows them to offer free healthcare, housing and other benefits to those in the areas they control. And guess who is buying the oil and electricity from ISIS? The Syrian government.

6. When attacked in Iraq they escape to Syria and when attacked in Syria they escape to Iraq.

This makes ISIS that much harder to defeat militarily. Known as using a ‘rear area’, this tactic has been seen in places like Afghanistan where the Taliban would frequently cross the Afghan-Pakistan border to escape prosecution by either country. The incompetence of the Iraq army (which suffers from high desertion rates and lack of morale) has compounded the problem. Current US bombing strategy aims to counter this by cutting-off the ‘rear area’ and preventing ISIS from retreating.

7. ISIS is not the only anti-government group in Iraq

One such rebel group is Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN). These are Sunni nationalists, many of whom are former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party loyalists. This illustrates just how deep the sectarian divisions are within the country and the difficulties faced by peace-builders there. The military defeat of ISIS will not alone fix the problems facing Iraq. There is a real danger that another terrorist group would simply take its place. Solutions therefore need to include building religious tolerance and national unity in Iraq.

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