Cultural Heritage Management and International Law: Restitution of the Benin Bronzes

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In this paper, I examine the situation surrounding the Benin Bronzes through a lens of international law. I will first provide a background on the Benin Bronzes themselves, including their cultural and artistic value, the colonial context of their theft, and their current place in museums around the Western world. This will include an overview of current debates over ownership of these objects, as well as a broader look at what cultural heritage management is and why cultural heritage is more than merely property. Diving into a more specific case, I will describe the state of African object repatriation in France. I will then give an overview of the international legal regime relating to cultural heritage management, covering major international conventions that govern the protection of cultural property. This discussion will also look at national legislation in France, which is currently being used as a domestic legal means to push the repatriation of African objects. This paper will conclude with a critique of the current international legal framework for cultural heritage management, which allows the restitution of the Benin Bronzes to fall through the cracks. These stolen items must be returned to their cultural owners, so that they no longer sit as trophies and sources of profit in the halls of those who stole them. I argue that, in an ideal world, this solution should come in the form of an international, binding legal code, but that the complexities of colonial restitution mean that voluntary national restitution laws may presently be the most realistic legal solution available.
This paper was the winner of the 2022 Burgess Award. It was written for Spring 2021 HON-H 237
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