That is to say there are two approaches [to defining cultural property]: one internationalist and one nationalist. In the former case cultural property is referred to as the common heritage of mankind. This is misleading because cultural property cannot, being within any state’s sovereignty, be regarded as res nullius (property belonging to no one), or res communis (property belonging to the whole world). It is a concept which can have little bearing on the issue of the return of cultural property, because making ‘cultural property’ universal contradicts the notion of ‘return’. (365)
The concept of res communis leads me to the dilemma I often face when thinking about repatriation and restitution. On the one hand, I think illegally acquired cultural objects should be returned to their rightful owner(s). On the other hand, that conviction is fueled by an idea that these objects have some measure of value or significance. That has been the hardest thing for me to reconcile when thinking about these issues. I see and agree with the moral rectitude of repatriation, but the academic in me can’t help but feel the loss of potential knowledge that comes with it.
At the same time, I don’t think that the concept of a universal museum, gathering all cultural heritage under one roof for the world to see, is necessarily a good one, because I think it turns the museum into a cartoony, Epcot centre type institution. But in North American cases, like I have been looking at, repatriated objects are usually sacred, or spiritually or religiously significant, or they are associated with human remains. Which means, in many cases, that they will hidden, buried or destroyed upon return. And while I will fight to the end for the right to dispose of one’s cultural heritage as one desires, I can’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for the scientific side of the debate.