When visitors to museums see artifacts from cultures all around the world, an uncomfortable question sometimes arises: Why are they here?

Why should museums in Paris, London, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere contain objects that are important to the history of other (usually poorer) plundered lands? Many see the practice as an extension of Western imperialism. Though some items were purchased from the countries in which they were found, many were simply taken by European archaeologists and researchers. The repatriation of antiquities has been a sensitive issue for decades, and raises difficult questions.

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Those who defend the practice point out that the treasures in Western museums are very accessible to the public, and allow people to see things they would never be able to examine otherwise. Furthermore, they point out, the historical artifacts are well preserved and protected for future generations of all cultures, and that (as condescending as it may seem) Western governments and countries are simply better equipped to properly care for the world’s historical treasures.

It seems that the Egyptian revolution has proved them right. In January, looters destroyed two mummies and several artifacts in Cairo’s museum. Other statues were stolen as well. They had apparently been looking for gold, and smashed the 2,000-year-old mummies when they found none. The archaeological community was devastated, though the world’s news media were more interested in the Egyptians’ political actions than their criminal ones.

Soon Egyptian citizens took it upon themselves to protect the thousands of irreplaceable objects, forming a human chain around the museum to prevent looting. Egypt’s top archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, announced that despite a few minor, isolated instances of damage, the museum’s treasures, including many objects from King Tut’s tomb, were safe. Sadly, further investigation revealed that the looting was far worse than first believed, and ongoing. New reports of damaged, stolen, or lost artifacts have appeared almost weekly since then.

Finally it became too much for Hawass, who resigned yesterday. In a prepared statement that appeared on his website, Hawass said: “I am leaving because of a variety of important reasons. … The Egyptian Army protected our heritage sites and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. However, the army has left these posts because it has other tasks to do. … Egyptian criminals and thieves have begun to destroy (several) tombs. They attacked a storage magazine at Saqqara and we do not yet know how many artifacts are missing; they opened two storage magazines at Giza; one tomb dated to the 19th Dynasty, the only one in the Delta in fact, was damaged at Ismaïlia; and a store at El-Qantara East has been broken into and looted for antiquities. … I cannot stay in Egypt and see antiquities being stolen when I cannot do anything to stop it!”

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Of course, priceless historical treasures can never be completely safeguarded, in Europe, the United States, or anywhere else. Natural disasters and warfare are always a threat. But as culturally insensitive (and politically incorrect) as it may seem, recent events suggest that the best place for many of history’s priceless antiquities may indeed be far away from the lands that spawned them.

Photo: Zahi Hawass poses in front of a recovered artifact that had been taken by looters. Credit: Corbis