Colonial repatriation of stolen scientific treasures?

We’ve all heard of the growing movement to return treasured cultural artworks from the museum collections of former colonial powers back to their lands and people of origin, but — what about scientific treasures?

I kind of stumbled across the story of the great French botanist Joseph Dombey recently and it has me wondering how widespread this sort of scientific plundering is across the world’s great historical specimen collections.

Have any of you ever come across any other similar examples?

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What is plundering? Who are the people of origin? The Egyptians of today are not the egyptians who built the great cities and monuments. Who to give them back to?

Meek introduced thousands of unknown Lepidoptera to the world, much from British controlled Papua New Guinea. The Brits said it was OK, so technically it wasn’t plundering or anything like it. Well, some might argue, Britain had not right to rule PNG; OK, some in Upstate NY would argue that the current, and possibly temporary, NYC-controlled government has no right to rule Upstate.

To whom would one repatriate specimens from Prussia and Rhodesia?

A blanket claim of plundering is biased, political, and simplified. Nor should one necessarily consider removing specimens from a collection plundering, if done willfully.

A holistic approach would be to ask what is best for the scientific specimen? For example, it makes no sense to repatriate Lepidoptera specimens to Brazil since what? three or four of their museums have burned to the ground in recent years. Nor to Cook Islands- last I saw their entomological collection was in process of total decay, uncared for, and housed in a shed with no environmental controls.

So far as similar examples, yes. There are laws now that require repatriation of specimens to certain countries. Compliance by institutions is varied, ranging from ignoring it to spending effort to return specimens. Compliance by private citizen scientists is about zero, since most know it’s grandstanding and not in the best interest of the specimen nor science.


All governments are temporary. I don’t expect the USA or any other empire to somehow become permanent. ‘Upstate’ land is Haudenosee land that the British then the United States took over (that’s an oversimplification), if you really want to get down to what actually happened. Which political party controls the state or which cities are in which state is kinda beyond the point here.

Usually when talking about this in the colonial context it’s about indigenous cultures specifically displaced by colonialism during a certain time period. Past Egyptian dynasties are totally beyond the point because Egypt as a culture and group of people still exist. Yes of course they have changed, but so does everyone else.


but @charlie politically drawn boundaries are no less the point than which peoples controlled the land when. Who do we return them to? With all due respect to the Senecas, they supplanted previous inhabitants. Some of my research is on Haudenosaunee (note correct spelling) historical land, yet it’s NYS that controls where my specimens go to.

On Egypt, as you noted, the people and culture have changed. In other words, the people in Alexandria now are not the people that were in Alexandria then. They have been supplanted. Repatriating specimens to the current occupiers isn’t truly repatriation, at best it’s sending a specimen nearer to its source of geographic origin. Should Afghani antiquities be sent to the Taliban so they can blow them up too?

The whole point is that we should ask what’s in the best interest of the specimen, science, and the community.


But who specifically is the “we” that gets to make that decision? I doubt currently it’s a collective “we” that includes all relevant stakeholders.

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Ha, good question! When “stakeholder” was adopted as a standard business concern, and became all the rage, everybody suddenly seemed to be a stakeholder. This turned a lot of business decisions into a total train wreck. I suspect the exact same would, or does, happen in science.

“We” in reality is a pecking order; from the top: politicians, regulatory agencies, career enforcement agencies, institutions, citizen scientists. IMHO this isn’t a very good ordering of stakeholders, but it’s reality. Keeping in mind also that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, historically the prominence of less stakeholders who make a lot of noise can get bumped into the above mix.

There is no correct answer. Some answers may be better than most, and some more realistic than most. Humans may be at the pinnacle of development, but there clearly is a long way to go.

That said, some elements are obvious. If you return Alexandrian antiquities to Egypt’s ruling class now, it’s not a return, it’s a gift. If you repatriate a specimen to Prussia, it’s going to their historical enemies. If you send a butterfly specimen to [name developing country] chances are it won’t last long. A perfect solutions is unobtainable; a basic common sense solution typically isn’t.


I think one aspect here that also matters is when whatever (specimen, artifact) was taken. For instance, the Romans took artifacts from Ancient Egypt >2000 years ago and moved them to Rome (and other places). Should these be required to be returned? My feeling would generally be no - their removal was part of a historical process that shouldn’t be erased (though if a country chose to return them for their own reasons, I would have no problem with that).

However, if artifacts were taken much more recently (stolen from a gravesite or museum), then I would argue that they should be returned, even though the current citizens of Egypt are not de facto members of the ancient civilization that created the artifacts. Their recent loss has a much more direct impact on people in Egypt and easily falls within frameworks of law.

I think this is more challenging with biological specimens because we often don’t consider taking a specimen of a plant or animal or whatever “stealing” in daily life in the same way as we would taking an object (like a statue or whatever). If someone eats a coconut from a tree in a foreign country, we wouldn’t consider it stealing (assuming the tree wasn’t someone’s farm, etc.). And while there are now extensive (and in some cases, frankly ridiculous) permitting requirements around biological specimens, this is quite a recent phenomenon (<50 years in many places). The issue with biological specimens becomes - who has access to them and benefits from them.

The cases I think are most interesting or difficult involve things like specimens of organisms that are now extinct, perhaps due to the actions of colonizers themselves. Shouldn’t the country that harbored the organism have some specimens of it to study for scientific research or as part of a cultural heritage?

Or in the case of biological resources like pharmacological compounds or other bioprospecting, shouldn’t the citizens of the countries that harbor those species benefit from discoveries that derive from the biological diversity they harbor/protect in some way?

That’s not to say that specimens collected in the past themselves should be repatriated - In most cases I don’t think that this would be warranted. BUT I do think that scientists should think carefully about access to those specimens (prioritize loans/access for scientists from countries they were taken from?) and data derived from them (make them open access? Work with researchers other entities from those countries/cultures?). I’m sure that there are other angles to take as well.


This issue came up recently in a FB page for herbaria. Processing new specimens is an issue for all herbaria. (A few years ago, I was told that the herbarium at the Missouri Botanic Garden, one of the world’s greatest herbaria, had over a million unprocessed specimens.) The problem is worse in many third-world herbaria where good environmental controls are hard to fund even for the main collection. One person from a third-world herbarium wrote the he wouldn’t want his herbarium to receive a large number of “repatriated” specimens right now because of this problem. (Maybe later.) Everyone agreed that collecting duplicates and putting them in multiple herbaria, including in the country of origin, is important so that they are not lost to pests, fire, institutional issues, and other problems, and so that people in diverse areas can use them more easily. (Herbaria do loan specimens to each other for research, even internationally.) I think that sending some of the specimens now in first-world herbaria to herbaria in the countries of origin is a good idea, but wholesale “repatriation” is not.


Count me in as another person who doesn’t understand the term in the context being discussed here. Assuming I don’t break any local laws am I plundering by taking a specimen back to my home country? How about if a local person sells it to me?

In fact, now that I think about it the title of this post seems intended to deliberately provoke dissent and argument. Unless there is an agreed definition of the terms ‘colonial’, ‘stolen’, and ‘scientific treasures’ this will just bog down into one of the good vs bad according to ethnicity that plaque the internet.


The plundering in the original post is by multiple colonial powers against each other/each other’s citizens, so reading/referencing that

might help. I think almost everyone would agree that the specimens (the “treasures” referenced in the Wikipedia article) in that incident were indeed stolen/plundered.


With “colonial repatriation” it addresses colonialism, not what other cultures did to each other before that point. People always bring that concept up when they just don’t like the idea of repatriation, you can agree with it or not but the whole point is to address the specific colonial genocide. Otherwise it’s like punching your brother in the face and saying it’s ok because you saw him punch someone last week. Not relevant. That being said, i don’t find this issue of scientific specimens really that compelling in the face of all the other things that happened.

Yes, but unless the British had a time machine in the 1700s they weren’t taking things from the people then. They were taking artifacts (or scientific samples)? from 1700s Egypt.

The specimen is dead, it’s best interests don’t really matter any more.

this is a pretty problematic statement for a whole world of reasons. And anyhow it’s not like the United States where I live (and it seems like you do?) does a great job of specimen maintenance, we hear all the time about herbariums and insect collections being discarded from research institutions for political or ‘financial’ reasons.


I don’t agree. I don’t think either country had legal prohibitions against taking what they could get from the other during that time. I’m sure that Dombey felt he was hard done by because the Brits ‘stole’ the plants he had ‘plundered’ from South America. Does that matter? I would say not.

Edited to add: I don’t appreciate the implication that I didn’t read the Dombey link. I did. I understand it. It boils down to this- 240 years or so ago two countries that couldn’t get along attacked each other and took what they could get.

Name one. Or many.

i already named one in my post, sounds like you just want to argue so i won’t name more until i know you’re at least reading what i am saying


I have actually read what you wrote. I don’t see anywhere where you have provided an example that contradicts the claim that sending a butterfly back to a developing nation is a positive.

so you think a few wealthy countries should hoard the majority of specimens? What’s the basis for that? I also think you’re arguing the same argument as I am and we are both confused? (too many double negatives in your statement)


Come on. I haven’t said that. Let’s not resort to strawman arguments.

I feel like this is a bit pedantic, but it’s pretty clear that both the terms “plunder” and “steal” which you object to clearly apply to the situation described in OPs original link. To argue against their applicability under generally accepted definitions seems strange, so I think it’s fair to refer back to the original post to make it clear that that terms are relevant, despite an assertion otherwise. To whit:

Oxford defines plunder as to “steal goods from (a place or person), typically using force and in a time of war or civil disorder” which applies to the taking of Dombey’s specimens from a French ship by the British during the Anglo-French War.

Oxford defines steal as to “take (another person’s property) without permission or legal right and without intending to return it”. This applies to the taking of Dombey’s specimens without his permission which were not and have never been returned.

The Community Guidelines tell us to assume that people mean well, but implying that the OP intended to

does not meet that standard to me. The forum guidelines note that

so it’s ok to disagree with the ideas in other people’s posts, but please don’t cast aspersions against other forum members.


Fair enough. I cannot know @broacher’s intent. I therefore retract my implication.

As far as the law goes I’ll skip the arguments and suggest consulting a lawyer.

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I’ve no objection to the Europeans and Americans keeping the historical specimens. I was looking at some online grasshopper specimen pictures from the museums. Some specimens from the 100 years ago have deteriorated and fragmented. Earlier explorers collected fossils from the deserts in Africa, tundras in Asia, Patagonia, China, India. Some fossils and tomb artifacts which reached the europeans may be plundered by the locals and reached the developed countries where the stolen items are auctioned, often reaching impressive sums. It is very tempting to ask for a return when the value is high. There are fairly recent wars in the mesopotamia region which I assume is all deserts, but it is indeed filled with ancient civilization artifacts. Soldiers and rebels might’ve looted some items or destroyed them. Part of the system in today’s world is the Commonwealth system. There is an underlying neo-colonialism in it that needs to be looked into. But as for museum artifacts, please keep them. Due to the historical circumstances, europe are developed in the level of literature, while various parts of asia was in constant wars, sometimes a result of instigation by colonial europeans in the 18th century as they expand their colonies and extracted from the regions. Some regions likely do not have enough local scientists. The scientific species naming situation is that the majority of species names were made by scientists from europe. Local scientists do not get enough action. There is a young guy somewhere in iNat who said he want to be a scientist. (not me) Hopefully, the situations will change in future for people in Asia.