Bell Repatriation

Repatriation is the process of returning cultural and historical artifacts like bells to their countries of origin or rightful owners. The process is generally guided by an ethical mandate – to tender not only a piece of property, but also an emblematic element of heritage, to the control of its natal community. 

Bells have been a part of secular and religious life for centuries and their presence across the world reflects the civic, social, and spiritual traditions of a people, as well as their artistic, musical, and metallurgical accomplishments. Removing bells from this context and from the communities they serve not only casts a silent pall over a region, but also leaves an indelible emptiness in the soul of a people.

Bell repatriation, then, is the natural and rightful act of restitution, provided that the conditions for a safe conveyance are coupled with both historical understanding and cultural consideration.
Cover image: A replacement for the Dai-Anzen-Ji temple bell, cast in 1456, is rung by a midshipman in front of Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy after the annual Army-Navy football game on December 13, 2021, in Annapolis, Maryland. The original bell, presented to Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854, was repatriated to Japan in 1987 by order of the Secretary of the Navy James H. Webb Jr.

Establishing provenance and ownership

The process of repatriating a bell can be complex and sensitive, as it involves issues of ownership, cultural heritage, and international law. It should always begin with dialogue. Repatriating a bell cannot be performed in a vacuum and it is not a one-sided process. 

Intent, goodwill, and collaboration should be established between both the possessor and the claimant, although recalcitrance on the side of the possessor should not be a deterrent in the pursuit of bell repatriation. Indeed, it is most often the case. Education, community involvement, and persistence are key to overcoming any obstruction.

Repatriating a bell requires the rightful owner or country of origin to be established and accepted on both sides. While this seems straightforward enough, it can sometimes be a difficult task, as many cultural artifacts have been traded or sold over the centuries or may have complicated histories. Researching the provenance, or ownership history, of the bell can help establish its origin and identify any previous owners or collectors.

Once the rightful owner of a bell has been identified (whether an individual, an institution such as a church, a municipality, or a country), you must then contact the appropriate authorities in the country of origin, working with legal representatives to navigate any international laws or agreements that may be in place. 

Keep in mind, some nations have laws that limit the repatriation of artifacts like bells which now serve as memorials to war dead or which reside in national collections. This might prohibit a bell’s export to its nation of origin. Be prepared for some resistance from museums, collectors, or governments who dispute ownership claims.

Section image: Bishop Gebhard Fürst stands in front of the Maria Hilfe der Christen church in Aichtal, Germany, on September 24, 2021. He sounds a historical bell that is to be repatriated to the Czech Republic as part of the ‘Peace Bells for Europe’ project that facilitates the return of bells looted during World War II to Polish and Czech parishes. The bell hangs next to a replacement bell for the church.

Welcoming the bells home

Packing a bell in a crate and shipping it to a foreign land is not the end of the repatriation process. The act of receiving a repatriated bell, reinstalling it in its community, and providing context for its enigmatic history should be thought out and planned before the bell returns home.

Often, bell repatriation ceremonies attract dignitaries and government officials, who accept the bell on the community’s behalf and ring it for the first time after its arrival. These can be very joyful and emotional times, but such occasions might also rekindle discussions around imperialism, colonialism, war atrocities, and racialism. It is important to approach repatriation with sensitivity and respect for the cultural significance of the bell and what it might have come to symbolize.

Danilov Monastery bells return to Russia after 78 years at Harvard University

Image: Russian Orthodox faithful celebrate the repatriation of 18 bells to the Danilov Monastery in Moscow on September 12, 2008, after the bells returned from 78 years at Harvard University.

While bells are tempting targets for collectors, looters, and invading forces, who pluck bells like fruit in a foreign land, returning these bells and reuniting them with their communities is a way to preserve cultural heritage and promote understanding between peoples. It is a wonderful opportunity for nations and communities to rebuild trust, for indigenous rights to be recognized, and for power relations to be rebalanced.

Repatriation, reunification, reconnection – no matter what you call it, returning a bell to its home can enliven communities, rekindle memories, and ameliorate past aggressions. A bell is a communal musical instrument. What note do you want it to sound?

Section image: Personnel from the Armed Forces of the Philippines take possession of the bells of Balangiga, repatriated from the United States after 117 years, at the Philippine Air Force Grandstand in Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, Philippines, on December 11, 2018. Courtesy: Joey O. Razon, Philippine News Agency.