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Debate: Returning cultural treasures to country of origin

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Should cultural treasures be returned to their country of origin?

Background and context

This debate is most often put in terms of the Elgin, or Parthenon marbles, masterpieces of classical Greek sculpture removed from the Parthenon in Athens in 1801 by Lord Elgin, and sold to the British Museum in London in 1816. Greece has consistently demanded the return of these national treasures since independence in 1830, which Britain has consistently refused. Nonetheless, the marbles are part of a wider debate about the ownership and display of cultural treasures, often acquired from the (then) developing world by imperial powers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and displayed in western museums. A separate but related argument concerns the return of art treasures seized by the victorious allies (principally the USSR) from the defeated Axis powers in 1945.[1]

Accessibility and context: Is it more important that artifacts be seen in their geographic, cultural context, than that they be seen by the most number of people in a prominent museum location?


  • Displaying cultural treasures in their original cultural context, allows them to be better understood: In the case of the Elgin marbles this is an architectural context which only proximity to the Parthenon itself can provide.
  • The display of cultural treasures in western museums is an anachronism based on the false notion that only Western minds can appreciate these treasures: This notion is drawn from the imperial belief that “civilised” states such as Britain were the true successors to Greece and Rome, and that the modern inhabitants of those ancient regions were unable to appreciate or look after their great artistic heritage. Whether that was true in the 19th century is open to doubt it certainly is not valid today and the display of imperial trophies in institutions such as the British Museum or the Louvre has become offensive.[2]


  • Art treasures should be accessible to the greatest number of people and to scholars, which means retaining them in the great museums of the world: Returning treasures to their original context is impossible, too much has changed physically and culturally over the centuries for them to speak more clearly in their country of origin than they do in museums, where they can be compared to large assemblies of objects from a wide variety of cultures. In any case, perfect laser-cut copies could be placed on the Parthenon and in other original locations, if it were so desired.[3]

Righting past wrongs: Should artifacts be returned to their country of origin in order to "right past wrongs"?


  • Many artefacts were acquired illegally or unethically, giving cause to their return: Artefacts such as the Parthenon marbles were often acquired illegally, for example through looting in war (the Benin bronzes), under the duress of imperial force (many Chinese artefacts), or by bribing officials to ignore the carrying away of sculptures from monuments they were meant to be guarding (the Elgin marbles).[4]


  • It is not always clear how artefacts were acquired (illegally or otherwise), making it impossible to determine a basis for their return to a country of origin: Although some art treasures may have been acquired illegally, the evidence for this is often ambiguous. Lord Elgin’s bribes were the common way of facilitating any business in the Ottoman Empire, and do not undermine Britain’s solid legal claim to the Parthenon marbles, based upon a written contract made by the international-recognised authorities in Athens at the time. And while some Benin bronzes were undoubtedly looted, other “colonial trophies” were freely sold to the imperial powers, indeed some were made specifically for the European market.[5]
  • History is history, and modern museums should not be punished for past sins by having to return their collections to countries of origin: For whatever reason the treasures were first collected, we should not rewrite history; sending artefacts such as the Elgin marbles back to their country of origin would set a bad precedent that could denude museums around the world of their collections. Placing great artefacts in a geographical and cultural ghetto, whereby Greek sculptures could only be viewed in Greece, or Egyptian mummies in Egypt, would leave the world much poorer and reduce popular understanding of the achievements of such civilisations.

Cultural and religious doctrines: Can certain displays of artifacts abroad violate the religious and cultural doctrines of the culture of origin?


  • Some foreign displays of artifacts violate the cultural or religious doctrines of cultures from which artifacts were taken: Some cultural treasures, e.g Native American artefacts, have religious and cultural associations for the area from which they were taken, but none for those who view them in sterile glass cases. To the descendants of their creators it is offensive to see aspects of their spirituality displayed for entertainment.[6]


  • Sometimes cultural and religious implications are voided by the sale or transfer of an artifact from one culture to another, and when it is for certain purposes: This may be true, but religious artefacts may have been originally purchased or given in good faith, perhaps with the intention of educating a wider public about the beliefs of their creators. Later descendants should not be allowed to second-guess their ancestors’ intentions. On the other hand, a great many cultural treasures relate to religions and cultures which no longer survive and there can be no such claim for their return.

To preserve or save artifacts: Is it never justified to remove artifacts in order to preserve them from destruction?


  • It may have been true that countries such as Greece were not capable of looking after their heritage in the past, but that has now changed: A state-of-the-art museum is planned in Athens to house the surviving marbles, while pollution control measures have reduced sulphur-dioxide levels in the city to a fifth of their previous levels. At the same time the curatorship of institutions such as the British Museum is being called into question, as it becomes apparent that controversial cleaning and restoration practices may have harmed the sculptures they claim to protect.[7]


  • It is sometimes legitimate for foreign countries to remove artifacts in order to preserve or save them: In the case of the Parthenon marbles, Lord Elgin’s action in removing them was an act of rescue as the Ottoman authorities were pillaging them for building stone, caring nothing for the classical Greek heritage. Furthermore, if they had been returned upon Greek independence in 1830, the heavily polluted air of Athens would by now have destroyed them. Similar problems face the return of artefacts to African museums; wooden figures would decay in the humid atmosphere, while corruption has meant that 50 pieces disappeared from Nigeria’s premier museum in 1998.[8]

See also

External links and resources


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