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© 2017 The Strand Magazine

The Return Address - Debating The Repatriation of Stolen Antiquities

October 20, 2018

The Acropolis' Parthenon Marbles, displayed at the British Museum in London


In the sector of cultural heritage lies a touchy debate: the repatriation of artefacts that have been removed from their birthplace under questionable circumstances. This conversation has been an ongoing one since decolonization, and as the years go by, this dialogue has in many cases resulted in action: antiquities being shipped back to the places from which they came from. The puzzle of controversially acquired items remains relevant in our reception and management of cultural heritage, particularly because the objects in question are so much more than material entities. Antiquities are the physical correspondents of the identities and ideologies that pervade and interconnect past and present. In the context of cultural heritage especially, objects are permeated by human emotions and experiences, in such a way that the debate often exceeds sterile discussion. Strong opinions frame both sides of the argument whether current holders should remit stolen antiquities back to their origins or continue to display them, responsively. Although both boast thought-provoking justifications, I firmly believe that, for the most part, they should stay exactly where they are. So that the message of a collective and global identity endures; for it to be communicated loud and clear. 


Cardinal to this debate is the connection between past and present identities that antiquities embody. What makes us who we are is not an easy understanding to come to, because self-understanding is constructed rather messily from a variety of different elements. History is one of the most fundamental building materials that cements together this notion of the self, something we often possess without being completely aware of. In a significant way, the thread of the past is inseparably stitched through the fabric of who we are as individuals: it is this patchwork of these diverse identities that creates our globalized Western society. Awareness of our specific collective memories as a group or nation is an unavoidable part of that belonging; part of possessing an identity is understanding of what it is composed. There is a reason, then, for antiquities and historical artefacts to be encased behind glass in important museums. Relics of the past are among the most valuable objects in the world, not only for the miracle of their survival and what they teach us about years gone by, but especially because they provide material evidence of the collective memories that constitute our contemporary identities. 


Over the last centuries, thousands of antiquities have been bought and sold from their places of origin, the transactions involving a parade of wealthy collectors, curators, investors, academics, governments and ordinary natives, making it nearly impossible to keep track of. Some of these arrangements to transfer artefacts to be presented abroad are perfectly legitimate, while other items make their way underground, often by black market. By the time they reach a museum in an artistic and cultural center such as London, the question of how they arrived here can easily escape our consciousness as we press our hands-on glass cases in marvel and intrigue. As we wander through the African or Asian galleries of the British Museum, for example, dare we consider the role colonialism might have played in giving us the privilege to view such exhibits? If these objects are inherently linked to the cultures that colonialists deemed primitive and subordinate, dare we note the irony in the same individuals seeing enough value in indigenous material culture to steal it away? Although we cannot be held responsible for theft that occurred generations ago, we must at least be aware of a great paradox: the ease with which antiquities, that we know to possess immense ideological weight, to be smuggled across borders, either unnoticed or soberly permitted, as though they are light as air. 


British colonizers gathering African artefacts to take back to the metropole


In recognition, a long and tumultuous debate rises on how we must respond for the questionable legitimacy of our society’s ownership of foreign antiquities. Some feel their rightful homes are in fact their places of origin, where their value is most enhanced by close proximity to those who personally identify with the memory an object recalls. The argument in favor of sending antiquities obtained under questionable circumstances back to where they came from often rests upon the irrefutable fact that the burglary of artefacts can play a role in stripping a place and its people of their un-dispensable identity. Sometimes this is the winning argument, such as in the case of the 10th century Khmer statues once displayed in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art: questionable means of acquisition sent the statues back to Cambodia, where many will argue they rightfully belong. 


Other outcries demanding the obligatory return of artefacts back to their origins are not so easily amended. The Parthenon marbles taken from the Athenian Acropolis by Lord Elgin, with pressured permission by the Ottoman rulers of Greek territory in the nineteenth century, are a famous and highly controversial example. The pressure to return the marbles stems significantly from their ideological connections to Greek nationalism and movements of independence; a poster example of reclaiming the past to shape a present identity. The New Acropolis Museum is unafraid to communicate, in the vacant space in the exhibit that measures perfect dimensions to display the marbles, that something is missing. Miles away in the British Museum, they are frequented by visitors from across the globe but undeniably divorced from their original context, and we are presented again with a question of fairness: should we send them back? 


If we believe in a concept of collective identity; if we are interested in building a global society upon a basis of understanding and appreciation; if we see the potential for cultural heritage to connect us as members of a global community rather than distinguish us as separate — we absolutely cannot. 


First and foremost, we must not overlook basic considerations of security — we simply cannot send treasures from Mesopotamia, for instance, back to territories now governed by ISIS. In regards to accessibility, even if artefacts were wrongfully obtained years ago, it is doubtful that the viewership of nearly seven million annual visitors to the British Museum could be matched if artefacts were to be dispersed across the globe to their places of provenance and sought after individually. 


But beyond the practical considerations of security and availability lies the chief reasoning for keeping foreign artefacts in Western museums, the consideration of what this would mean ideologically. If antiquities were to be returned, the cosmopolitanism that the city of London has symbolized for so long is principally at risk, and the precedent set may devalue more cultural heritage institutions than we are prepared for. Fundamentally, the idea of casting foreign objects back to their origins communicates that they are and forever will be alien to Western society. I do not stand against the admittance of wrongful acquisition of stolen treasures, or reparations to nations victim of theft. But I fear that their return may reinforce a east-west divide, between archaic notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’, a door that is dangerous to reopen. 


When objects tell the unfamiliar stories of a culture other than our own, they provide us the opportunity as strangers of that culture to come to understand its distinct history and identity as well as our own in return. When we pack them up and send them on their way, back to the places where these stories are more familiar, their potential to become beacons of newfound understanding is lost. When one of the only ways we can obliterate hatred and ignorance, which I am convinced stems from fear of the unknown, is by learning, the criticism for holding on to something that may not have been ours to begin with — in favor of a priceless, unique appreciation for what may be different from us — is something we must be willing to bear. 


 Interior view of the British Museum


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