The British Museum

by Jon Mandle on August 23, 2007

I recently visited the British museum for the first time. The very little I saw really was astonishing. I found it surprisingly moving, in fact – especially the Rosetta Stone, for whatever reason. But despite the sense of amazement, I also had the gnawing and depressing feeling that the last 3500 years of human history really just boils down to one damn war after another. Another (related) feeling was the more inchoate discomfort with how all that stuff managed to arrive in London.

In chapter 8 of Cosmopolitanism, Kwame Anthony Appiah asks “Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?” He points to an ambiguity in the term “culture.” Sometimes it refers to artifacts – “whatever people make and invest with significance through the exercise of their human creativity.” Other times it refers to “the group from whose conventions the object derives its significance.” He struggles with the relationship between these two senses of the term – specifically with the question of the return of ancient cultural artifacts to people who claim them as their “cultural patrimony”.

Appiah has lots of sensible and interesting things to say on the issue. He holds that it is “a perfectly reasonable property rule that where something is dug up and nobody can establish an existing claim on it, the government gets to decide what to do with it.” But the government should think of itself as a trustee “for humanity”. This cosmopolitan perspective breaks any kind of special tie to geographic location. “However self-serving it may seem, the British Museum’s claim to be a repository of the heritage not of Britain but of the world seems to me exactly right.”

But he also quotes Major Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts), who after looting the palace of the Asante King Kofi Karikari in 1874 1895 [thanks, rea – see comment 14.] wrote: “There could be no more interesting, no more tempting work than this. To poke about in a barbarian king’s palace, whose wealth has been reported very great, was enough to make it so. Perhaps one of the most striking features about it was that the work of collecting the treasures was entrusted to a company of British soldiers, and that it was done most honestly and well, without a single case of looting.” Appiah obviously recognizes this as theft, and wants a negotiated restitution, but this is because “the property rights that were trampled upon in these cases flow from laws that I think are reasonable. I am not for sending every object ‘home.’ … I actually want museums in Europe to be able to show the riches of the society they plundered in the years when my grandfather was a young man … Because perhaps the greatest of the many ironies of the sacking of Kumasi in 1874 is that it deprived my hometown of a collection that was, in fact, splendidly cosmopolitan.”

There certainly is something very attractive about the ideal of a grand cosmopolitan museum, whether in London or Kumasi. But I just couldn’t shake the thought that most of the artifacts were taken with an attitude that Britain – as opposed to the world – was entitled to them.

{ 62 comments }

1

Anderson 08.23.07 at 4:00 pm

To be fair, a lot of the stuff was taken at a time when such curiosity about antiquity wasn’t shared by the countries from whom the Brits got them. Still, I share the uneasiness.

2

Jasper Milvain 08.23.07 at 4:18 pm

I tend to end up with the William Empson position:

Attending there let us absorb the cultures of nations
And dissolve into our judgement all their codes,
Then, being clogged with a natural hesitation
(People are continually asking one the way out),
Let us stand here and admit we have no road.

3

Shelby 08.23.07 at 4:52 pm

I just couldn’t shake the thought that most of the artifacts were taken with an attitude that Britain – as opposed to the world – was entitled to them.

Well, of course they were. The attitude, I mean, not the actual entitlement. Isn’t that a large part of what motivates the revulsion — or whatever negative reaction — to imperialism and national exceptionalism? The idea that, either by virtue of just “being better” or by “right of arms” one’s nation is entitled to whatever it can lay hold of? Plainly that attitude was widespread, at least in Europe and its derivative nations (and in fact almost universally) through the nineteenth century, and in many places well into the twentieth. Just as plainly, that attitude is now profoundly disturbing to many whose forbears lived by that creed.

It’s nice to think that the revulsion is based purely on seeing negative side-effects (moral, physical, spiritual, etc.) that our predecessors missed. What else drives this change in perspective? I’m sure there’s a whole ethnology or sociology documenting and explaining this shift; can anyone here point to a useful summary?

4

Martin James 08.23.07 at 5:19 pm

I think the revulsion is commonly referred to as wanting to quit while one is ahead.

5

bi 08.23.07 at 5:36 pm

“a perfectly reasonable property rule that where something is dug up and nobody can establish an existing claim on it, the government gets to decide what to do with it.”

But which government? The Rosetta Stone was, well, actually discovered by the French… and if the French had shipped it off to France instead of leaving it behind in Egypt so that the British could take it, the Stone might have ended up in some French Musee instead. The ways of common property law are truly beyond human understanding.

6

Justin 08.23.07 at 5:57 pm

It’s pretty difficult *not* to walk through the British Museum without thinking it should be subtitled “S*** we stole.”

7

Russell L. Carter 08.23.07 at 7:22 pm

One of the highlights of my life is the four weeks I spent at University College, where I dashed down to the BM about every other day for an hour at lunch. And the most powerful feeling that remains is spending time with the Elgin Marbles… and thinking they really should not have done that. Desecration. I got the same feeling looking at the Temple of Dendur in the Met last fall. I don’t care if it was a gift, freely given by the sovereign in thanks for other acts of preservation. Abu Simbel a couple of weeks later seemed exactly right, right where it was, even though you know that’s not where it used to be.

I shouldn’t be so sentimental. It screws up the aesthetic experience, and while I (and lots of other people) can get to the Met as often as I want, I’ll probably only get to Egypt once.

8

monkey.dave 08.23.07 at 7:33 pm

I think the urge to consider the British Museum as a repository for “S*** We Stole” can be balanced against stuff like this:

One of the most inspiring, and devastating, things Stewart discovers on his walk is the mysterious Minaret of Jam, a 213-foot-tall (65-meter-tall) Islamic tower standing alone on the south bank of the frozen Hari Rud in a narrow gorge, surrounded by soaring cliffs. Before warfare barred further exploration here, archaeologists had searched for clues as to whether this impossible location was the storied Turquoise Mountain, the seat of the 12th-century Ghorid dynasty, Afghanistan’s last great indigenous empire. Stewart comes across a network of ten-foot-deep (three-meter-deep) trenches and possibly solves the mystery. The place is littered with pottery shards and bits of porcelain. An entire village of looters had recently sprung up, he learns, and they’ve been busy selling off terra-cotta ewers, marble friezes, and ivory chess sets to smugglers. “The villagers had clearly succeeded where the archaeologists had failed and had uncovered an ancient city,” Stewart informs us. They’re a friendly bunch, these diggers. They invite Stewart for tea. “The foreigners didn’t know how to dig,” one man tells Stewart. “They worked so slowly, a few centimeters at a time …. They should have worked like us.”

Maybe it’s excessively bourgeois and Western of me to care that knowledge of this area is being lost forever, but I can’t help but think that it’s representative of problems with the purist anti-imperialist position.

9

vivian 08.23.07 at 8:17 pm

I agree that the British Museum is disconcerting – an extraordinary collection that was collected in a horrible way. The mummy room was really uncomfortable for me, they’re just stacked in plexiglass shelves, there are so many of them, with a note about how countless more were burned on site, for convenience. The brazenness of it was also (no moral credit to me) a little bit amusing. But, you know, it seems right to have a museum that gives us both awe and vicarious shame around so much of history. If they tried to act ashamed of their past, it might let the viewer off the hook.

10

emmanuel goldstein 08.23.07 at 8:19 pm

monkey.dave,

Maybe it’s excessively bourgeois and Western of me to care that knowledge of this area is being lost forever, but I can’t help but think that it’s representative of problems with the purist anti-imperialist position.

Ho, ho, ho.

Afghan indifference to the value of Afghan artefacts deprives Afghanistan, permanently, apparently, of its prima facie property rights in the artefacts; does Puritan iconoclasm (active destructive hatred!) mean the British Museum permanently forfeits its prima facie right to British artefacts?

11

richard 08.23.07 at 8:23 pm

The Elgin marbles is such an interesting case exactly because it involves a complex tangle of imperialisms and nationalisms. The statues were taken in an ambiguous deal between Ottoman and British officials, both working largely privately. The terms of the deal may have been stretched by the Brits, but that certainly didn’t seem to concern the Turks all that much. Elgin’s attempts to sell the marbles to the British government (and the considerable work he went through to establish that they were valuable) seem pretty directly related to their status today as universal patrimony of the highest order… which is why the modern Greek nation state (which didn’t exist at the time) is so keen to get them “back.”

Oddly, the case never seems to be presented in this light. I’ve sat in three seminars where the question “should the Elgin marbles be returned?” has been raised. I’ve never heard the question “what do the Elgin marbles tell us about ideas of cultural patrimony, nationalism and corporate memory?”

12

richard 08.23.07 at 8:27 pm

By the way, the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford is also worth a look for these kinds of chills: it’s smaller scale but somehow brings the points out even more loudly – perhaps because the method of display isn’t so coolly authoritarian.

13

Michael Keyes 08.23.07 at 8:57 pm

The British Museum didn’t always have the reverence for these antiquities (primarlily due to funding)that they have now.

I was taking a surgery clerkship in London in the summer of 1969 when I visited the museum while researching a paper on infection control in Wales during the 18th century. Since I was from Nashville, where a full sized replica of the Parthenon and the Elgin Marbles was a feature of my life since childhood, I asked where the Elgin Marbles were. I was directed to a small basement room containg the marbles and a lot of other “stuff” mostly unlabeled except for a small handwritten card and just placed where convenient.

I was admiring the Elgin Marbles while leaning against another exhibit (and I use the word loosely) when I realized that the object I used for support was the Rosetta Stone. There was no security, no guidance, and apparently no interest in those objects at the time.

Flash forward 20 years and I visited the BM again in the company of my growing family. This time there were lasers, guards, cameras and plenty of signs surrounding one of the most important historical documents in Western History. I could have walked out with it in 1969 and no one would have noticed, but apparently they found the motivation (and the money) to preserve the Rosetta Stone and others later on.

14

rea 08.23.07 at 8:58 pm

Something’s screwy about the Baden Powell story, because the man was born in 1857, and was unlikely to be a 17-year old major in 1874 . . .

And after a little research, I see the incident took place in 1895:

http://www.pinetreeweb.com/bp-prempeh-00.htm

15

abb1 08.23.07 at 9:03 pm

Maybe UNESCO should own this kinda stuff and move it around from museum to museum in all different parts of the world.

16

dsquared 08.23.07 at 9:38 pm

wouldn’t the stuff tend to fall apart a bit if you did that?

17

rea 08.23.07 at 9:41 pm

Oh, and another thing about the treasures of the Asante, “looted” by Baden Powell and his troops, or maybe taken in one of the other 3 wars between the British and the Asante: the Asante became rich through military conquest of their neighbors, and the slave trade. Considering how the treasures were acquired, do today’s Asante really have a better claim to them than the British Museum?

You could make a similar argument about the Elgin marbles, originally purchased by the Athenians with money taken forceably from their “allies”–maybe they should be given to the Melians . . .

18

bert 08.23.07 at 10:12 pm

8:
Funny you should mention looted Afghan treasures.
Top favourite from the British Museum is the lion hunt carvings taken from Nineveh. (here, here, here).

If they’d been returned they’d have been in the National Museum in Baghdad. Stuff happens there, notoriously. Blame whoever you like for the looting, I’m glad those carvings are safe and sound in Bloomsbury.

19

Jon Mandle 08.23.07 at 11:31 pm

Thanks, rea – I got the date wrong. Here’s Appiah: “When the British general Sir Garnet Wolseley destroyed Kumasi in a ‘punitive expedition’ in 1874, he authorized the looting of the palace of the Asante king Kofi Karikari … A couple of decades later, a Major Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell … was dispatched once more to Kumasi, this time to demand that the new king, Prempeh, submit to British rule.” (p.115)

20

rilkefan 08.23.07 at 11:33 pm

18 – gorgeous images, thanks.

21

Leah 08.23.07 at 11:48 pm

Great discussion and great comments- I study the ethics and legalities surrounding collecting antiquities- this article was one of the first things I read about cultural property. I don’t agree with everything in it, but it’s worth reading.

22

greensmile 08.24.07 at 12:31 am

wrong bloody museum!

go to a science museum. History is just one great leap of understanding after another!

23

Jon H 08.24.07 at 2:47 am

vivian wrote: “with a note about how countless more were burned on site, for convenience.”

And millions of mummies were ground up for various nostrums and cure-alls and other stupid uses.

It’s not like the Egyptians were particularly interested in preserving the long-dead remains of pagans.

A lot of the stone items in museums probably would have wound up broken up for use as building materials.

A lot of this is basically punishing wealthy countries for caring about these things when the ‘donor’ countries didn’t value them at all and weren’t concerned about protecting them.

Now, in the 21st century, these other countries see those things as a source of tourist revenue, so they want them back.

And as alluded above, most of the treasures were not exactly cleanly obtained.

Does Appiah address the fact that the good King’s wealth was probably obtained by selling slaves?

24

Jon H 08.24.07 at 2:49 am

jon mandle wrote: ” Here’s Appiah: “When the British general Sir Garnet Wolseley destroyed Kumasi in a ‘punitive expedition’ in 1874, he authorized the looting of the palace of the Asante king Kofi Karikari … A couple of decades later, a Major Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell … was dispatched once more to Kumasi, this time to demand that the new king, Prempeh, submit to British rule.” (p.115)”

Does he mention that stopping slavery was (as far as I know) part of the reason the Brits were there?

25

ed 08.24.07 at 4:31 am

I agree with the cultural imperialists on this one.

1. There is not really much connection between the ancient cultures that created the artifacts, and the modern peoples that live in the same area. In many cases the modern peoples are descendents of nations that were enemies, and who conquered the ancient cultures that created the artifacts. This is true of Britain as well. The people who built Hadrian’s Wall and Bath, and the Portland Vase, unsucessfully tried to fight off the Anglo-Saxons who later became the English. This is most extreme in Muslim countries, where until recently there really was little interest in pre-Hegira times.

2. Not all artifacts in Western museums were stolen, many if not most were legitimately sold. If they go back to the countries of origin, will the Western nations get a refund?

3. More people will be able to see art in world cities such as London, Berlin, Paris, and New York than in, say, Afghanistan or even Greece.

4. Archeology was pretty much invented by the West during the Enlightenment. That should count for something.

5. What about the National Palace Museum on Taiwan? Should everything there be returned to the People’s Republic of China? Should the British get their kings back who are buried in France?

In regards to the Temple of Dendur and the Elgin Marbles, the Temple of Dendur is not only a gift (do you feel guilty about the Statue of Liberty too?), if it was on its original site it would be underwater. The case for returning the Elgin Marbles is stronger. However, they could not be restored to the Parthenon, and would have to be put in a museum. I can’t see what is different about them being in a museum in London as opposed to a museum in Athens, except that more people would see them in London. The connection between modern Greece and ancient Greece is really slim, during the dark ages the Greeks were driven out of most of Greece in a series of barbarian invasions, then Greece was reconquered by the Byzantines in the 9th and 10th centuries. There is a big break in continuity.

Most art should be in museums, cared for by professional staffs, in the largest and most visited cities in the world. In cases where theft can be proven I would prefer that money change hands than the actual artworks. Right now these cities are in Europe and the US, but that won’t necessarily be the case in the future. I’m from the U.S., but if the current contents of the Museum of the American Indian can best be looked after in Beijing in 2200, then I’m fine with them winding up there.

26

abb1 08.24.07 at 6:17 am

wouldn’t the stuff tend to fall apart…

Nah, not if ’em UNESCO fellas get ’em some Krazy glue.

27

Hidari 08.24.07 at 6:30 am

In terms of the cultural background, did anyone see the jaw dropping quote from Charles Dickens in today’s Guardian?

Charles Dickens: “I wish I were commander-in-chief in India … I should proclaim to them that I considered my holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the race.”‘

Exterminate the race. My my.

It also has a quote from the Guardian at the time, enthusiastically backing the British ‘intervention’, so no change there.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/india/story/0,,2155324,00.html

28

Henry (not the famous one) 08.24.07 at 9:36 am

27–Wilberforce, canonized for his anti-slavery work, had similar things to say about Indian and Indians, albeit less bloodthirsty.

Meanwhile–27 posts and not one reference to Ira Gershwin. All very high-minded (with the exception of no. 26).

29

Katherine 08.24.07 at 10:11 am

I finally made it to the British Musuem last year after 8 years of living in London. The Elgin Marbles room was extraordinary, but I could help thinking, as I eavesdropped on a guide taking round a group of overseas school children, that her arguments for why the Elgin Marbles should stay at the British Museum and that really this wasn’t an argument any more sounded a teensy bit desperate and just a little methinks-she-doth-protest-too-much.

30

Katherine 08.24.07 at 10:12 am

Argh, “couldn’t” help thinking.

31

ajay 08.24.07 at 11:29 am

23: it’s not as if the British looted the National Museum of Asante. This was stuff owned by (let’s face it) a despot, and very few of his subjects would have got anywhere near it. At least in Britain it was seen and admired by millions of people. Describing King Kofi’s monumental personal wealth as “national patrimony” is implying that the King was the State, which is rather an obsolete idea (and was so even in 19th-century Britain).

32

Jon Mandle 08.24.07 at 11:31 am

No, jon h [24.], he doesn’t mention slavery (in this context). But he does say: “We shouldn’t become overly sentimental about these matters. Many of the treasures in the Aban were no doubt war booty as well.” (p.133) Actually, this is the kind of point that Appiah is very good at recognizing.

Also this: “The Aban had been completed in 1822. It was a prize project of the Asantehene Osei Bonsu, who had apparently been impressed by what he’d heard about the British Museum.” (p.134)

33

alienaway 08.24.07 at 11:50 am

You mentioned that you were moved by the exihibits, especially the Rosetta Stone. That stone has held a special place in my mind after reading an account of its history and importance at quite an early (and impressionable) age. So I went on to embarrass my family and myself by tearing up and barely avoiding actively crying when I noticed that there it is, in this hallway, kids, honey, do you know what that is, oh it’s the real genuine thing sniff sniff. It was just sitting there unprotected and as if unremarkable. The giant babylonian man-headed winged lion figures were easy after that.

34

rea 08.24.07 at 1:10 pm

did anyone see the jaw dropping quote from Charles Dickens in today’s Guardian?

It’s a little unfair to quote Dickens like this without giving context–Dicken’s remarks came after a particularly bloody series of massacres of British soliders and civilians (to which the British responded in kind). Rather like quoting someone’s bloodthirsty statments about Muslims, without noting that they were made on 9/12/01

35

richard 08.24.07 at 1:22 pm

Maybe UNESCO should own this kinda stuff and move it around from museum to museum in all different parts of the world.

How much do you know about UNESCO? I don’t think I’d trust them with that.

This is an interesting discussion, because of the values on display (as always). National claims to stretch back to antiquity are receiving short shrift (good, IMHO), but there’s a curious assumption that despots don’t deserve their goods – made or captured – because of their despotism. If we take that to be true, then we have to look through history to try to find some non-despotic regimes… and try to be careful and honest about whether claims of non-despotism are just part of a current national image. Tricky.

36

chris y 08.24.07 at 1:49 pm

ed @25 only makes part of his case. It’s perfectly true that there was an element of rescue archaeology in much European treasure hunting during the 19th century.

If, for example, Elgin had not purchased the Parthenon marbles, they would presumably have been either looted by someone else, who might have had less appreciation of their value, left to decay in situ, so that their present condition would be even worse, or removed to a museum in Istanbul (unlikely, but the Osmanli government did from time to time take an interest in the excavations in their territories), which would have been no improvement from a 21st century Greek viewpoint.

But that was then and this is now. If I visit the city dump and notice that somebody has tossed out a nice little Velazquez with their potato peelings, I might feel justified in taking it home and keeping it safe and dry. But if the heir to the vandal who tossed it should later approach me and ask for it back to put in the climate controlled room they’ve had specially built to receive it, I believe I’d be obliged to at least consider their claim.

37

rea 08.24.07 at 3:17 pm

there’s a curious assumption that despots don’t deserve their goods – made or captured – because of their despotism.

It’s not quite that–it’s more that the claim of Imperial Britain to the goods was not notably worse than the claim of the Imperial Asante, or the Imperial Athenians. Indeed, the arguments of the Athenians that they were entitled to appropriate the treasury of the Delian League to build the Parthenon bear a certain resemblance to the arguments that the 19th Century British might have made in favor of transfering the world’s great art treasures to London . . .

38

clew 08.24.07 at 4:09 pm

We could have three parallel systems of museums, then; one of artifacts that originated in and were transferred by war, and one of artifacts of trade (the Peabodys might survive?), and one of freely given gifts (… AIDS quilts? The riches that make a circular journey through parts of Polynesia?)

39

engels 08.24.07 at 4:45 pm

I think the point, though, is that the value of the Elgin marbles was created by the culture which produced them. Thus they are the cultural property–part of the cultural heritage–of the Greek people. I am not sure I agree with this but it is not a point about property in the ordinary legal sense so most of the discussion above, about unlawful acquisition, etc, rather misses the point imho.

40

Steve LaBonne 08.24.07 at 7:23 pm

But who are “the Greek people”? And as noted above, how much connection do the people living today in the geographical area of Greece really have with the people who built the Parthenon?

Besides that, countries making these sorts of claims often want to have recourse to the legal systems of the current possessors, which requires them to claim, more or less convincingly as the case may be, that property rights in the legal sense are involved.

41

Russell L. Carter 08.24.07 at 7:49 pm

“… the Temple of Dendur is not only a gift (do you feel guilty about the Statue of Liberty too?), if it was on its original site it would be underwater.”

Exactly the situation of Abu Simbel. Plus those temples at Aswan. I’m just sayin’ that I’ve viewed the real thing in remote and foreign artifact zoo, and in their natural habitat, so to speak, and it made a difference to me.

I suppose if the Republicans decide to conclude their magnificent reign by gifting the Washington Monument to the Iraqi people we shouldn’t complain. I.e., the Statue of Liberty was a piece designed for the place it stands, it wasn’t an uprooted part of France’s heritage.

“The case for returning the Elgin Marbles is stronger. However, they could not be restored to the Parthenon, and would have to be put in a museum.”

This is news to me, why is that? The feeling of desecration comes from the fact they took apart a trancendently beautiful composition, and display it in pieces.

42

engels 08.24.07 at 7:51 pm

Steve, fair enough, but to me the most important issue is the moral, rather than the legal one, and imo facts about who stole what aeons ago aren’t a very important aspect of that, except in so far as they show that naive arguments based on “common sense” notions of ownership are not convincing.

As for the question of whether there is such a thing as “the Greek people”, and whether they have a right to consider the Parthenon — in any sense — to be a creative achievement of theirs, rather than of humanity as a whole, I think that’s arguable, but it’s not a view which I would dismiss out of hand.

43

Steve LaBonne 08.24.07 at 7:52 pm

This is news to me, why is that?

Not only for the obvious reason that the Parthenon is a ruin, but also because they would not survive long in the polluted air of Athens.

44

Steve LaBonne 08.24.07 at 7:55 pm

But again, the countries making these claims normally rely heavily on those “naive arguments”. So they evidently believe their position would be significantly less impressive without them.

And if the idea of theft is shaky in this context, isn’t it as shaky morally as it is legally?

45

Russell L. Carter 08.24.07 at 8:06 pm

“Not only for the obvious reason that the Parthenon is a ruin, but also because they would not survive long in the polluted air of Athens.”

The main ruination according to the Wikipedia oracle occurred in 1687, the dismantling and transferral to the BM occurred in 1806. Unless somebody who actually knows something convincingly demonstrates otherwise, I suspect the people who moved Abu Simbel could handle reassembly no problem. And then, say a coat of clear epoxy? Or is all of Athens doomed to oxidation and dust?

46

richard 08.24.07 at 8:11 pm

the value of the Elgin marbles was created by the culture which produced them.

Only partly. Value is something added or experienced by beholders, and reproduced socially. There’s a good case to be made here that Elgin felt that value when others didn’t, and that the value the marbles have now is a production of the urge to antiquarianism fostered in northern Europe from the 18th century on. Of course, that antiquarian (and aesthetic) spirit values these marbles partly because of what they are and what they look like, but (IMO) we should be careful with any idea of intrinsic or immanent value in the object.

47

richard 08.24.07 at 8:18 pm

re 45: if the desecration is visual, why not put replica marbles up on the Parthenon? Good copies can be made. As for making any modification or addition to the marbles (like a protective coat of anything) that cannot easily be reversed, that’s a classic conservationist’s nightmare, and the kind of thing UNESCO’s advisors have been quite vocal about in the past.

48

engels 08.24.07 at 8:19 pm

There’s a good case to be made here that Elgin felt that value when others didn’t, and that the value the marbles have now is a production of the urge to antiquarianism fostered in northern Europe from the 18th century on.

Well, the ancient Athenians were also rather fond of them, you know.

49

Russell L. Carter 08.24.07 at 8:29 pm

“re 45: if the desecration is visual, why not put replica marbles up on the Parthenon? Good copies can be made.”

This is probably the crux of the matter. If they were to do this, why not go the whole nine yards and fix the thing to as near say pre ottoman destruction as possible. I saw a lot of temples in Egypt where the columns for instance were reassembled. The necessary augmentations are quite visible, and on the whole, I think the effect is positive. But there still is an ick factor (I not going to deconstruct this further than that) about replacing parts that actually exist with fakes. Fidelity? I don’t know, I am retreating back to numerical linear algebra.

50

y 08.25.07 at 12:11 am

I visited the Parthenon this summer; it is covered in scaffolding, and the signs indicate that the present work on it is intended to undo the effects of previous reconstruction work in the light of more recent understanding of the original locations of the various blocks of marble, and (eventually) to restore as many blocks as possible to their pre-1687 locations.

The caryatids on the Erechtheion now are replicas, and the originals are in the museum–actually, currently being moved from the old museum to the new one, I believe, except for one that Elgin got.

There’s supposed to be a place prepared in the new museum for the blocks of the Parthenon frieze, and I expect that if the British Museum ever returned them, perhaps at that point replicas would be put up on the Parthenon itself–but I imagine not before then.

51

engels 08.25.07 at 12:30 am

Steve, if I came across like I was saying the legal issues don’t matter that was a lack of clarity on my part. What I meant was I don’t think those kinds of arguments have a lot of moral force, in many cases at least, partly for reasons like those suggested by Rea above and by Kwame Anthony Appiah (quoted in the original post). I think there are a range of moral arguments available as to why such artefacts ought to be restored to their countries of origin and the strongest ones (imo) seemed to have been overlooked in the discussion above.

Anyway, like I said, I am not a convinced believer in the the proposition that each nation ought to control its own most significant cultural products. But I think there are two reasonable positions here. A nationalistic one, which says that any such artefact is, above all, the common property of the nation that created it, and a cosmopolitan one, which says that it is the common property of mankind. But even if you take the second view there are issues about the justice of the majority of these artefacts being held in London. A cosmopolitan, if she is an egalitarian, ought to be concerned that Londoners (or Western Europeans) have ready access to a wealth of cultural treasures which has been placed out of reach of most of the world’s population.

52

engels 08.25.07 at 12:32 am

Obviously should have written “so many of these artefacts” rather than “the majority of these artefacts”…

53

Thom Brooks 08.25.07 at 9:18 am

I suppose the uneasiness extends far beyond the British Museum. Any country’s museum is likely to contain items won from one battle or another.

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engels 08.25.07 at 11:46 am

Just to put things more briefly, I agree with Thom Brook’s last comment, and that’s one reason why I don’t attach much weight to the arguments about the legitimacy of the historical transfers of property rights in most cases, but I think the stronger arguments against the BM’s position are:

1) arguments from cultural nationalism (the Elgin marbles are the cultural patrimony of the Greek people and the Greek people are responsible for looking after them)
2) arguments from egalitarianism (the Elgin marbles are the cultural patrimony of all mankind and it is unfair that so much of this common heritage is at present concentrated in London and Western Europe)

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ed 08.25.07 at 4:04 pm

The fact that the Elgin Marbles are in London, and the Greeks are trying to get to the Greece, probably is leading the Greeks to put much more of an effort in building a modern, climate controlled museum for them and other treasures, and in taking care of the Acropolis, than they would otherwise. The fact that the Elgin marbles are in London may have saved the Carytids.

Likewise, the efforts of the Greeks to obtain the marbles probably led the British Museum to make sure that they were restored and showcased.

The best way to preserve cultural treasures may be to make sure that they all are at the center of various disputes over ownership.

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Jon H 08.26.07 at 6:56 am

“The best way to preserve cultural treasures may be to make sure that they all are at the center of various disputes over ownership.”

Only as long as the people who possess them are sane enough to not destroy the item in lieu of returning it.

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abb1 08.26.07 at 7:14 am

Suppose your grandfather was a German who disappeared in Nazi concentration camps, his property confiscated. Suppose you search the archives, find his file and one item in the list of his confiscated property is an extremely valuable painting… wait, no, not a painting, but an ancient cultural artifact, why not? – that now belongs to the British Museum.

What should happen?

58

Jon H 08.26.07 at 7:14 am

Maybe the thing to do would be:

1) Make sure countries have some oversight over how things are stored and/or displayed in other countries’ museums.

2) Provide some method of generating revenue from visitors, and sending that back to the source nation. Gift shop? Micropayment buttons by every exhibit? Higher ticket prices? Traffic tracking so that souce countries are paid depending on how many people pass by and how long they pause at a given item?

3) Establish discounted/free admission for the source country’s citizens, and discounted and/or heavily subsidized travel packages to the exhibiting museums, administered through embassies or consulates.

In terms of education possibilities, I bet it would be far more enriching to send Egyptian families to London, than to send them to Cairo. (And likewise, with sending an Ohio family to London, rather than the Smithsonian; or sending an English family to the Smithsonian, rather than London. This is not an argument of English superiority.)

I’m sure the US would see a huge flaw in this in that it would involve people from those countries travelling here, and also that every such trip would provide the travelers with an opportunity to overstay their visas.

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Jon H 08.26.07 at 7:20 am

Russell wrote: “there still is an ick factor (I not going to deconstruct this further than that) about replacing parts that actually exist with fakes. “

There’s an excellent argument for using fakes – putting the real ones up would be irresponsible because they will be damaged by pollution and acid rain.

I suppose it doesn’t matter that much for a bog-standard chunk of a column, but things with details that could be eaten away (or broken off and stolen!) are probably best kept indoors and replaced by duplicates.

Some items are made of materials that can stand up to pollution, but others practically melt.

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Martin Wisse 08.27.07 at 4:50 am

Dutch museums, at least back in the eighties/early nineties did strive to return items acquired during colonial times to their rightful owners, mainly to Indonesia.

Most of the arguments in favour of keeping stolen cultural artifacts here amount to no more than “the wogs would not take good care of them anyway” and/or “besides, the people living there now are not the people whose artifacts we looted”.

I’d imagine the latter would not go over well if say the Lewis chessmen were looted from Britain by another country, while the former is just not true anymore (with some exceptions)

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richard 08.27.07 at 3:34 pm

Re 60 (martin wisse): the looting of the Baghdad Museum would be exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about: the objects are being valued and used at the time that they’re being stolen; the legal situation seems pretty clear. I’ve been surprised and gratified that objects from that looting don’t seem to be showing up in other major museums’ collections (while being disturbed and horrified that they seem to have just disappeared, for now) – it suggests to me that the climate has changed significantly since the 50s and 60s. Sadly, Buddhist temples and active-use archeaological sites still don’t seem to have the same status as places of clear ownership.

Your linking of the arguments for retaining treasures to racism is a common move: I think it obscures real questions. If the point is to return the treasures to their rightful owners, it seems reasonable to ask who that might be (if it’s to return them to their ‘native soil’ then there are often questions about what the fate of the objects will be, and why soil should get a vote). All manner of frankly crazy stories have been told to support different flavours of nationalism, some of the strangest by the British: many arguments for ‘returning’ objects are based on such stories, or pander to the desires of national governments striving to bolster their legitimacy. Questioning such motivations doesn’t have to be racist, ethnist or chauvinistic.

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Katherine 08.28.07 at 4:05 pm

Jon H, interesting suggestions. Alas, entry to the British Museum is free.

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