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Priceless Treasures and Their Shaky Pedestals


What do the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, and Hoa Hakananai’a have in common? They are some of humanity’s greatest treasures, and they are all housed in the British Museum. But none of them are British creations. In fact, each was taken from their original places. The French took the Rosetta Stone during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and later transferred ownership of the artifact to the British. Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed the sculptures from the Parthenon and took them to Britain. A British expedition in 1868 to Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island, saw the spiritually important Hoa Hakananai’a hauled back to the UK as a gift to Queen Victoria.

Priceless Treasures and Their Shaky Pedestals
The Winged Victory of Samothrace was stolen by an frenchman looking for works
for the imperial museum in Paris in the 19th century [Credit: imgur]
These treasures are just some of many at the center of a debate currently raging at cultural institutions worldwide.The matter of contention is whether museums should return artifacts illicitly obtained from their places of origin. As the governments of Greece, China, and other nations draw attention to this issue, the need for comprehensive dialogue and possible action has only become more pressing. So far, no consensus exists in the art world. The British Museum has mostly refused to return any objects in their collection, agreeing only to loan some of the Benin bronzes back to Nigeria. On the other hand, the French government determined in 2018 that French museums should permanently return illegally obtained artifacts from French colonial ventures in Africa.


Museums have typically drawn a distinction between what kinds of artifacts they are willing to return. They have been relatively receptive to requests to return recently acquired artifacts – although this receptivity is often mediated by court orders. These artifacts, acquired in the post-colonial age, were often removed from their places of origin by other actors and bought by museums, who claim no knowledge of their illegal removal. In recent years, the Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have returned such stolen artifacts. But when it comes to artifacts that have been in their possession for a century or more – ancient objects and often the most valuable ones, procured for museum collections during the colonial era – museums have dug in their feet. One way of looking at this is to conclude that museums simply do not want to give up priceless treasures. But there are far more complex undercurrents that lie below the surface – the decisions of museums, as institutions of social and cultural power, to collect or curate objects are colored by far more than considerations of current value.

At the heart of the myriad issues the modern museum must now confront is the question of ownership. First, legitimate ownership – in other words, does the method of acquisition matter? Second, cultural ownership – should cultural heritage reside in the place from which it came? These questions may seem straightforward, but the complex context of artifact acquisitions assure us they are not.

Encyclopedic Exhibits of Exploitation

Even in the colonial age, explorers and archaeologists had reasons, however self-serving, for taking artifacts. Lord Elgin removed, on questionable legal grounds, the Parthenon marbles using the justification that leaving them in Ottoman-controlled Athens was too dangerous. In the early 20th-century, archaeologist Langdon Warner argued that poor conditions and lack of conservation justified removing 26 frescos and a sculpture from the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China – works held ever since in the Harvard Art Museums. But these apparent intentions do not justify keeping these artifacts.


The fact of the matter is that the acquisition of these artifacts was a product of the patronizing attitudes of the colonial age. Regardless of Elgin’s intentions, the removal of the Elgin marbles stemmed from an agreement between two empires: the controlling Ottomans and the powerful British. Warner’s whole expedition to Dunhuang was part of the “Century of Humiliation” during which foreign powers ran amok throughout China. Indeed, the British, French, Japanese, and Russians had all gone through the caves by the time Warner arrived in Dunhuang. Just Elgin’s and Warner’s assertion that the artifacts were safe with them but not in their original places is evidence enough of the extreme paternalism that guided collectors and colonialists alike.

But, some might say, what happened then is the past: One way or another, these artifacts made their way to a museum, and there they should stay because these cultural objects are most valuable when presented in a global museum like the British Museum or the Louvre. One such advocate is James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust (the foundation that operates the Getty museums). He has written that the presence of diverse artifacts in what he terms “encyclopedic museums” encourages an invaluable, multicultural view of the world. Such museums bring about “openness, tolerance, and inquiry about the world, along with the recognition that culture exists independent of nationalism.” Culture, Cuno adds, “is in a state of constant flux” and does not “stop at borders.” He contrasts this to exclusive “national identities” that he believes are at the base of repatriation claims.

The Power of Pedestals and the Call of Home

To be sure, museums like the British Museum serve incredibly important purposes. They are institutions that stand as monuments for what humanity has been and has become. They are pathways toward fuller enrichment and greater understanding for many. But we must acknowledge the great costs that the formation of a museum collection requires, costs that strike at the very heart of what it means to be human. Creating a diverse museum collection necessarily requires removing objects from their places around the world. Contrary to Cuno’s argument, these removals were not just inconsequential moves across national borders, but acts that still carry with them weighty and lasting consequences.


To start, it is rather ironic that the existence of nations is now a stopping point for repatriation when the collectors of these artifacts in the first place did not think the existence of nations prevented them from plowing and pillaging through China and other areas. Just as these artifacts are invariably connected to the cultures and nations from which they grew, museums are inseparable from the cultures, nations, and histories they themselves represent. To say that a museum across the world is a better place for an artifact than its birthplace is to essentially assert the superiority of one method of collection, one culture, and one society over another.

Similarly, the acquisition of cultural artifacts in the first place was undertaken not in a spirit of “openness” and respect, but in one of exclusion and self-indulgence. Plainly, collectors both used and represented the patronizing and paternalistic premises of imperial power as they hauled artifacts away from their birthplace and only home. Museums that cling blindly to the artifacts they hold preserve the vestiges of these harmful premises. By refusing to return crucial pieces of cultural heritage, they send a message that the claims of certain cultures are worth less than another culture’s attempt to amass a treasure trove of priceless objects they can only say they found.

If museums do indeed exist to promote cultures worldwide, they must then acknowledge and change the messages they are sending and the power dynamics they are perpetuating. However it comes to fruition – loans, trades, outright relinquishment – they must return cultural artifacts to their homes. Doing so would benefit not just a people, not just a society, but indeed all of humanity.

Author: Alex Tam | Source: Harvard Political Review [January 01, 2020]

TANN

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