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A frieze from the Parthenon taken by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century. (photo via Wikimedia)

In the past few decades, cultural institutions in the West have increasingly felt pressure to return artifacts acquired through questionable means during the colonial era. While they have commendably repatriated many items to their countries of origin, their hands remain tightly clamped over some of their most prized acquisitions.

One of the most patronizing arguments used by supporters to defend museums’ rights to keep such artifacts is that had colonial powers not taken these objects, they would have been destroyed in the conflicts and disasters that subsequently erupted in their home regions. And since these institutions preserved them, they have the right to keep them.

This argument is frequently reiterated in debates surrounding the so-called Elgin Marbles, which the British Museum purchased in 1816 from Lord Elgin, who hacked them off the Parthenon with the permission of the Turkish sultan who was occupying Greece at the time. And as The Guardian recently observed, the preservationist argument has also been spouted in the case of the same museum’s 6,000-items-strong collection of Indigenous Australian artifacts, many of them amassed during Britain’s occupation of Australia. In the past weeks, indigenous leaders in Australia have been demanding their repatriation and protesting the forthcoming exhibition, Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation, which includes a shield dropped by a Gweagal tribesman during an attack by British soldiers. To continue trumpeting claims of historic preservation as a reason for keeping cultural heritage artifacts from the people to whom they matter most is not only insulting, it makes no sense at all.

In the Parthenon’s case, it’s true the building suffered damage over the centuries, but the argument is still entirely based on conjecture, as Malcolm Bell, a Greek antiquities expert and University of Virginia archaeology professor, pointed out. “The fact that Ottoman soldiers took potshots at the Parthenon in the 1820’s is irrelevant,” he said. “While it’s possible that [the marbles] might have been damaged during the two decades that elapsed before Greece became independent of Ottoman rule, we really don’t know that.”

Some believe the evidence points to the contrary, as the sculptures that Elgin didn’t remove have survived intact and are now displayed in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. “If Lord Elgin had not taken the sculptures he instructed Lusieri and his team to remove, then they would still be there,” said Marlen Taffarello Godwin, a member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles.

The most damning rebuttal to the British Museum’s argument comes from those who believe Lord Elgin did more harm than good. “The argument is nonsensical because it is disputed whether Lord Elgin actually saved the marbles,” said Leila Amineddoleh, a partner at Galluzzo & Amineddoleh and the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. She explained that some count the Englishman among the Parthenon’s desecrators, as his crew may have damaged the building while cutting off its metopes and frieze. What’s more, British Museum staff later bleached the sculptures, removing important details that include traces of color.

“We saved the [Parthenon Marbles] for 2,300 years, and then Elgin came to Athens,” said Alexis Mantheakis, chairman of the International Parthenon Sculptures Action Committee. Since then, the sculptures have become one of the museum’s main attractions, with millions of visitors from around the world still flocking to see them every year.

But in many ways, the whole question of what role the British Museum had in preserving the Elgin Marbles is beside the point — as it is with the Indigenous Australian artifacts, many of which it did undoubtedly preserve for posterity. (Gweagal elder Shayne Williams told The Guardian that “because they were preserved by the [museum] they are here today.”) That museums have saved cultural artifacts is no reason for them to retain ownership of those objects obtained through questionable means from countries now more than capable of housing them — especially at a time in history when the malicious legacies of colonialism have become painfully obvious. As Amindeddoleh said, “A museum is not entitled to possess another people’s cultural heritage simply because a representative of their nation had the means to plunder objects during a vulnerable time.”

The British Museum’s refusal to let these works go suggests just how much the institution has benefited from them. It also implies that the same greed that fueled acquisitive colonialists still thrives in our greatest cultural institutions.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

11 replies on “A Patronizing Argument Against Cultural Repatriation”

  1. The Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece. Ms. Amineddoleh has it right. The British empire systematically plundered cultural objects. They should be returned!

    1. The Brits were clearly the only ones who cared about the incredible historical value of the Elgin Marbles at the time.

  2. In visits to Europe and the Mediterranean, tour guides typically spew anti-British sentiments as regards now ex-patriot artifacts. At Machu Picchu, a Lima professor we’d hired to provide a Peruvian view of the ruins hurled invective at Hiram Bingham indicating he likely stole treasures no one knows even may have existed! But the guides’ favorite target is Germany. When Germany retreated from occupied countries as WWII wound down, their military always destroyed antiquities in their wake, e. g., an intact barge commissioned by the Roman emperor Nero, a myriad of royal palaces in the Soviet Union, and so on. This is well beyond the outright plunder. It is an anachronistic act to seek repatriation of this material and a boon to the legal trade. As with the environmental cabal, it is only successful against First World countries. Remember “Save the Rain Forest”? When the shoe’s on the other foot, there is no recourse. The Soviets will not repatriate their stolen trove and no one says a word.

  3. In light of the Taliban’s and IS’s recent actions in Syria and Iraq, would not the argument for some countries being better places for preservation be quite on point? Also, although repatriation of stolen art works is an ethical demand, who would exactly foot the bill for that? To return the Elgin Marbles would be an immensely expensive endeavor. Even if the British footed the packing and shipping costs, Greece would have to drop a fair amount to install and preserve them. Do you think it would be a popular move on Greece’s part to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on moving some art back to its home country when their own populace is being hit by drastic austerity measures? And why should the British be held responsible for an individual who got permission from the powers-that-were at the time (the Turks controlled Athens at that time) to do what he did. It was dubious, at best, but a legal quandary for sure.

    1. Greece has already built a beautiful state of the art facility to receive them.. It currently houses replicas… Why not ship those the British museum in exchange for the originals?

    2. Shipping costs is your argument? LOL….
      If there was free-shipping, would that be a game changer?
      They can stay in England as long as the English want them but not for THAT reason…

      1. Cute. No, my argument is not shipping costs. It’s the practicalities and actualities of repatriation that are not being considered. Its irresponsible to demand action without understanding the broader ramifications of what that entails exactly, particularly when countries such as Greece are in the economic straits they are in. Even with the existent facility, it still costs a lot of money.

        That you find it amusing leads me to believe you’ve never seen a shipping estimate for valuable artworks, let alone antiquities of this magnitude. I see it fairly regularly and its no laughing matter.

        All that being said, I wholeheartedly agree with your comment above. That’s more or less what I was saying at the end of my comment.

  4. The Greeks who live in Greece now are not the same Greeks who built ancient Greece. Their predecessors sold their antiquities to other Europeans a century ago. To suddenly demand them back is disingenuous. All of the people of the West are inheritors of Western Culture that was partly formed in Greece and thus can also be rightful caretakers of such artifacts. Such a politically correct argument flies in the face of historical facts and norms. OK, nowadays, we don’t traffic in antiquities. Now is now, the past was another story. Like American slavery, there are no living slave owners nor are there living slaves or even African slave traders who sold them to Americans in the first place. They are all dead therefore nobody living has a claim against anyone living. Such opportunism to get something for nothing!

    1. For all it is worth, I as a citizen of the world would rather see them in Greece in their context. For information on the history of the Parthenon and its significance to all of us, I recommend the book “The Parthenon Enigma: a New Understanding of the West’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made It” by Joan Breton Connelly.

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