The Parthenon sculptures, also known as the “Elgin Marbles” or “Parthenon Marbles”, were imported from Greece in the early 19th century and have been on display in Britain ever since. However, the debate over the rightful owner of these Greek sculptures remains open. artifacts continues to this day.
The British Museum and the Greek government are in discussions over whether the museum will return the marbles.
The marbles were taken from the Parthenon between 1801 and 1805 by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, according to the British Museum.
The museum claims that the Ottoman Empire was the ruling authority in Athens at the time and that Elgin removed half of the remaining sculptures from the Parthenon ruins with permission from Ottoman authorities.
Can a governmental power like the Ottoman Empire legitimately hand over the artifacts of the cultural state it rules – like Greek marble sculptures?
The British Museum says Elgin’s transaction was carried out legally.
“His actions were thoroughly investigated by a Select Parliamentary Commission in 1816 and found to be entirely legal, before the sculptures entered the collection of the British Museum by Act of Parliament,” he said. declared the British Museum.
However, Greek authorities disagree.
“The violent detachment of the Parthenon sculptures from their physical context and the architectural framework in which they were part violated the laws, the common sense of justice and the established morality of the time,” said the Office of the Secretary-General for Greeks Abroad and Public Diplomacy in Athens in a statement to ABC News.
The Parthenon Marbles are not the only cultural antiquity under debate.
Many museums around the world, particularly those in imperialist or colonialist countries, have been criticized for their massive collections of historically and culturally significant objects from colonized countries.
Who owns the artifacts? It depends who you ask.
Heritage laws around the world protect cultural heritage by legally preserving antiquities and artifacts and preventing international conflicts like the fight over the Parthenon Marbles.
However, these laws date back to 1891, with one of the first heritage laws in Egypt, according to the anti-racketeering group Antiquities Coalition. Many other countries around the world followed with their own protections.
Anything taken before these protections were put in place is where the rightful ownership argument gets a little complicated.
In some cases, it is up to the institution or museum to return an artifact that was stolen, looted or taken away in precarious circumstances.
“A lot of people would think it’s morally right, ethically right, to return these objects,” said Leila A. Amineddoleh, an attorney specializing in art, cultural heritage and intellectual property law. “Some of them, like the Benin Bronzes, were captured in very violent and brutal circumstances…human lives were lost and people were massacred.
The Benin Bronzes were stolen from Nigeria during an 1897 British raid on Benin City, according to the Smithsonian Museum. The Smithsonian Board of Trustees voted to return the bronzes in June 2022, as part of the museum’s new ethical returns policy.
“Not only was returning ownership of these magnificent artifacts to their rightful home the right thing to do, but it also demonstrates how we all benefit from cultural institutions that make ethical choices,” said Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch, in a press release at the time. .
Still, a group of Nigerian Americans are suing to keep the Benin Bronzes in the United States. They blamed the Smithsonian of a “breach of trust for not having protected the interests of American citizens descendants of slaves” who could learn more about their culture through the bronzes.
The question of morality in cultural preservation is not a black and white issue.
“The Parthenon is a symbol of Greece in ancient Athens,” Amineddoleh said. “I don’t really understand how the British Museum can continue to claim that they are ensuring the safety of the work if, in fact, these objects were removed and destroyed the (Parthenon) site.”
What is the responsibility of museums?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has experience. The Met recently returned works to Nepal, India and Nigeria in partnership with officials from each country.
Through the Met’s own researchers and outside sources, the museum sometimes learns that a work must be returned to its country of origin based on its policies or the laws of the country of origin.
“The Met has a long and well-documented history of responding to complaints about works of art, returning objects where appropriate, being transparent about the provenance of works in the collection, and supporting continued research and studies,” Met officials told ABC News. it is one of the few institutions in the field to do so.
Proponents of returning the objects, such as political science professor at the University of South Africa Everisto Benyera, believe it is a “form of reparation and restorative justice”.
“What was stolen here are not simple artifacts, but important aspects of a civilization,” Benyera said.
“While for some they are magnificent artifacts, for their owners – who are victims of this theft – they are the missing link to those from other areas of life, such as the undead, commonly known as ancestors .”
Grace Ndiritu, an artist and advocate for the “decolonization” of museums, told ABC News that ancient art signifies creativity and the invention of a culture.
“Not only do (the artifacts) show the mythologies and spiritual beliefs, but they also show the innovation and power of different tribes and different societies,” Ndiritu said.
Ndiritu’s work focuses on “healing” museums, which she says often perpetuate a colonizer mentality – that of taking valuable assets stolen from a nation and profiting from them or removing them from the cultural context of the native country.
“Usually, objects were seen as prizes or possessions and were not really appreciated for their spiritual or cultural context,” Ndiritu said.
Others, such as the British Museum, argue that a diversity of these artifacts from around the world provide “a broader cultural context and sustained interaction with neighboring civilizations.”
“The collection is a unique resource for exploring the richness, diversity and complexity of all human history, of our common humanity,” says the British Museum on its website. “The strength of the collection lies in its breadth and depth, which allows millions of visitors to understand the world’s cultures and how they are interconnected – whether through trade, migration, conquest, conflict or peaceful exchange.”