Stealing culture: Who owns national art?

Upon visiting the famous Parthenon in Greece, visitors may be struck by the emptiness of the site. The ancient Greek ruins are surprisingly sparse, and the Grecian marbles that the culture is famous for are noticeably absent. The reason for this is that these marbles were looted and brought back to Britain in 1810, where they remain today.

At any museum, a myriad of cultural artifacts can be viewed. This is a wonderful privilege. However, the presence of these pieces of art in international museums means their absence from the homeland where they were created.

For many nations, the plunder of national treasures has left a painful cultural void. It deprives the nation of the evidence of its own history. A 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) convention called for the return of art and antiquities to their country of origin; however, this decree does not apply to treasures acquired before 1970.

While many museums have made the choice to return antiquities and art whose ownership has been contested, many continue to refuse requests for repatriation. This has led to animosity in the artistic community. At the same time, it raises the question of who owns cultural property; the museum which has housed and protected the artifact, or the nation that produced it.

The Elgin Marbles

The Elgin Marbles remain perhaps the single most contested antiquity in the artistic community. In 1810, a total of 56 sculptures were plundered by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Greece.

The marbles were donated to the British Museum, where they remain despite frequent requests by the Greek government for their return.

The BBC reports that the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, has said, “Only here can the worldwide significance of the sculptures be grasped.”

The New York Times reports that the British Museum has claimed that Greece does not have an adequate facility to house the marbles.

This argument has become void with the June 2009 opening of the Acropolis Museum, a $200 million facility.

The facility currently houses plaster casts of the original marbles housed in London.

Egyptian Frescoes

A recent high profile dispute over cultural property has emerged between the Louvre in France and the Egyptian government.

The contested artifacts amount to five Egyptian fresco fragments. The BBC reports that the artifacts originate from a 3,200-year-old tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Egypt suspended co-operation with the Louvre, claiming that the fragments were stolen from them in the 1980s. However, the New York Times reports that the French government believes that the artifacts were “acquired in good faith” by the Louvre.

According to the New York Times, through a unanimous vote by a commission overseeing French national museums, it was decided that the frescoes would be returned to Egypt. Upon their restitution, the Egyptian government has promised to resume ties with the Louvre museum.

Bishop White Gallery

The issue of repatriation of cultural artifacts hits close to home with the controversy over the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) collection of Chinese antiquities.

The Globe and Mail reports that most of the collection was acquired by Bishop William Charles White. White was a missionary, as well as the museum’s purchasing agent in China in the 1920s and 1930s.

During this period, the Chinese nation was weakened by civil war, and large quantities of Chinese treasures were exported.

According to the Globe and Mail, while White remains revered by officials at the ROM, Chinese officials have referred to him as “a robber of graves and a robber of souls.”

The Amber Room

In some cases, efforts for the repatriation of art and antiquities have been met with success.

Russia and Germany have agreed to exchange antiquities looted by both sides during the Second World War. According to the BBC, this includes remnants from the famous Amber Room of Czar Peter the Great.

The 100,000 amber panels were given as a gift by Prussia for the decoration of the Czar’s Winter Palace nearly 300 years ago. However, in 1945 the Nazis stripped and looted the palace, leading to the disappearance of the panels.

Germany will be returning the small fragment of amber mosaic and a chest of drawers from the room in exchange for over one hundred paintings originally owned by the country.

Afghanistan’s Museum

The Afghan government is celebrating success in the repatriation of the country’s national art and antiquities. Afghanistan suffered huge losses to their national museum’s collection since civil war broke out in the early 1990s.

According to the New York Times, museum director Omara Khan Masoudi estimates that 70 per cent of the museum’s treasures were stolen between 1992 and 1995.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, 13,000 artifacts have been returned to Afghanistan from Norway, Denmark, Switzerland and the United States.

Even more recently, in February 2009, 2,000 artifacts smuggled into Britain and subsequently confiscated by the British authorities were returned to Afghanistan.

These artifacts are now being stored and displayed in the National Museum in Kabul, which reopened in 2004.

Other examples

Hebrew Bible

A 16th century Hebrew Bible looted by the Nazis during the Second World War has been turned over by the U.S. to Vienna’s Jewish community.
Toronto Star

Ethiopian obelisk

The Ethiopian government is demanding that Italy return an obelisk, one of its most famous monuments.

Nigerian bronzes

The Nigerian government has requested and been denied the return of the British Museum’s collection of 700 Nigerian bronzes.

Bust of Queen Nefertiti

The Egyptian government has requested that the Egyptian Museum in Berlin return a 3,000 year old bust of Queen Nefertiti.

Lindisfarne Gospels

The British Library has refused to return the Lindisfarne Gospels to the northeast of England where they were created in the 7th century despite repeated requests.

Danish Greenland Museum Collaboration

Denmark has returned over 35,000 items to Greenland since their independence.