Should museums heed calls for restitution? - Issue 149 - Magazine | Monocle

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The debate
In October, Jesus College, University of Cambridge, became the first UK institution to return one of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria. The sculpture was among thousands of pieces looted by British soldiers in 1897 and then scattered around the world. Germany has agreed to return more than 1,000 items to Nigeria.

These bronzes are just one front in a global debate about the repatriation of artefacts. The most prominent among these are the Elgin or Parthenon marbles, created 2,500 years ago as part of a frieze decorating the Athenian temple. In the early 19th century, they were shipped to the UK by Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, who had been British ambassador to the Ottoman empire, of which modern Greece was then a part. Elgin intended to use the marbles to decorate his stately pile but, financially stretched, he sold them to the UK government. The marbles have since been a star attraction at the British Museum and a bone of contention between the UK and Greece.

The Parthenon was a ruin when Elgin took the marbles; the argument that he rescued these treasures for posterity is not without merit. But since 2009 there has been a beautiful museum at the foot of the Acropolis with space awaiting the marbles’ return. Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, considers this a priority: he has offered a deal under which Greece would send other valuables to the British Museum on loan. Is it time to send the marbles back? 

Meet the panel

Alex von Tunzelmann
The historian
Alex von Tunzelmann is the author of books including Blood and Sand, a history of the Suez crisis; Indian Summer, about the partition of India; and Red Heat, exploring the Caribbean during the cold war. Her latest book, Fallen Idols, is a history of statue-toppling. She also wrote the screenplay for the 2017 film Churchill.

Tiffany Jenkins
The writer and broadcaster
Tiffany Jenkins is the host of podcast Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She presented the bbc Radio 4 series The History of Secrecy and frequently appears on other programmes. She has written for The New Republic, Foreign Policy and The Observer, among others, and is the author of Keeping Their Marbles, a defence of leaving treasures where they are.

Stathis Kalyvas
The political scientist
Stathis Kalyvas is the Gladstone Professor of Government at All Souls College, University of Oxford. His previous appointments include associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, assistant professor of politics at New York University and co-director of the Hellenic studies programme at Yale University. He is the author of Modern Greece: What Everyone Needs to Know.

What is the case for returning the Elgin Marbles?

stathis kalyvas: The marbles are outliers when it comes to this type of case because they’re artefacts that were detached from a monument that still stands. Another thing to consider is that a museum has been built [in Greece] to house them. If there were one case to be made for repatriation, this would be a strong one.

alex von tunzelmann: The acquisition of the marbles was always controversial. We now have the idea that everyone was fine with this and that it’s just woke people who want to send them back. But Lord Byron, for instance, objected very strongly to it. He wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage about how awful it was that the Parthenon had been “defaced” by British hands. It was even debated in parliament.

And what is the argument for leaving them where they are now?

tiffany jenkins: The crucial question is, “Where is it best for these artefacts to be on their own terms?” There are two reasons why the answer is The British Museum. First, think of how they were acquired. It was the early 19th century; when the marbles came to the UK, they transmitted classical principles throughout the country and beyond. Second, [in the British Museum] you can see them in relation to other cultures. There is that point in the museum where you see Assyria to your right, Egypt to your left and classical Athens straight ahead. In terms of understanding ancient Greece and its effect on other civilisations, the status quo is quite good.


“When the Elgin Marbles came to the UK, they transmitted classical principles throughout the country and beyond”


avt: Tiffany is right to delineate that there’s a legal case and then there’s a heritage and history case. The legal case is a red herring. When Boris Johnson was asked about it, he referred to how the marbles had been acquired legally. There’s a lot of dispute about that; Elgin claimed that he had received a certificate from the sultan but that doesn’t exist any more. Though that’s not really the point. The legal case isn’t the aspect from which we should be approaching this question. We should be looking at this as a question of history and heritage.


“The legal case isn’t the aspect from which we should be approaching this. We should be looking at this as a question of history and heritage”

How is this viewed in Greece today? Is the presence of the marbles in the UK an open wound?

sk: At one point it was a personal quest of Melina Mercouri, an actress and culture minister under the first socialist government in Greece, when the nationalism of the Socialist Party was emerging in Greece. There was a strong sense of grievance and it fit nicely into the narrative of the time; then it stuck around. It’s interesting to highlight the extent to which this demand, which had a strong nationalist undercurrent, actually motivated the Greek state to do two important things that otherwise probably wouldn’t have happened. The first was the restoration of the Parthenon. A powerful argument for the UK keeping the marbles was that the Acropolis stood in the middle of a city where the air was extremely polluted. So there was a big effort to clean the air, which was achieved, then this fantastic Acropolis Museum was built. So even though I didn’t find the demand to be very credible at the time, in terms of its intrinsic value, it was productive. It allowed Athens to make important changes. 

It would be bold for the UK to argue that this has been for Greece’s own  good.

sk: I am very much in line with Tiffany’s point that until now, the British Museum has been a very good host for those rocks. But there is no argument that these things have to remain constant over time.


“Until now, the British Museum has been a very good host for those rocks. But there is no argument that these things must remain constant over time”

Where do you stand on the argument that if one museum had to return artefacts, they all would?

avt: The “slippery-slope” argument is a fallacy. What its proponents are saying is, “You see this one reasonable case? Would it be the same if we took a totally different case and made it unreasonable?” No, it wouldn’t.

What about protection and security? Is there any sympathy for the idea that if, say, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin had returned Babylon’s Ishtar Gate to Iraq, we might not still have it?

avt: Most art is destroyed, looking at the whole of history. In recent years we’ve seen awful vandalism in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. As a historian, I have conflicted feelings. I’m glad that some of these things have been saved because they are wonderful and enrich humanity. Yet there’s a part of me that believes that destruction is as much a part of human history as construction. Still, it’s hard to detach that from my feeling of, “Thank God, this thing is safe.” 

Is it odd that such intense contemporary political feeling gets attached to objects created so long ago?

tj: Political claims have always been made through heritage. What you had with the birth of museums was a sort of national idea. What claims are being made through culture in the present – when, say, Emmanuel Macron talks about repatriation? There’s a process of reauthorising going on through the politics of apology. When Macron says that something no longer belongs to France because of the way in which it was acquired, it may be an assertion of Frenchness. Rather than saying, “We’re brilliant and all of Rome will be in the Louvre,” which is what the French said under Napoleon, they’re now saying, “We were bad. We’re going to send it back.” It’s a very different little legitimising narrative, isn’t it?

sk: It’s difficult not to see a parallel: in the past you had a very open sense of superiority, whereas now you have the superiority of being able to make the claim that we should return something because we are the good guys.

Are there any hard and fast rules of repatriation?

avt: Probably not, as these items are so diverse. Objects in museums can be so wide-ranging, from the Parthenon Marbles to crisp packets, which inform material culture. We can’t apply the same standards to all of these items. We need to be flexible in our thinking; conditions change and one doesn’t make decisions for all time. 


“Political claims have always been made through heritage. What claims are being made today?”


Should we think differently about artefacts that still have a religious or spiritual significance, such as the ‘Toi moko’, mummified Maori heads, some of which have recently been returned to New Zealand?

tj: The question is, “Who decides and on what basis?” Can one group override the claim of another? What we’re seeing is competition over authority. In the 18th century, Enlightenment institutions such as the British Museum had an ideal of truth and beauty that is now subject to revision. And with the priority that we now place on historic wrongs, a different authority is on the rise: identity. This has demoted the Greek case for some, because we now look at colonisation as being higher up the scale.

Is it more straightforward when the objects aren’t on display? The British Museum has prayer tablets looted from Ethiopia in 1868, which because of their sanctity, have been kept in a vault ever since.

sk: It’s different because these objects have a contemporary value as part of activities that affect people’s everyday lives in a way that heritage issues do not, in spite of their emotional weight. So they should be dealt with in a different way.

tj: When Neil MacGregor was the British Museum’s director, he made a big thing of how he wasn’t allowed to see them either. What are they doing there? I know that they’re meant to be available to believers. But it’s a little awkward if you have to go to a museum. Another big question is: where do they go back to? In the case of the Parthenon, it’s obvious: the Acropolis Museum. But there isn’t always a home, a shelf in a pristine place. 

And if you look at cases involving human remains, they haven’t always been straightforward either. Sometimes there isn’t anyone to care for them.

avt: There’s a similar controversy over the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which, I think, should go back – but to who? Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Iran all have good claims.

sk: The criterion could be the use of the object: a Byzantine icon that was produced by a painter to be sold, then bought by a museum and displayed, is very different to one that has been taken from a church where it was worshipped. You can make a case for restitution on religious grounds for the latter but not the former.

Are there any examples of British items held elsewhere that the UK has wanted back?

tj: There’s the Stone of Scone [repatriated from England to Scotland in 1996]. But repatriation is a political claim: by returning something, you’re distributing sovereignty. It’s a political relationship being rebalanced.


“In the past you had a very open sense of superiority. Now you have the superiority of being able to claim that we should return something because we are the good guys”

avt: I can’t think of anything offhand. We have so much stuff. It’s probably not a thread that we want to pull.

tj: When you look at the beginnings of the British Museum, you notice that there was no British culture in it. The narrative of Britishness was more about order and the Enlightenment perspective. It wasn’t necessarily about having British things.

avt: Destruction is part of the historical story. You see that with the Edward Colston statue in Bristol [pulled down by protesters in 2020]. It is now on display in a museum, surrounded by placards and covered in graffiti, and it’s a much more interesting object. It tells us more about the history of Bristol and modern attitudes than it did as a rather undistinguished piece of statuary. It’s now an object with real resonance. The Parthenon is a site that has been through so many periods of history. We need to consider that destruction might be part of the story.


“The Parthenon is a site that has been through so many periods of history. We need to consider that destruction might be part of the story”

If it was up to you, would you return the marbles?

sk: I can see the case to be made. But I wouldn’t call it a return. It would have to be part of a broader rethinking of how we deal with heritage pieces. I can see an opportunity, as opposed to the end of a debate.

tj: The status quo is a good position. You can see half of the remaining Parthenon that’s not on the Acropolis in the Acropolis Museum, in the context of that monument and of the pre-classical sculptures that you see as you walk through it – and in London, where you see the marbles in relation to other cultures and times.

avt: That’s what we need to look at: where do these belong in heritage terms? Tiffany makes an interesting argument but the stronger case is that they probably belong in the place where they originally stood because that monument is depleted without them.

If any country has a strong case for the restitution of its plundered treasures, it’s Greece, where the Elgin Marbles are concerned. Yet it is unlikely to happen any time soon, certainly as long as the UK has a government whose answer to almost everything is to launch a flag-waving culture war. In the meantime, the marbles will continue to serve a valuable role as a focus of discussion about what certain items mean to us and why.

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