Why the Elgin Marbles shouldn’t be returned to Greece … yet
The “Elgin Marbles” are back in the news. The most recent event in the long saga regarding the sculptures that were removed from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Court, was sparked by reports of a leaking roof at the British Museum , the house of sculptures since 1816. The Intergovernmental Committee of UNESCO for the promotion of the return of cultural goods to their countries of origin called on the museum to start talks with Greece concerning the restitution of the sculptures. While such calls are well-meaning, returning the Elgin Marbles today would not serve the broader goal of decolonization or restorative justice that many museums are working towards.
Over the past three years, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium have all established commissions and published reports regarding colonial collections in their national museums. While differing in details and urgency, all state that the most obvious cases of restitution are “spoils of war”: objects seized during episodes of military aggression, objects with “blood on them”. Each of these countries has many examples.
In the British Museum, there are two well-known cases. The treasures of Maqdala were looted in 1868 after 13,000 British soldiers ransacked the imperial palace complex in Abyssinia to free a handful of British hostages. The operation resulted in hundreds of Abyssinian casualties (including the suicide of Emperor Tewodros II). A curator from the British Museum was there to oversee the looting, which required the transport of 15 elephants and 200 mules.
The other famous collection of military booty held by this institution is that of the Benin Bronzes. These were looted when the British, unhappy with the trade restrictions imposed by the King of Benin, sent 1,400 men armed with 3 million bullets to take control of the Niger Delta. Tens of thousands of people in Edo have died. Around 900 works in bronze and ivory seized from the Benin palace before it was set on fire are now kept in the British Museum; thousands more are in other museums around the world.
If it is justice that is important to us, and recognizing and righting the wrongs of the past, it is not the Elgin Marbles that we should focus on in the British Museum, but the treasures of Maqdala and the bronzes of Benin. . The possession of these objects by the British Museum is the direct result of specific and known atrocities. In contrast, there is no blood on the Elgin Marbles. Elgin may have exploited his position as ambassador and extended the terms of the permission granted to him; but his men were unarmed during the 12 years they spent slowly removing carvings from the Athenian Acropolis. If they had done so without the blessing of the Ottoman authorities, they could easily have been arrested.
The question we really need to ask ourselves is therefore this: given the indisputable brutality that accompanied the British looting in Benin and Maqdala, and the decades-long campaigns waged by the descendants of these communities to recover their royal and sacred property , why the intense focus on the Elgin Marbles all these years? Why is it those works whose restitution is debated in prestigious places, advocated by dozens of international committees, defended by celebrities, and urged by UNESCO – and not the restitution of African collections seized during horrific episodes of colonial violence?
Would the different responses to these cases of looted heritage have something to do with the powerful myth of “Western civilization?” The withholding of the Parthenon sculptures in London is a wrong done by a self-proclaimed heir of classical tradition to another self-proclaimed heir of classical tradition, an act of inter-family intimidation. It is, to put it bluntly, a wrong done by whites to whites. It is always the cases of restitution which arouse the most sympathy, the wrongs which are repaired most quickly, from the return of Napoleon’s booty to the European countries where he stole it until the adoption of the Convention of The Hague for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict after WWII at the Washington Principles on Art Confiscated by the Nazis.
The recommendations on colonial collections that France, Germany, Holland and Belgium have recently issued are perhaps the first steps towards a long-awaited equivalent to these agreements. Restitution is a complex process that requires collaboration, research, logistics and resources. This is not always synonymous with decolonization, and it is not always the best solution. International protocols could establish basic principles, such as the importance of returning items looted during episodes of acute violence; and to return sacred objects that are part of living religious traditions, such as the statues of ancestors from Easter Island, whose return from the British Museum was requested in 2018 by a delegation of the Rapa Nui people. The return of human remains at the request of descendant communities should also be included as a basic principle, so that the British Museum no longer says no the next time the Maori petition for the return of the museum’s collection of tattooed severed heads, such as they did so in 2006.
So here’s why the British Museum shouldn’t return the Elgin Marbles, at least not now: because to do so before they returned the treasures of Maqdala and the bronzes of Benin and the statues of Easter Island and the Maori heads, before a coherent set of precepts for decolonization has been articulated, the wrong principle would assert. Returning the Elgin Marbles now would say to the world no, “We were wrong to exploit blatant power imbalances to fill our storefronts,” or “We share the goals of decolonization and restorative justice that other museums have embraced. “. Rather, he would say, “We were wrong to treat Greece the way we continue to treat our former colonized inferiors.” Greece, the foundation of Western civilization, member of the European Union, is one of us, not one of them. In other words, returning the Elgin Marbles today would only reinforce the colonial principle that museums are places where “Western” powers display the cultural treasures of the “Global South”. And this principle is intolerable.
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