September 18, 2008

Cultural vandalism & how it affects you

Posted at 12:32 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Edith Mazier has written an interesting piece on how looting of antiquities & cultural property is not something only relevant to academics, but is something that has the potential to be relevant to everyone.


Cultural Vandalism Diminishes All
Looting of Art, Artifacts, and Antiquities Is a Pernicious Problem
© E.E. Mazier
Sep 11, 2008

Because the theft, smuggling, and mistreatment of artwork and cultural artifacts have a negative impact on all humanity, these practices merit universal condemnation.

In September 2008, Ethiopia celebrated the re-erection of a 1,700-year-old granite obelisk in the town of Axum. The obelisk had been standing in Rome since Fascist invaders had shipped its pieces to Italy in 1937. Although the Ethiopians had demanded the return of their national monument since the end of World War II, Italy dragged its feet until 2005.

In 1801, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, began sending to England more than half of the marble statues, panels, and other sculptural decorations of the Parthenon in Greece. Many of these were hacked out of larger settings and cut down in size for easier handling. The British Museum bought the Parthenon marbles from Lord Elgin in 1816. Greece has clamored for the return of the marbles (also called the Elgin marbles) all this time, but the Museum and the British government have steadfastly refused.

While governments, museums, archaeologists, and other experts debate whether and how to return, recover, and protect cultural treasures, the question for the ordinary person is this: why care about cultural vandalism (also called elginism)?

Matthew Bogdanos: Elginism and Lost History

Archaeologists decry what happens to fragments of the historical record when elginism occurs. Looters untrained in the proper handling of fragile cultural treasures use blunt force – even explosives – to dislodge statues, frescoes, mosaics, pottery, and other creations from their locations. Not only are the sites lost for proper excavation, the stolen items are frequently cut or broken up for easier smuggling and sale.

The monetary value of the stolen items is thus destroyed. More important, as Matthew Bogdanos has put it, “a piece of history is lost” not only to the culture where the items originated but also to the entire world. As a colonel in the Marine Reserves, Bogdanos investigated the looting of thousands of antiquities from the National Museum of Iraq at the start of the Iraqi war in 2003.
Understanding Cultural Property

Matthew Taylor, an architect in Great Britain, has observed that the identity and uniqueness of people in a particular area “in many ways is related to what their ancestors produced.” He has noted that there are fewer cases of elginism in the West with which to identify “because there are fewer individual objects that hold such significance.” This makes it difficult for many in the West to understand the concept of cultural property. Taylor is Treasurer of the Marbles Reunited campaign, a member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, and communications manager for the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures.

Nonetheless, Taylor believes that condemning cultural vandalism “is the morally right thing to do.” He points out that the looting of artifacts almost always “involves a more powerful country benefiting by taking items from a weaker country.” He adds, “Most people would not see bullying or coercion in this way as acceptable nowadays. Does the fact that it happened in the past make it more acceptable?” Taylor also notes that returning cultural items to their places of origin is one of the few ways available to right historical wrongs.

Legacy of Nazi Plunder

While World War II was raging, the Nazis continued a looting spree they had begun years earlier. They appropriated and stashed millions of dollars’ worth of paintings, sculptures, and other treasures from the countries that they invaded. According to the National Archives in the United States, the Third Reich plundered as much as 20 percent of European artwork. Tens of thousands of the stolen items have yet to be found or returned to their lawful owners.

A blunt way to put cultural vandalism in perspective is by asking whether, in this post-September 11 age of greater global interconnection, the world really wants to allow the continuation of this type of criminal legacy.

The copyright of the article Cultural Vandalism Diminishes All in International Cultural Affairs is owned by E.E. Mazier.

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