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How much hope remains for looted antiquities

Is it hard for museums in the west to draw parallels over looted items, as they have few artefacts of similar cultural significance in their own countries?

From:
USCD Guardian (University of California at San Diego) [1]

05 / 14 / 2007
Little Hope Remains For Carted-Off antiquities
By Megan Durham

In the last couple of weeks letters have been sent to most of the world’s major museums asking for the return of Egyptian artifacts to their homeland, bringing the decades-long debate over repatriation back into the headlines. Zahi Hawass, one of Egypt’s leading archeologists (known for wearing Indiana Jones-style hats), has demanded several iconic items, including the Rosetta stone and the bust of Nefertiti, arguing that such treasures belong in the country that created them.

Such claims seem to make perfect sense, but the museums that house these artifacts have paid little attention to them. The British Museum, where the Rosetta stone is housed, has expressed sympathy but is determined to stand firm.

“Will the Rosetta stone be returned?” said Vivian Davies, keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the museum. “I would say that our priorities are elsewhere at the moment.”

Of course, Egyptians are not the only ones who want their icons back. The longest-standing debate over repatriation involves the Parthenon Marbles, known as the Elgin Marbles in England, where they are housed at the British Museum as well. Taken by the British diplomat and Earl of Elgin Thomas Bruce during Ottoman occupation of Athens, Greece has been trying to get them back for years. Recently the Greek prime minister argued that Britain had run out of “feeble excuses” to retain the marbles.

Countries fighting for the return of artifacts don’t have a lot of options, legally speaking. They can try to sue in the courts of the country that has the items, but that means a costly, long and uncertain legal battle. While most of the countries in question have laws in place that require the return of stolen artifacts, many of the disputed items were acquired long before these laws were enacted.

Financially, it’s logical for the museums to want to keep these items. Iconic items can help draw millions of visitors a year and both the Rosetta stone and the Elgin Marbles are considered hallmarks of the British Museum. And even though the British Museum may not charge for entry, it only takes a few moments in its gift shop to realize how much money it makes from items like the Rosetta stone.

Of course, when arguing about things like cultural property, talking about money is considered a little crass. So the museum and others like it have come up with a set of arguments that do seem to hold a bit of water. Some argue that their ability to preserve the items in question far outweighs the ability of the countries seeking their return.

Others point out the destruction of artifacts like the Buddhas of Bamyan by the Taliban, and the dangers of keeping all of a culture’s artifacts in one country. Still others say that returning even a few treasures could start the museum on the path to returning all of their items, resulting in a complete dismantling of its collections.

These seem more like excuses than actual reasons. As far as preserving items goes, both Athens and Egypt are in the process of building large-scale modern museums with all of the conveniences of museums elsewhere. And the argument for protecting a culture’s treasures smacks of paternalism: We can’t trust you to protect your nice things, so we’ll protect them for you.

As for the last argument, to a certain extent I understand the emotion that leads the British Museum to claim this. I sincerely doubt that such an event would happen, but I understand it all the same. The British Museum was one of the highlights of my trip to England. I spent days there, wandering from room to room, astounded by the sheer amount of culture and history it presents. But what I felt in my couple of days there is dwarfed by the pride that the British have in their museum. It’s a huge part of the their identity; the entire time I was there I was surrounded by gaggles of schoolchildren in strange matching outfits, all wonderfully proud of their ancestors who had gone on great adventures to bring these items back to mother England. The loss of the museum, as improbable as it is, would be as hard to bear as the loss of Stonehenge or Big Ben.

But would it really hurt to give back a couple of the items? It’s hard to find an American cultural equivalent, but imagine if the United States was pillaged, and major cultural artifacts like the Liberty Bell or the Washington Monument were shipped off for museums across the world to display. We’d surely want them back, especially if our economy were as heavily dependent upon the tourism industry as Egypt’s is.

As it stands now, there’s probably very little chance of museums giving up their landmark exhibits. The only chance countries like Greece and Egypt have is to keep asking, and hope that the others decide to do the right thing.

Copyright © 2007 UCSDGuardian
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