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The Parthenon Sculptures & the Battle of Ideas – who owns culture

As part of the annual Battle of Ideas [1], a two day event organised by the Institute of Ideas [2], there is a debate about who owns culture, where the Elgin Marbles no doubt feature in the discussion. Geoff White from the Marbles Reunited [3] campaign will be one of the speakers there.

Battle of Ideas [4]

Losing our marbles? Who owns culture?
Sunday 31 October, 12.30pm until 1.30pm, Courtyard Gallery Battle for the Past

The ownership of the Parthenon Marbles has been disputed since their removal from Athens in the early 19th century, by Lord Elgin. Some argue the sculptures belong in Greece, where they were carved almost two and a half thousand years go. Advocates of repatriation insist that the marbles are part of the heritage of Greece, and should never have been taken in the first place. Others feel that the marbles are now part of the history of the British Museum, and point out that in their current Bloomsbury home they can be seen in relation to other cultures, as part of world history. But with the opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, a state-of-the-art centre, claims for their return are growing stronger.

The marbles are not the only cultural artefact under dispute. Egypt’s chief archaeologist Zahi Hawass has demanded the return of the Nefertiti bust from the Neues Museum in Berlin, and secured the return of fresco fragments from the Louvre. Supporters of repatriation claims point to the dubious manner in which Western museums acquired their collections, often through colonial looting. Critics counter that for ancient artefacts there can be no such thing as a ‘rightful’ owner: the modern Greek and Egyptian states, for example, are vastly different from those that ruled when the artefacts were excavated, let alone the empires of Ancient Greece or Egypt. Moreover, it is suggested that the insistence of seeing artefacts in their original context undermines the very idea of a museum, which involves a necessary separation from context in the service of a universalist view based on knowledge and imagination. But those in favour of repatration argue the idea that Western museums are ‘universal’ is clearly self-serving, and suggest instead that returning such ill-gotten gains would be a progressive step to healing the wounds of the past.

What effects do repatriation claims have on modern archaeology and scholarship? Can political grievances be overcome through the diplomatic use of cultural artefacts? Does the universal museum exist, even as an ideal, or should we respect local and national identities? Where do the Parthenon Marbles rightfully belong and, more importantly, who owns culture?


Dr Tiffany Jenkins
arts and society director, Institute of Ideas; sociologist; cultural commentator; author, Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: the crisis of cultural authority

Dr Paul Thompson
rector and vice-provost, Royal College of Art

Karl-Erik Norrman
founder and secretary-general, European Cultural Parliament; former Swedish ambassador; author, The Meaning of Life? Football’s role in the world and The Crisis of Democracy

Geoffrey White
retired barrister; founder member, Marbles Reunited


Pauline Hadaway
director, Belfast Exposed, gallery of contemporary photography and photography resource; convenor, Belfast Salon

Produced by
Dr Tiffany Jenkins arts and society director, Institute of Ideas; sociologist; cultural commentator; author, Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: the crisis of cultural authority

Recommended readings
Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority
Since the late 1970s human remains in museum collections have been subject to claims and controversies, such as demands for repatriation by indigenous groups who suffered under colonization. These requests have been strongly contested by scientists who research the material and consider it unique evidence.
Tiffany Jenkins, Routledge, 23 October 2010

A banana republic police HQ maybe, but not a home for the Elgin marbles
I am a restitutionist – but the new museum fails to clinch the case. It is not so much an argument as a punch in the face.
Simon Jenkins, Guardian Comment is free, 22 October 2009

Roman art thieves
Was art in ancient times always plundered art?
Mary Beard, Times Literary Supplement, 30 September 2009

A Home for the Marbles
How long can the British authorities cling jealously to the loot of their former ambassador to a long-vanished Turkish empire?
Christopher Hitchens, New York Times, 19 June 2009

Right the wrongs of ill-gotten gains
The Chinese person seeking to retrieve plundered treasures by bidding for them in an auction was making an important point
Leo Hickman, Guardian Comment is free, 4 March 2009

Is it time to start talking about the Parthenon marbles again?
For the first time two prominent staff members of the British Museum have participated in a major cultural event in Greece
Helena Smith, Guardian Art & Design blog, 21 March 2008

Enlightenment museums: universal or merely global?
[Although] a universal museum could be invaluable in a world full of conflict and misunderstanding, the credibility of the idea is undermined by its being deployed chiefly as a defense against repatriation claims.
Mark O’Neill, museum and society, November 2004