July 27, 2004

Who should own artefacts

Posted at 1:49 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The Dja Dja Wurrung tribe of Australian Aboriginals have seized bark etchings while they were on loan from the British Museum & the Natural History Museum. following on from this case, the BBC have done an interesting feature on other disputed artworks, including the Parthenon Marbles, as well as other lesser known cases.

BBC News

Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 10:58 GMT
Countries battle over artefacts
An Aboriginal group has prevented native Australian artefacts from returning to the UK museums from which they were loaned. BBC News Online looks at other disputed treasures and the growing calls to have them repatriated.

In 1810, a total of 56 sculpted friezes, depicting gods, men and monsters, were removed from the Parthenon in Athens by British ambassador Lord Elgin.

They were brought to Britain and housed in the British Museum where they have remained.

Repeated calls for the return of the Elgin Marbles to their homeland have fallen on deaf ears, with the British Museum adamant they should remain in a place where they can be seen by international visitors.

The British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles have long called for the Marbles to be returned to their homeland.

Eleni Cubitt, secretary of the Committee, told BBC News Online they wanted the Greek and UK governments to talk openly about the future of the Marbles.

“We want the UK and Greek governments to open a dialogue about the reunification of the Marbles then discuss together where is the best place to display them.

“We think they should be displayed in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens which should be completed next year.”

The British Museum, who recently rejected a request by the Greek government for a long term loan of the Marbles, maintains it is the best place for them to be, reaching five million visitors every year.

Director of the museum, Neil MacGregor, said: “The British Museum is the best possible place for the Parthenon sculptures in its collections to be on display.

“The range of the British Museum’s collections is truly worldwide.

“The collections provide a uniquely rich setting for the Parthenon sculptures as an important chapter in the story of human cultural achievement.

“Only here can the worldwide significance of the sculptures be fully grasped”.

While the campaign to have the Elgin marbles returned to Greece continues to be the most high-profile, many other artefacts held by the British Museum are also disputed.

A request by the Egyptians to borrow the Rosetta Stone for an exhibition in Cairo was rebuffed by the museum last year.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian government bought back about 30 Benin Bronzes from the British Museum during the 1970s, but the museum has refused to hand back the full collection of 700 bronzes, despite repeated calls by the Nigerian government.

But the British Museum is certainly not alone in holding artefacts which the country or origin want back.

Egypt have requested back a 3,000-year old bust of Queen Nefertiti from the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, while Ethiopia is demanding the return from Italy of one of its most famous monuments – an obelisk.

It was taken to Italy on the orders of dictator Benito Mussolini more than 60 years ago, but it is still to be repatriated despite Italian officials finally agreeing to its return two years ago.

Other countries which claim to have suffered losses include China, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Closer to home, the British Library has refused repeated requests to return the Lindisfarne Gospels to the North East of England where they were created in the 7th Century AD.

A 1970 Unesco convention calls for the return of antiquities and works of art to their countries of origin, but does not apply to artefacts or objects taken to other countries before 1970 – such as the Elgin Marbles.

Rochelle Roca-Hachem, of the cultural heritage division at Unesco, told BBC News Online it was an issue the wider public was becoming aware of.

Working together

“[Governments] are increasingly likely to be open to dialogue as the public becomes more aware of how important cultural property is.

“The museums on one hand raise the profile and respect of other cultures through visitors to the museum, but there are some artefacts that are obviously more valuable and symbolic than others.

“Museums are concerned that if they acquiesce to one request, everyone with a claim will do the same and they will lose their incentive to be the museum they are.

“As a result, many shy away from it completely in order to protect their entire collections.”

But Ms Roca-Hachem said there were successful examples of countries working together to return artefacts.

“Greenland lost a lot of archaeological artefacts to Denmark, but once Greenland gained greater independence, the Danes helped Greenland establish their own museum over a number of years.

“Denmark sent a lot of artefacts back and, as a result, it has almost become a joint collection.

“It just goes to show that things can be achieved, you just have to be a little creative, and you don’t necessarily have to give things back permanently.”

Disputed artefacts

  • Elgin Marbles – Greece (British Museum)
  • Queen Nefertiti bust – Egypt (The Egyptian Museum, Germany)
  • Tabots – Ethiopia (British Museum)
  • Benin Bronzes – Nigeria (British Museum)
  • Obelisk – Ethiopia (Rome, Italy)
  • Rosetta Stone – Egypt (British Museum)
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