The opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens has raised thought-provoking questions about museum artifact ownership. This particular debate centers on the Parthenon Marbles (Elgin Marbles), a stunning facade or wall relief that was transported from Greece to the British Museum of Natural History between 1801 and 1805 by Thomas Bruce, 7th Lord of Elgin.So nefarious was his deed, the act of relocating precious artifacts from their natural or national context is now known as elginism and is specifically defined as “an act of cultural vandalism.”
History is ripe with instances of elginism and few nations are innocent of the practice, though it’s clear that the richer the nation, the more common the practice. Museums in Britain, the United States and Germany display a vast tapestry of ancient history with ties that are born of colonization and war. At least these artifacts that were illicitly gained are on display to be appreciated by the masses, even if those masses seldom have any direction lineage to the history they represent. Oftentimes, elginism is even more villainous and criminal. Much of the natural history that’s been stolen from poorer nations resides in private collections, appreciated by individual owners and no one else.
Much has been done in the last 60 years to preserve the natural history of vulnerable nations. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has put international law in place to discourage the artifact trafficking and protect monuments, statues and sculptures in their native land. The primary protocol established in 1954 defined specific regulations around the protection of cultural property in the event of war. A second protocol was added in 1999, extending the intention of the law to not only prevent the treatment of cultural artifacts as “spoils of war,” but also to prevent their destruction during armed conflict. An international fund was also established to facilitate the return of cultural property to its rightful nation.
Despite these international laws, recovery of stolen artifacts is often a lengthy process even when nations demonstrate some level of cooperation. In 1990, antiques restorer Jonathan Tokeley-Parry, a shady fixture of the British art collector scene, smuggled a bust of Amenhotep III by coating it in liquid plastic and painting it black and gold. The makeover gave the artifact the look of a tacky souvenir that fooled they eyes of customs officials. Tokeley-Parry was charged four years later in Britain for attempting to sell another ill-gotten archaeological find. Police recovered the Amenhotep III bust five years later, but it would take almost twenty years of legal wrangling by Egypt before the Pharaoh’s bust was returned to its rightful home.
The fate of the Parthenon Marbles remains undecided. The Greek government and populace cry out for their return and state with pride that the Acropolis Museum has been constructed as a worthy and rightful home. Some voices in the British government sing the same chorus, introducing legislation before the Parliament to return the “Elgin Marbles” to Greece. Others worry that the return of the marbles will set an unsettling precedent that will begin a wave of demand for the return of cultural artifacts. They argue that if this flood gate is opened, some of the world’s most beloved museums will soon be barren.
The questions surrounding cultural ownership are complex. There is truth that the stewardship of cultural property by other nations has actually preserved many cultural artifacts that would have fallen into disrepair or been destroyed had they remained in their cultural context. Some argue that when artifacts are gained in conquest or conflict their ownership becomes part of the conquering nation’s history. Ultimately the solution is not likely an all-or-nothing proposition, but lies somewhere in the middle ground of shared ownership.
One wonders what viewpoint Indiana Jones has on this topic. Does this fictitious collector of rare antiquities have an opinion about where the Ark of the Covenant truly belongs? Certainly not with the Nazis. The US government, unlikely. If Dr. Jones had it all to do again, he might just leave it in Tanis satisfied knowing that the Nazis were digging in the wrong place.