Which Museums Have the Right to Own World Heritage?


Issues of the ownership of history periodically assert themselves in current affairs — the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s quiet admission of wrongful possession of some ancient Egyptian artifacts was news not least because the repatriation of objects is often the less common end to these kinds of disputes. Of course, the most famous of these is probably the controversy around the so-called “Elgin marbles” in the British Museum (the sculptures Lord Elgin acquired from the ruins of the Athenian Parthenon while serving as British ambassador to the Ottoman court in the early 19th century).

Since the 1980s, Greece has been trying to get these sculptures back, an effort that received renewed attention in 2009 with the opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, built to prove that Greece could provide an appropriate setting for the objects. There is very little hope of success; the British Museum is, predictably, in no hurry to return the objects (the museum estimates that they are seen by about five million people per year). The British Museum firmly believes in its rights to the objects, and it seems unlikely that they will ever be returned; a blanket call for the return of all antiquities to their place of origin is unrealistic.

In this case, the most that can be realistically hoped for is an honest confrontation within the institution with the problems of cultural heritage and ownership implicated in their claim to the Parthenon marbles.

The "Elgin marbles" are the most famous example of this kind of dispute because the objects in question are so recognizable and because the dispute has been going on for so long. The world of antiquities acquisition was essentially lawless until a UNESCO convention on the protection of cultural property was passed in 1970, requiring the (legal) movement of objects after 1970 to be authorized specifically by the country of origin. But of course the convention only applies to the movement of objects after 1970, and even this agreement is not stable

The British Museum argues that the Parthenon sculptures (which are safely out of the authority of the 1970 UNESCO convention) are part of a world heritage, a universal legacy of civilization. The argument is that the objects belong to humanity in general, thus they belong to Britain as much as they belong to Greece, and as long as the British Museum can provide a useful context for viewing the objects, they should be left where they are. But why is a museum in London (or New York or Paris) a better place to view a “Greek” item than Greece? Ideas of a "world heritage" in Western custody have been facilitated by a system of colonial power and exploitation that cheapens the whole discourse.

On the other hand, the society that produced the Parthenon is not the same society that wants those ruins returned — the Greek government should make a more sophisticated argument for ownership beyond geography. But the unfortunate truth is that despite the strength of any argument, and despite the quality of the new Acropolis Museum, there is very little chance that the British Museum would ever give up "ownership" of these items on any permanent basis. A lot of money and prestige is implicated in the display of antiquities. What can be achieved, however, is a real commitment to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, and a more complete engagement with the circumstances that created institutions like the British Museum as we see them today. 

The British Museum makes information about the debate over the Parthenon marbles accessible on its website (in a way that the Metropolitan Museum of Art still does not), and this is a step in the right direction. The Parthenon marbles are artifacts of a glorious ancient civilization, but they are also relics of the 19th century world system; the history of the objects after their creation should be made part of the narrative built around them. Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940 that “there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” The museum must display the objects in its collection as such.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons