Wednesday, July 1, 2009

DAMage Report - Arts and Antiquities Tug-a-War

An ongoing controversy over ownership of ancient artifacts is in the limelight right now due to the opening last month of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece. Two centuries ago, Lord Elgin, serving as ambassador to the Ottoman empire, hauled away half of the Parthenon frieze and various other pieces of the historic site. The Elgin Marbles as they became known have been housed in the British Museum since the 1800's and provided enormous inspiration to generations. The original reason the British gave for retaining possession of the famous Marbles was that Greece didn't have the facilities to adequately care for or display the art. With the opening of the new Acropolis museum that argument no longer stands. And the Greeks want their marbles back.

It raises the question of who exactly does looted or "repossessed" historical art and artifacts belong to. The country in possession of it or the country of origin? Obviously great art and historically relevant works "belong to the world" but that doesn't resolve the question of who gets to claim ownership of it. Possession nine tenths of the law or should countries like Greece be allowed to keep and preserve their cultural history? The question has the museums of the world in quite a pickle. As one article in the Economist states:

"As curators all over the world will see it, those who call for the permanent return of the Parthenon sculptures from London are arguing for international museums to be emptied.

Many other collections have a more dubious provenance than the marbles—think of the British Museum’s Benin bronzes, seized in a punitive raid in Nigeria; of the Pergamon altar removed from Turkey and now in Berlin; of Chinese treasures carried off during the Boxer rebellion and again during the civil war; of hundreds of works in Russian museums that were snatched from their owners in the Bolshevik revolution.

You cannot go very far in righting those wrongs without entangling the world’s museums in a Gordian knot of restitution claims. That is why, in December 2002, 18 of the world’s leading directors—from the Louvre to the Hermitage and from the Metropolitan Museum to the Getty Museum—argued for a quid pro quo. The Munich declaration, as it is called, asserts that today’s ethical standards cannot be applied to yesterday’s acquisitions."

It is definitely a tricky problem when looking at the bigger picture. Public sentiment, including mine, seems to run toward giving Greece her artifacts back. As Brooke London pointed out to me yesterday, if another country came over and tried to take our Liberty Bell, saying they could provide better care for it (we did crack that bad boy after all) we would all be up in arms in a skinny minute. Take our historical artifacts? Like hell!

1 comment:

Paul said...

"today’s ethical standards cannot be applied to yesterday’s acquisitions."
You've gotta love mutable ethical standards, ones you can change according to how you feel.