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Who’s Right? Repatriation of Cultural Property

Two experts debate whether art and artifacts should be repatriated

02 November 2010
The Acropolis (AP Images)

A view of the Parthenon (far right) on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Many of the Parthenon’s marble sculptures are housed in the British Museum in London. Whether they should be repatriated to Greece is the source of much debate.

For Against

By Malcolm Bell III

Malcolm Bell III is professor emeritus in the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia. He specializes in Greek art archaeology and serves as co-director of the Morgantina excavations in Sicily.

Governments typically argue for the repatriation of artifacts and works of art to protect their culture and prevent exploitation by foreign museums and collectors. Malcolm Bell explains the legal and moral justification of these claims.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines“repatriate” as “to restore (an artifact or other object) to its country or place of origin,” and recognizes repatriation as a process of restoration, of making whole again. Many artifacts and works of art have special cultural value for a particular community or nation. When these works are removed from their original cultural setting they lose their context and the culture loses a part of its history.

Cultural artifacts are often subject to claims of repatriation. The immediate cause is usually a legal or moral claim by the country or community of origin. Although opponents of repatriation often dismiss such claims as serving nationalistic ends, repatriation advocates usually offer rational justifications notinspired by politics. Many countries, although not the United States, declare state ownership of all subsoil or underwater antiquities, the artifacts, tombs and structures located within national boundaries that are unknown until they are discovered, either casually or by excavation. Most countries declaring such ownership have been exploited in the past by the demand for their antiquities by foreign museums and collectors.

The ownership claim of a country of origin offers two benefits:

1) It blocks the undocumented digging that destroys archaeological sites and strips artifacts of their functional and historical contexts.
2) It prevents the export of illegally excavated artifacts and works of art.

The ownership claim protects the object when it is in the earth and, once discovered, discourages its disappearance into the realm of international commerce and collecting. This legal claim is the basis for most repatriation requests.

International laws and norms recognize and codify repatriation. In 1970, the cumbersomely named — but nonetheless vital — United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Propertywas ratified, discouraging the international trade in looted antiquities. As a consequence, buyers of undocumented antiquities have (or should have) recognized the uncertain legal status of objects without known provenance acquired after 1970. Countries of origin have pressured prominent museums and collectors to give up such antiquities and a good number have been repatriated over the past decade.

A request for repatriation of an artifact thus usually has a strong legal basis. The antiquity was exported illegally, probably also excavated illegally, and most importantly it is now defined by U.S. courts as stolen property. We may also note that even in the United States, where private property rights are greatly respected, the government claims ownership of antiquities from federal lands — and would request their repatriation if they were to be privately excavated and exported.

New legislation can afford additional justifications for repatriation. In the United States, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 requires federal museums and collections to restore to Native American tribes skeletal remains, grave goods and sacred objects — some excavated or collected as early as the mid-nineteenth century. While NAGPRA does not apply to similar privately held materials or to collections outside the United States, it nonetheless sets an example for all foreign institutions that hold objects of importance to tribal cultures or even to nation-states. One example might be the extraordinary collection of Benin bronzes that were seized by the British colonial authority in 1897 in what is today Nigeria. Exhibited today in leading international museums, these great works of African art are integral to the culture of the modern nation-state where they were created and where someday they may be repatriated.

A further argument for repatriation derives from the moral (as opposed to legal) rights that have recently begun to be attributed to the works themselves. These include:

• The right to continued existence — here we can remember the tragic case of the great Buddhist sculptures at Bamian in Afghanistan, intentionally destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban.

• The right to proper conservation.

• The right to the preservation of relevant historical or archaeological documentation.

• The right to public access.

• The right to consolidation when a work exists in fragments.

The last of these rights — the right to wholeness — can be important for repatriation, reminding us again that repatriation is a form of restoration. Fragmentary works divided among museums around the world deserve to be viewed and understood as elements of a whole. The ancient Greeks believed that sculptures brought their subjects to virtual life, and so completeness was an essential feature of an imitative or representational work of art. There are many examples of divided antiquities that could be returned to wholeness by intelligent, reciprocal exchanges. The most prominent among these are, of course, the dispersed component parts (in Latin, disiecta membra) of the greatest single work of classical antiquity, the temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens known to the world as the Parthenon. Many of the marble sculptures of the Parthenon were removed by the British in 1803 and are today held by the British Museum. A few others are located elsewhere. While there have been various political, economic and legal arguments favoring the return of all the Parthenon sculptures to Greece, the strongest case of all lies in the claim of the great temple itself to wholeness. There is no better reason to repatriate the Parthenon sculptures. The recovery of wholeness, whether of a tribal culture or a great work of art, is the real, underlying justification for the return of artifacts and antiquities. In this sense repatriation is an expression of justice.

By James Cuno

James Cuno is the president and Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute of Chicago and is the author of Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over our Ancient Heritage (Princeton 2009).

Providing museum visitors with a diverse range of art from around the world promotes inquiry, tolerance and broad knowledge. Artistic creations transcend national boundaries as well as the cultures and peoples that created them, argues James Cuno.

Art museums in the United States are dedicated to the professional stewardship of the works of art in their care. Curators and directors of museums with art representing the world’s many cultures believe that by introducing visitors to a diverse range of art we help to dissipate ignorance about the world, while promoting inquiry and tolerance of cultural differences.

This is especially important in today’s urbanized and globalized world. Take Chicago, for example, the city where I live and work. According to the 2000 census, 42 percent of Chicago’s residents were of European descent, and 37 percent of African descent. Hispanics comprised both the largest percentage of foreign-born residents and the fastest growing part of Chicago’s population. The city has the fifth largest foreign-born population in the United States, the second largest Mexican population in the United States and the third largest South Asian population in the United States. In addition, Chicago has the third largest Greek population of any city in the world. Some 22 percent of Chicago’s population is foreign born, comprising more than 26 ethnic groups speaking more than 40 languages. By presenting works of art from around the world without prejudice, the Art Institute of Chicago not only introduces visitors to cultures distant from them in time and space but, increasingly, we introduce them to the cultures of their neighbors.

Museums should be encyclopedic; they should strive to present art from many different cultures. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur could have described encyclopedic museums when he said, “When we discover that there are several cultures instead of just one and consequently… acknowledge the end of a sort of cultural monopoly … suddenly it becomes possible that there are just others, that we ourselves are an ‘other’ among others.” Encyclopedic museums are committed to this important aim of shedding light on other cultures.

Governments worldwide tend to claim cultural property as national property. Art found in a particular country is said to be linked to the nation by common historical, even ethnic roots, and often is viewed as something that indelibly distinguishes one nation from another. With the diversity of art in their collections, encyclopedic museums argue against this narrow definition of culture. Instead, they urge their visitors to view art as transcending political boundaries. Works of art — paintings, artifacts, music, or dance — transcend the cultures and people that create them, intertwining the histories of different peoples; for example, the influence of Greek art on the subsequent cultures of Rome, Ghandara and neo-classical Europe, or the influences of Hindu, Buddhist and Persian Muslim painting, poetry and music on Indian culture. Political scientist Roxanne Euben is right to warn us against compartmentalizing the world into “uniform and identifiable entities whose boundaries are clearly demarcated from one another carv[ing] up the world in ways that erase fissures within each category and the mutual historical indebtedness between them.” When art and culture are strictly attached to a nation we lose the cross-culture ties that bind many different peoples together.

American art museums are dedicated to building encyclopedic collections in accordance with all relevant national and international laws and treaties. We investigate the legal status of every potential acquisition. Where are its origins? If from abroad, when was it exported? What is its recent history of ownership? We have to be certain that we can hold clear title to the work of art in question. Should we learn later that a work of art in our collections was exported illegally, we have an ethical and legal obligation to repatriate it.

Some contend, however, that art should be repatriated to its “home” country, even if it has been acquired legally. They argue that these are another nation’s by right, because they are said to be meaningful to the claimant nation, important for its and its citizens’ identity and self-esteem. This rewrites history. Where should we draw the line? History is long and untidy. Territory held today by a given nation-state in the past likely belonged to a different political entity, one with other descendents. Take the greater Afro-Eurasian world, for example. Empires there have expanded and contracted, risen and fallen for more than 3,500 years; from ancient Assyria, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, Mughal India, and modern Portugal, France and Britain, among others. Does ancient Hellenistic art made and found in Afghanistan, once on the edge of the Greek empire, belong to Greece or to Afghanistan? Or what about the Egyptian glass and the ivories found in Begram now in the National Museum, Kabul, the latter betraying the influence of Indian, Persian and Greek precedents? To which modern nation do they belong? The lines designating claims to art and culture are not clear-cut.

Others have called for the repatriation of works of art in order to reunite individual works or ensembles of works now dispersed. Once again where would one draw the line? And even if one wanted to reunite dispersed works of art, where would one do so? Which among the many countries, cities, and museums in possession of parts of a work of art (a panel from a larger altarpiece, for example, or one sculpture from a group of sculptures) should be the designated “home” of the reunited work?

I would argue that within the limits of the law, museums, wherever they are, should be encouraged to acquire works of art representative of the world’s many and diverse cultures. This can be through purchase or long-term loan and working in collaboration with museums and nations around the world. These collections encourage a cosmopolitan view of the world and promote a historically accurate understanding of the fluidity of culture.

As Indian economic historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam has written, “… a national culture that does not have the confidence to declare that, like all other national cultures, it too is a hybrid, a crossroads, a mixture of elements derived from chance encounters and unforeseen consequences, can only take the path to xenophobia and cultural paranoia.” And in the world and time in which we live, encyclopedic museums can play an important role in countering such dangerous tendencies.

The Elgin Marbles (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the Parthenon’s marble sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, in the British Museum in London