Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Restitution of Cultural Property in the Modern Age

Weighty title, huh? However, it's a weighty topic, so it's apt. Dr. Robert Anderson spoke about this topic yesterday in a public lecture on campus and later in our class. Dr. Anderson is a well-respected museum professional who served, most notably, as Director of the British Museum from 1992-2002.

Due to the international profile and nature of their collections, the British Museum is one institution that has come under fire in the last decade or so for, in essence, "hanging onto the spoils of imperialism." The case of the Elgin Marbles is the most widely known example of this charge. Dr. Anderson's view is that the cosmopolitan nature of the BM's collections makes it easier for all people to access and learn from objects from around the world.

The argument on the other side, however, is that certain objects carry the identity of a nation or a people within them. They therefore belong in their country or region of origin. Imagine the United States without the Liberty Bell or the Declaration of Independence, for example. There is some validity to that argument. Why not allow Greece to have back the marble friezes and statues from their Parthenon, right?

However, Dr. Anderson's point is important, as well. According to UNESCO's guidelines for designating World Heritage Sites, it's imperative that we, as an international community, protect cultural heritage across the board. Their website says:
Places as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America make up our world’s heritage.

What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.

This, too, is a significant side to the dilemma. If a smaller country with fewer resources cannot afford to maintain and care for "its" objects of cultural heritage, is it worth the loss of those objects in the end for the short-term political peace of their return?

In the end, there are no pat answers, no easy ways to solve this problem. However, I guess in a way I'm heartened that this is a problem in the first place. It does seem to show that cultural heritage, and the objects that often make up that idea, are important. People care what happens to priceless objects. Without that, we'd all be sunk.

(A recent case in Sweden, of all places. The Spoils of War in Peaceable Sweden)