The British Museum has had only one request to return something from its vast collections that it regards as official. The Greek government has asked the British government if it can have the Parthenon marbles back.
The British Museum has had only one request to return something from its vast collections that it regards as official. The Greek government has asked the British government if it can have the Parthenon marbles back. Stephen Fry also thinks the issue of these sculptures is unique. In December last year, in a blog picked up over the weekend by a restitution lobby group, Fry wrote: “The Parthenon affair is a special case.”
Which it is. That stunning building embodies the culture that gave us democracy, the Olympic Games and all that classical stuff we used to be taught at school. It inspired the Renaissance and Byron, and now the many who would like to see the bits in the British Museum – about half the surviving sculptures – given back to Greece.
Among the latter was the late Christopher Hitchens. For him the cause was the expression of a solidarity between a free Greece and “British liberals and radicals”. Fry agrees, calling the idea of a return an “act of friendship” in the time of Greece’s “appalling financial distress”.
A big reason for restitutioners to argue for the uniqueness of the Parthenon case is to counter claims that any return would set off a string of demands for other things from other countries: being friendly to Greece would not set a precedent. In practical terms that is probably true – comparable cases would continue to be judged on their own merit. And as the British Museum says, so far no other claims have been put to it through the formal route of one government to another.
But there are comparable cases, and denying those for the sake of solidarity with Greece raises awkward issues. Around the world, a pattern is emerging as museums hold out against some claims and give in to others – or celebrate the agreements, as they would often have it. The demand for a return often comes from grandstanding politicians and campaign groups, acted out in the media and not always followed through with a formal request. This need not reflect on the strength of a case. The British Museum, for example, has been subjected to two campaigns where the contexts are quite different.
The Cyrus cylinder, a sort of clay marrow covered in cuneiform writing, was excavated in Babylon in 1879 and has been called “the world’s first charter of human rights”. The British Museum loaned it to Iran in 2010. Amid bizarre scenes in which Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to appropriate the human-rights message, rightwing commentators asked for the cylinder to be retained in Iran. The museum replied that it had been legally excavated in Iraq, and it came back to London.
The Benin bronzes, beautiful and sophisticated cast brass plaques, are a different matter. There are lots of them: many are in the British Museum, but the Ethnological Museum of Berlin has a good few and there are others elsewhere. And significantly, their journey from Nigeria to Europe in 1897 began with an attack on a royal palace by British soldiers that was questioned at the time. The first request for their return came from Nigeria in 1936. The Benin royal family and other campaigners have kept up the demand.
Last year the Turkish culture ministry asked the V&A if it could have its head back. There are echoes of the Parthenon here, in that Turkey has the main part, a huge marble sarcophagus from Sidamara, while the V&A holds a part that could be put back – a child’s head knocked off by the tomb’s British excavator in 1882 (although it should be noted that none of the Parthenon sculptures can be set on the original building, they have to be exhibited in museums, wherever they may be). Turkey also wants a carved stone stele from Carchemish, now in the British Museum, and a dozen artefacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In all these cases, and many others – requests from Egypt come to mind, though these have diminished since the 2011 revolution – the museums are holding out to retain ownership. But there are also cases where things have been amicably returned. The nature of many of these is instructive.
One of the most spectacular repatriated artefacts is a totem pole, shipped back by Sweden to the Canadian Haisla people in 2006. The long negotiations were seen by both sides as a chance to build new friendships. The pole had been collected in 1872 by a Swedish consul at a time when its meaning was very fresh among those who had created it, but whose culture was being intentionally suppressed by European settlers. Two copies were carved, one for the original site (the pole itself being set in a new museum), the other for Sweden.
A more complex case concerns what’s known as Priam’s treasure. Excavated in Turkey by Heinrich Schliemann in 1873, stolen from Germany by Russian soldiers in 1945, and revealed only in 1993 to be in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, this collection of objects said to be from ancient Troy may in fact be an amalgamation of things that Schliemann found all over the place. Be that as it may, Schliemann smuggled them illegally out of Turkey, and Germany has agreed to give them back – but Russia won’t let them go.
The best known subjects of repatriation, however, are probably human remains. Driven by new interests in evolution and race, in the later 19th century many European and American museums were keen to acquire human bones. What they wanted especially were skulls from people argued by some to be primitive examples of modern humanity.
Such was the demand that the issue of how these bones were acquired was often skirted over. In Australia in particular, it was not unheard of for the skulls of the recently deceased to be boiled up and packed off. As with material acquired from judicial hangings in the west, there are remains in some museums where not only the village of origin is known, but the personal names of the individuals represented.
Understandable disquiet has long been felt about such material by museums and Aboriginal communities. There has been debate about the loss to science of repatriation, and some resistance from scientists to handing “specimens” over to groups who may destroy them. But human remains have been returned by museums around the world. As with the Haisla totem pole, the process is often hailed as one of healing.
These are a very few examples from many cases, but there are lessons to be learned. Requests for repatriation are common, formal or otherwise, and for every request raised, many more could be spirited up – and undoubtedly will be. Every case is unique, as you might expect from incidents of contact between nebulous groups and individuals around the world, often at times of war and usually with little if any proper record made at the time.
Co-operative discussion can sometimes result in repatriation. At other times, it seems unlikely that either of these will occur. A key factor seems to be how closely related those making the request are to the objects under debate: the people who made the Haisla totem pole got it back; the people who wrote on the Cyrus cylinder are long gone.
But all of this complexity is suppressed by the notion that the Parthenon and its sculptures are unique. They may be a “special case” for Europeans educated in a particular way. But every artefact or remain is special to someone. Pleading the Parthenon’s right to be treated differently undermines the right of everyone else to be treated equally. Is that really what Christopher Hitchens had in mind?
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