The return of historical artefacts to their place of origin is an issue loaded with controversy and debate. It’s also an emotive subject for many, and discussion can quickly descend into argument about historical guilt, right and wrong, and a ‘them versus us’ rhetoric. The subject is too large and unwieldy to do it full justice here, but it’s always worth reminding ourselves that this is about more than old bits of rock or statues of dead rulers. The debate over historical artefacts demonstrates just how important history can be to matters of modern identity and foreign relations.
On the face of it, the debate is quite simple. Many of the world’s greatest museums hold pieces of art, sculpture, jewellery and artefacts that have come from other countries, often acquired under contentious circumstances. Some governments/organisations are asking for these items to be returned to them, but many museums do not want to do this. Mixed in with this seemingly simple argument about ownership are far more complex matters of nationalism and internationalism, as well as feelings of anger, patriotism and blame. So what are some of the key issues in this debate?
Advocates of returning historical objects often argue that such items should reside in the country from which they originated, plain and simple.
The problem with this argument is that throughout history, the borders of many of the countries we recognised today have been malleable, porous, or non-existent. Indeed, many modern countries did not exist a few decades ago, let alone centuries. India was only united as one country in 1947 (Pakistan did not exist until this point). Italy as we understand it today was only created in 1861. What makes a country a country (is it ethnicity of the people residing within certain internationally recognised borders? Is it a particular all-encompassing structure of government? Is it a language? A religion?) is not only debatable, but it is also unfixed and ever changing.
Closely related to this issue of origin is that of ownership. Returning historical artefacts to their original owners sounds straight forward enough, but determining ownership (like country of origin) is fraught with difficulty. Is it the original creator of the piece that owns it? If so, how do you trace the creator? This may be feasible for certain items like a painting or a sculpture, but what about an ancient death mask or a carving on a temple, which was created by an unnamed, unknown person or people? Does such work belong to the state? What if said state did not exist at the time of the artefact’s creation? Which brings us back to the issue of origin.
This is an interesting and tricky issue, mainly because how an artefact is ‘valued’ is so hard to define. Illustrative of this is the Koh-i-noor diamond. Perhaps the world’s most renowned jewel, it was first recorded in the history books around the 14th century. Originally 793 carats, its size was reduced by various botched attempts to cut it, until, in the 1850s, it was cut by the Victorians to its present size and shape (105 carats). Since cut is one of the ways a diamond is valued (together with carat and clarity) it can be argued that although the operation reduced the size of the diamond, by cutting it properly, the British increased its value (and can thereby claim ownership).
Yet the Koh-i-noor is a good example of an item that is worth more than its intrinsic characteristics. This diamond’s value lies not just in its cut, clarity and carat, as most diamonds do, but in its history and thus the meaning that is placed on it. Its symbolism of empire, monarchy (sitting in the crown jewels as it does), subjugation and the spoils of war means more to people than its monetary worth.
Indeed, some might say that more important than financial worth (or a better way of measuring value) is meaning. The Rosetta Stone is simply a piece of rock; its meaning lies in the fact that it allowed Western scholars in the nineteenth century to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs, which opened the door to understanding ancient Egyptian life.
Because meaning is so subjective, it is hard to evaluate a historical object in this way. The meaning of an item like the Rosetta Stone (or the Koh-i-noor) might be different for different people, cultures or countries, so how do you judge to whom the item has more meaning?
Seeing an artefact in its original context is in large part what can give an object value and meaning – so argue those who want the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece. Only by seeing the frieze in the Acropolis Museum, as close to their original position as possible, can people appreciate not only the aesthetics but the context (and thus meaning) of the sculptures.
Context, however (like meaning), can be a tricky measure by which to evaluate where an artefact should be held. The Rosetta Stone is a case in point. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo might want to hold the stone themselves, arguing that it needs to be seen in the context of other Ancient Egyptian artefacts for its full meaning to be understood. Nonetheless, on display as it currently is in the British Museum in London, the piece tells the story not only of Ancient Egypt, but of the Napoleonic Wars, of Western scholarship, of the development of Egyptology and the almost obsessive pursuit of understanding this ancient culture which gripped Britain, America, France and other countries in the nineteenth century.
A strong argument often in favour of keeping historical artefacts in certain museums is that of access. In 2013/2014 the British Museum received 6.8 million visitors; the Acropolis Museum just over one million. Numerous factors attribute to these figures, but the ultimate conclusion is that more people get to see the contents of the British Museum than the Acropolis. Another key point to consider is freedom of access – the British Museum, along with others like the Smithsonian in the US, do not charge an entry fee. Which means anyone, regardless of economic background, can access great works of art and historical objects.
A further point to take into consideration is which institution is better able to take care of an historical artefact, both in terms of preservation and/or restoration of the object, but also in regards to security. Certain museums attract the most talented of the world’s curators, conservators and scholars, so that a piece will be properly looked after and be available for the enjoyment of future generations. Certain countries also have more stable governments than others, and are less likely to witness war or extremism, which can prove fatal to historical pieces.
A poor argument in favour of retaining such objects where they presently are is that of the slippery slope – ‘if we return this item, we will have to return all items and then our museum would be empty’. Unfortunately, the slippery slope argument is always a fallacy and comes across as an excuse not to engage with the debate. Each artefact is unique, with an individual history, meaning and value. Each case needs to be considered on its own merit, rather than a blanket rule applied to all. The slippery slope argument only adds to discord between countries arguing over the return of historical artefacts, and does not serve reasonable and considered deliberation.
There is by no means an easy answer to the matter of returning historical artefacts, and those who try to reduce the issue to one or two factors do not do the debate any favours. Each object needs to be dealt with on a case by case basis, and the important measures by which return should evaluated appear to those of access and care, closely followed by meaning and context. Trying to remove emotion and negative discourse from the discussion is difficult, but it can blur the matter at hand. Ultimately, historical objects are the possessions of humanity and only those who can ensure the greatest care and best access, so that millions of people across the world can enjoy these pieces, should be allowed the great privilege of looking after them.