Tuesday 30 March 2010

Elginism and the Indiscriminate Trade in Antiquities

On March 26, 2010 the superb "Elginism" blog celebrated five years of operation. While restitution of artefacts taken from sites, monuments and places long ago is not one of the "Portable Antiquity Collecting Issues" I as an archaeologist am primarily concerned with, it is certainly a heritage issue.

I am ashamed to admit that even not so long ago I was persuaded that the Parthenon (aka "Elgin") Marbles should stay in London. This was mainly because I guess when I was younger I lived within spitting distance of the BM and spent man an afternoon wandering its corridors and galleries drinking it all in. Now I am of the opposite view. I think they should go back, despite the argument that they were - perhaps - obtained in accordance with all that passed for correct behaviour at the time. The construction of the new Acropolis Museum (which I have not yet seen, maybe this year) has been a key factor in my own change of mind.

I have always believed that the Benin bronzes etc. however should be more equably handled (should have been long ago). For a number of reasons, I am not personally so sure these days about other contested items, the Rosetta Stone for example, or the disputed Nefertiti bust.

I think there is a danger that in public opinion these "repatriation" issues tend to get confused with another phenomenon entirely, the seizure of illictly traded artefacts from other countries by national agencies such as the ICE of the United States. Newspaper items talk there of the objects' subsequent "repatriation", which is where confusion of issues can creep in.

The return of what is clearly recently stolen property to the territory and people (generic) from whom it was stolen is quite a different thing to debating whether our 2010 concepts of what cultural thievery is can be applied to Elgin's men sawing up the Parthenon and levering out caryatids for example. In the one case there are very clear reasons (both legal and moral) why the seized objects should go back, in the latter the argumentation is far more complex and involves a vast array of factors and interests.

Of course it is very much in the interest of those involved in the current no-questions-asked antiquities trade to try and conflate the issues. This is why the scribblings of James Cuno are a preferred quarry for quotes for the pro-collecing activists who (deliberately?) confuse what Cuno is saying about museums with what they would like to hear about the current sordid indiscrimacy of the antiquities trade to private collectors.

Let us be clear however that what is (or is not) applicable to collecting in the period before the 1970s or 1980s is not at all applicable to the situation on the antiquities market in the subsequent century of which a decade has already passed without any significant change for the better in the antiquities market.

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