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This House would return cultural property residing in museums to its place of origin
This House would return cultural property residing in museums to its place of origin
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines cultural property as “property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science”, but a broader definition would not require the state to be proactive in ‘designating’ such cultural property, something which may lead to a bias against minority cultures. So debaters may wish to work with a broader definition simply based upon the significance of an object to a particular area or people. In 1970, UNESCO drafted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The convention requires states to create national bodies to oversee the protection of cultural heritage and to establish guidelines for transferring cultural property across borders. To date, 88 countries have ratified the treaty. But of the major art market nations – those that have prominent museums or large private collections – only France and the United States have joined. The member states of UNESCO also decided to create an independent body that could oversee the return of cultural artefacts and uphold the provisions of the 1970 convention. In 1980, the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation met for the first time. The committee is charged with:
“1, seeking ways and means of facilitating bilateral negotiations for the restitution or return of cultural property to its countries of origin…
2, promoting multilateral and bilateral cooperation with a view to the restitution and return of cultural property to its countries of origin;
3. encouraging the necessary research and studies for the establishment of coherent programmes for the constitution of representative collections in countries whose cultural heritage has been dispersed;
4. fostering a public information campaign on the real nature, scale and scope of the problem of the restitution or return of cultural property to its countries of origin”
As well as this it guides implementation of UNESCO programmes on such restitution, encourages establishment of museums and provides training for the care of cultural properties and promotes exchanges.
The debate about the return of cultural property to countries of origin is most often argued in terms of the Elgin (or Parthenon) marbles, masterpieces of classical Greek sculpture removed from the Parthenon in Athens in 1801 by Lord Elgin, and sold to the British Museum in London in 1816. Greece has consistently demanded the return of these national treasures since independence in 1830, which Britain has consistently refused. The marbles are part of a wider debate about the ownership and display of cultural treasures, often acquired from the developing world by imperial powers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and now displayed in Western museums. The British Museum’s charter implies that the institution cannot legally return items from its collection: "The Trustees of The British Museum hold its collections in perpetuity by virtue of the power vested in them by The British Museum Act (1963)". Yet the debate rages: should cultural property such as the Parthenon marbles be returned to its country of origin?
 20th session of the General Conference of UNESCO, Statutes of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation, 24 October – 28 November 1978.
|Points For||Points Against|
|Cultural artefacts are enriched when displayed in the context from which they originated||Scholars will have better access to artefacts, and more opportunities for study and collaboration, if they are stored in the west|
|Retaining artefacts is a relic of imperialist attitudes to non-occidental cultures||The historical significance of artefacts extends beyond their culture of origin|
|Many artefacts resting in western museums were acquired illegally. Western states have a duty to retain them.||Artefacts should be made accessible to the largest possible number of visitors|
|Developing countries are able to guard and preserve their own cultural treasures||In many cases, returning an artefact may prove to be unreasonably expensive|
Remember to choose a winning argument!
Cultural artefacts are enriched when displayed in the context from which they originated
Cultural treasures should be displayed in the context in which they originated; only then can they be truly valued and understood. In the case of the Parthenon marbles this is an architectural context which only proximity to the Parthenon itself can provide. In the British Museum they appear as mere disconnected fragments, stripped of any emotional meaning. It may also be useful for academics to have a cultural property in its original context in order to be able to understand it, for example a carved door may be a beautiful artefact but it cannot be truly understood unless we know what the door was used for, where it leads too something for which it is necessary to see the context.
Cultural and historical tourism is an important source of income for many countries, and is especially important for developing countries. If their artefacts have been appropriated by foreign museums in wealthy nations then they are being deprived of the economic opportunity to build a successful tourist trade. Both the treasures themselves are being devalued as is the experience of seeing the treasures.
The artefacts' place of origin has more often than not changed dramatically since they were in situ there. It is therefore unconvincing to argue that the context of modern Orthodox Greece aids visitors’ appreciation of an ancient pagan relic. Too much has changed physically and culturally over the centuries for artefacts to speak more clearly in their country of origin than they do in museums, where they can be compared to large assemblies of objects from a wide variety of cultures. Similarly, a great many cultural treasures relate to religions and cultures which no longer survive and there can be no such claim for their return. Technology has also evolved to the point that Ancient Greece can be just as accurately evoked virtually as it could be in modern Greece.
Countries with cultural heritage retain the attraction of being the original locations of historical events or places of interest even without all the artefacts in place. The sanctuaries of Olympia and Delphi in Greece are a good example of this; they are not filled with artefacts, but continue to attract visitors because the sites are interesting in themselves. In 2009 2,813,548 people visited Athens, with 5,970,483 visiting archaeological sites across Greece, even without the Parthenon marbles. Also, people who have seen an artefact in a foreign museum may then be drawn to visit the area it originated from. It is the tourist trade of the nations where these artefacts are held (mostly northern European nations, like Britain and France) which would suffer if they were repatriated. Lacking the climate and natural amenities of other tourist destinations they rely on their cultural offerings in order to attract visitors
Retaining artefacts is a relic of imperialist attitudes to non-occidental cultures
Display of cultural treasures in Western museums may be seen as a last hangover from the imperial belief that “civilised” states such as Britain were the true cultural successors to Ancient Greece and Rome, and that the ‘barbarian’ inhabitants of those ancient regions were unable to appreciate or look after their great artistic heritage. Whether that was true in the 19th century is open to doubt; it certainly is not valid today and the display of imperial trophies in institutions such as the British Museum or the Louvre is a reminder to many developing nations of their past oppression. For instance, the British Museum is refusing to return 700 of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria despite repeated requests by the Nigerian government. The Rosetta stone has been the subject of demands by the Egyptian government but remains in London. These artefacts become almost souvenirs of Imperialism, a way of retaining cultural ownership long after the political power of Britain has faded. Returning them would be a gesture of goodwill and cooperation.
 “The British Museum which refuses to state clearly how many of the bronzes it has is alleged to be detaining has 700 bronzes whilst the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, has 580 pieces and the Ethnology Museum, Vienna, has 167 pieces. These museums refuse to return any pieces despite several demands for restitution.” From Opoku, Kwame, ‘France returns looted artefacts to Nigeria: Beginning of a long process or an isolated act?’ 29th January 2010
For whatever reason the treasures were first collected, we should not rewrite history. There is no reason to politicise this argument; museums have no 'political' agenda but merely wish to preserve historical objects for their intrinsic value. Their reasons for keeping these items may be financial, or in the interests of keeping the artefacts safe and accessible to the public; whatever they may be, they are not political. Don’t the nations who have expended resources protecting and preserving these artefacts deserve in return the right to display them?
Additionally, not all artefacts held outside their country of origin are the result of imperial or exploitative relationships. The original Medieval Crown of England is held in Munich. Artistic exchange has nothing to do with politics anymore.
Many artefacts resting in western museums were acquired illegally. Western states have a duty to retain them.
Artefacts were often acquired illegally. Elgin, for instance, appropriated the Parthenon Marbles from the Ottoman authorities who had invaded Greece and were arguably not the rightful owners of the site; he took advantage of political turmoil to pillage these ancient statues. Doubt has even been cast on the legality of the 1801 document which purportedly gave Elgin permission to remove the marbles. The Axum obelisk was seized from Ethiopia by Mussolini as a trophy of war; fortunately the injustice of this action has since been recognised and the obelisk was restored to its rightful place in 2005.
UNESCO regulations initially required the return of artefacts removed from their country of origin after 1970,when the treaty came into force, but did not deal with any appropriations before this date due to deadlock in the negotiations for the framing of the convention that prevented inclusion of earlier removals. . However, the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects essentially removes the ambiguity about time limitations of UNESCO’s 1970 convention. Here, nations are required, in all cases, to return cultural artefacts to their countries of origin if those items were once stolen or removed illegally. International law is thus on the side of returning artefacts.
Although some treasures may have been acquired illegally, the evidence for this is often ambiguous. Experts agree that Greece could mount no court case because Elgin was granted permission by what was then Greece's ruling government. Lord Elgin’s bribes were the common way of facilitating any business in the Ottoman Empire, and do not undermine Britain’s solid legal claim to the Parthenon marbles, based upon a written contract made by the internationally-recognised authorities in Athens at the time. The veracity of the document can never be fully dismissed as it is a translation. And while some Benin bronzes were undoubtedly looted, other “colonial trophies” were freely sold to the imperial powers, indeed some were made specifically for the European market.Improve this
Developing countries are able to guard and preserve their own cultural treasures
It may have been true that countries such as Greece were not capable of looking after their heritage in the past, but that has now changed. Since 197
5 Greece has been carefully restoring the Acropolis and Athens now has a secure environment to maintain the marbles. The state-of-the-art New Acropolis Museum, which cost $200m, has now been completed to house the surviving marbles, and even contains a replica of the temple, thus the marbles would appear as being exactly the same as on the real temple. Pollution control measures (such as installing pollution monitoring stations throughout metropolitan Athens and ensuring that motor vehicles must comply with emission standards) have reduced sulphur-dioxide levels in the city to a fifth of their previous levels.
At the same time the curatorship of institutions such as the British Museum is being called into question, as it becomes apparent that controversial cleaning and restoration practices may have harmed the sculptures they claim to protect. In the 1930s the British museum’s attempt to clean them using chisels caused irreparable damage. They have also been irresponsible when it comes to protecting the fate of many of its artefacts: “The British Museum has sold off more than 30 controversial Benin bronzes for as little as £75 each since 1950, it has emerged”; “The museum now regrets the sales”.
In the case of the Parthenon marbles, Lord Elgin’s action in removing them was an act of rescue as the Parthenon was being used as a quarry by the local population. The Parthenon had already been destroyed by an explosion in 1687. Having been removed the result was that the British protected them between 1821 and 1833 during the Greek War of Independence was occurring and the Acropolis was besieged twice.Furthermore, if they had been returned upon Greek independence in 1830, the heavily polluted air of Athens would have caused extensive damage to such artefacts that would be open to the elements and Greek attempts at restoration in 1898 were as damaging as the British. Today economic austerity lends new uncertainty to Greece’s commitment to financing culture.
Similar problems face the return of artefacts to African museums; wooden figures would decay in the humid atmosphere. Artefacts in Northern Africa are at risk because of the recent revolts and civil wars. Wealthier countries sometimes simply have better resources to protect, preserve and restore historical artefacts than their country of origin. Our moral obligation is to preserve the artefact for future generations, and if this is best achieved by remaining in a foreign country then that must be the course of action.
 Christopher Hitchens, The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece?, 1998,p.viii, ISBN 1-85984-220-8
Scholars will have better access to artefacts, and more opportunities for study and collaboration, if they are stored in the west
If the Rosetta Stone had not been taken by the British in 1801, the deciphering of the ancient hieroglyphic language of the ancient Egyptian civilizations would have been near impossible. The British Museum is within just hours, and in some cases minutes, of such world-renowned institutions as Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, and Edinburgh. The scientific research that occurs in stable developed countries and scientifically excelling countries is of the highest degree, and parallels to this high level of study are simply non-existent in many underdeveloped countries.Improve this
If the artefacts are of sufficient historical and cultural interest, scholars will travel to any location in order to study them. Indeed, the proximity of artefacts in developing countries may even stimulate intellectual curiosity and increase the quality of universities in there, which would be beneficial for world culture.Improve this
The historical significance of artefacts extends beyond their culture of origin
Artefacts have a historical and symbolic meaning that transcends their origins; over the years they acquire a connection with the place that they are housed. For example, the Egyptian obelisk that stands in the Piazza di San Pietro in Rome was brought to Italy in the reign of Caligula. It is no longer merely an ‘Egyptian’ artefact - it has become a symbol of Roman dominance in the ancient world and the European Christian culture that succeeded it. During the Middle Ages it was believed that the ashes of Julius Caesar were contained in the gilt ball at the top.
Further, all artefacts are part of a world-wide collective history. Olduvai handaxes (from countries in Eastern Africa such as Tanzania) are held in the British Museum - but the people who made them are our ancestors just as much as they are the ancestors of local people. Holding these in London encourages us to see the common ground we hold with people everywhere in the world, whereas keeping them only in their local country only highlights our differences and tribal identities. “Culture knows no political borders. It never has. It’s always been mongrel; it’s always been hybrid; and it’s always moved across borders or bears the imprint of earlier contact”.
Artefacts often have unique religious and cultural connections with the place from where they were taken, but none for those who view them in museum cases. To the descendants of their creators it is offensive to see aspects of their spirituality displayed for the entertainment of foreigners. Meanings may have accumulated around artefacts, but their true significance is rooted in its origins.Improve this
Artefacts should be made accessible to the largest possible number of visitors
Art treasures should be accessible to the greatest number of people and to scholars, because only then can the educational potential of these artefacts be realised. In response to a question about whether museums have any social responsibility, Richard Armstrong, director at the Guggenheim, said “Absolutely, it began with the French Revolution. It is the more than a 200-year-old quest to have the most powerful cultural artefacts available to the greatest number of people. One could say it is the project of democratizing beauty”. In practice this means retaining them in the great museums of the world. Further some of the world great museums, such as those in Britain and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. are free of charge.
Many people from an artefact's country of origin never get to see them because they cannot afford to travel to a foreign museum; as such the cost of access to that museum is a very small part of the total cost. These artefacts are part of their cultural history and national identity, and it is important that local people are given the opportunity to see them. It is not all about quantity of visitors; those closest to the artefacts have the greatest right to see them. For others, it should be a privilege not a right.Improve this
In many cases, returning an artefact may prove to be unreasonably expensive
Even with modern transport links and technology, transporting every artefact in a foreign museum back to its original location would be an impractically mammoth task. The risk of damage to artefacts would be unavoidable, not to mention the possibility of theft or sabotage en route. Important artefacts in transit would be an ideal public target for acts of terrorism. Moreover, the infrastructure of developing countries is probably not sufficient to cope with that volume. Greece may have spent $200m developing a new museum but relatively it is one of the more wealthy countries of origin for artefacts in the British Museum; places such as Nigeria are unlikely to put such emphasis on cultural investment.
Museums all over the world do loan out their collections. Just because they are held in another country’s museum does not mean that the place of origin would not be able to access artefacts. Creating a generous and dynamic network of sharing relics between museums would be a much more realistic way of sharing and ensuring that all could benefit from seeing them.
Returning artefacts to their original locations would in the past have been an unfeasible project simply because of the risk of transporting everything. Now, however, transport is much quicker and easier and we have improved technology to make the transit less damaging to the artefact; for instance, temperature-controlled containers.
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