Museums and Repatriation: Who Owns the Past?

Western cultural institutions such as the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Museum Island in Berlin, and the British Museum in London are host to millions of visitors each year and play an integral part in the history of their countries and even the world. These museums display objects from all over the world and from a vast span of time, but does this display mean ownership? In order to decide and declare ownership over artefacts, the history and colonial past of many countries must first be confronted.

The Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum, by Kurt Thomas Hunt

The Acropolis Museum in Athens displays the wonders of Ancient Greece. Some of the most spectacular artefacts are missing, however: the Parthenon Marbles. Perhaps better known in Britain as the Elgin Marbles, named after Lord Elgin who brought them to Britain, they have been one of the main attractions at the British Museum for the past two hundred years. Recently, however, they have been at the centre of controversy. Questions about the legitimacy of their removal to ethical questions about repatriation tarnish these ancient wonders.

When Lord Elgin received permission from officials in Athens to remove the marbles from the Parthenon, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire. Even at the time there was contention around his act, with some likening it to looting. Due to the controversial nature of their removal the British Government bought the marbles in 1816 and they have been displayed in the British Museum ever since. The legality, or rather illegality, of their removal is one of the key arguments for their return to Athens. Thousands of artefacts were removed by the British from countries both with and without official permission and to pursue each case would be impossible. When Greece gained independence, there was a huge effort to restore the country to the former glory of antiquity. The Parthenon and its marbles were central to Athens, and iconic across Ancient Greece and beyond. Greek identity once again was tied to the ancient values of democracy and philosophy.

The British Museum argues that the marbles are part of a wider collection displaying the cultures and history of the whole world. The museum is presented as a means for a large audience to view the artefacts and subsequently learn about the past. They claim that as part of the world’s heritage they “transcend political boundaries,” but is this their claim to make? It is understandable to discuss the important historical value they have but they are also intrinsically linked to Greece and Greek identity. The statement released by the British Museum argues that the current location of the marbles allows a greater number of people to see them than would in the Acropolis Museum.

The idea of historical and cultural artefacts transcending political boundaries is closely tied to empire and colonialism. Many important archaeological finds were discovered and looted during conflict and under the cover of empire. The Rosetta Stone, which allowed the decipherment of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, was discovered in the 18th century under Napoleon and was later confiscated from the French by the British. It is now displayed in the British Museum and is one of the most important archaeological finds in the world. After the Greek request for the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles and other artefacts from institutions such as the Louvre and The Getty in Los Angeles, similar requests were issued by the Egyptian government. In their statement regarding the Parthenon Marbles the British Museum does acknowledge the ambiguity of their initial removal, however this acknowledgement is simplistic and does not explain the role of illegal looting in establishing a museum’s collection. As a cultural and historical institution all museums should be held accountable for events that happened in their past, especially if the stolen artefacts are still on display.

There is a concern that repatriation of artefacts to their country of origin will leave the great museums of the world with nothing to display, left only with objects from their own soil. Many of these large institutional museums are presented as ‘universal museums’, meaning they display everything and anything from around the world. This concept has some negatives, the most obvious being that the majority of artefacts on display will not be from the country the museum is located in. Many recognise the importance of universal museums as they reach a wider audience than a specific museum could. By spending a few hours at the British Museum one can see a 5000 year old Egyptian mummy alongside a plate commemorating Princess Diana, and still have time for lunch. Universal museums display and present the artefacts and values of present-day cultures alongside collapsed empires. In doing so they have a responsibility to display these items adhering to all religious and cultural rules. It is in these circumstances that repatriation is an important and significant gesture by museums.

The confrontation of colonial histories and accepting the role of colonialism in building their collections is central to museums remaining important cultural institutions. Repatriation and apologies do not tarnish a museum’s reputation, but instead they can help create a new narrative of cultural heritage and ownership. Whilst Greeks may consider themselves the direct descendants of the Ancient Greeks the Parthenon Marbles hold no spiritual or religious significance to modern Greeks. However artefacts relating to Native American or Maori tribes are not only important historical artefacts, they are central aspects of life and must be treated as such. They are still used everyday, they are not simply decorative or historical but fully functional objects.

The repatriation ceremony of Maori artefacts from the USA held at Te Papa, by the US Embassy

The Te Papa in Wellington is the national museum and art gallery of New Zealand. Combating its origins as a colonial museum, Te Papa is making strides in the display and treatment of cultural artefacts. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992 set out to create a museum which united the diverse population of New Zealand, focusing on creating a partnership between the Maori and the non-indigenous New Zealanders. Te Papa prides itself on being a bicultural museum and works closely with Maori tribes. Each Iwi (tribe) works with the museum to create an exhibition celebrating their heritage and artefacts, and tribal elders stay at the museum for the duration of the exhibition and perform several essential tribal roles. Repatriation of Maori artefacts is also an important aspect of Te Papa as a museum that represents the future and past of New Zealand. This conscious effort to engage the dual history and culture of New Zealand is playing an important role in the future of the country. By combining narratives and giving an equal standing to Maori voices, the past injustices are being confronted head on.

Whether it be in returning artefacts to their historical home or working with cultural groups to write a new a narrative, museums play a key role in how humanity views the past. It is only through understanding and confronting our history that we can move forward. Individual histories of peoples and countries must also be understood in a wider world context. Museums have a great opportunity to showcase everything humanity has done, to display the real narrative of our collective histories. It is from this broad historical context that humanity learns from its mistakes.

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