Antiquities as political dynamite

A forceful argument for western museums’ right to collect, and one for the return of the Elgin Marbles

James Cuno, director of the Art Institute in Chicago, has written a clear, well-argued, yet too partisan book about the vexed question of how great museums like his should collect ancient objects. The endless argument as to whether antique masterpieces like the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon should ever have left their native lands has a new edge, as it is acknowledged that classical treasures “surfacing” on the international market have not been forgotten family relics that had left Greece or Italy decades ago, but were newly dug up by looters and smuggled to, especially, the United States. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles are now voluntarily returning classical artefacts to the Mediterranean lands. The Getty’s curator of antiquities, Marion True, on trial in Italy for conspiracy to traffic in illicit antiquities, contended she was not a loose cannon or a bad apple but was being made to “carry the burden” for practices known, approved, and condoned by the Getty’s board of directors.

Professor Cuno sees the real struggle as not being between the acquiring museums and the archaeologists who see sites wrecked by the looters, but between museums and the nationalist agendas of nation-states. Once upon a time, ancient fine things freely moved, and the great “universal museums” like the British Museum, the Louvre and the Metropolitan could build their encyclopaedic collections with objects from cultures the world over. Then rampant nationalism stopped the sensible habit of partage, the dividing of finds between the metropolitan country whose experts were directing and funding the digs, and the (usually backward) country where they were digging: every ancient thing became the precious patrimony of whichever modern nation-state’s domain, time and chance had happened to place it in. Politicians in countries like Turkey and China justified their modern identities by yoking their cultural and patriotic self-definition to ancient objects often made by people with no, or slight, or unknown cultural relations to the actual people dominant in the modern state. Many well-known stories are repeated: “Pharaonism” in Egypt in the late 19th century when Muslim Egypt discovered pride in its very different pre-Islamic past; the Shah of Iran’s celebration of Persian civilisation; Saddam Hussein’s cultural revitalisation and physical rebuilding of ancient Babylon under the slogan, “Yesterday Nebuchadnezzar, today Saddam Hussein.”

Antiquities have been in this way wrongly politicised, Professor Cuno asserts. China, rather on the model of Greece, seeks to prevent cultural property leaving its territory now, and to bring back what left in the past. Worse, it seems to me, international organisations, starting with Unesco, are in turn politicised; so distorted, they have ludicrous policies like returning illicitly exported antiquities to Iraq when the Iraqi National Museum is insecure and controlled by Islamist politicians with no concern or respect for the culture of Iraq’s lands before Islam arrived.

Professor Cuno is right to be critical. Like all UN agencies, Unesco is held back by an obligation to pretend every nation-state member is benign, competent, uncorrupt, and respectful in its attitude to all its own peoples and cultures, and to those of other nation-states. The linking of patrimony to patriotism, and the mapping of modern national identities

on to shady ancient entities does distort our view of the past. Unesco contends that “cultural property constitutes one of the basic elements of…national culture”, a view leaving little place for ideas of shared or world heritage, or the notion that cultures are not necessarily or by nature “national”.

But it has always been so since the modern nation-state was invented in the west, and applied to structure the entire world, with the corollary of seeking historical justification for modern boundaries and self-definitions. The former British colony of “Gold Coast” became the independent nation of Ghana—named after an ancient empire that was several hundred kilometres away and unconnected geographically, ethnically, or in any other way.

Professor Cuno cites the group of 18 “universal museums” which in 2002 declared the merit of multi-cultural collections like the British Museum and his own Art Institute in Chicago: eight are in Europe, ten in the US. Where are the universal museums in other continents? Where are the collections of European antiquities or later Western art taken to Africa to match the African art brought to Europe and the US? Where are the initiatives to take a few of, say, the Chicago Institute’s 3,500 works in its collection of European painting, “considered one of the finest in the world”, to countries whose people never see original European paintings? Is it not relevant that the Benin bronzes, some now in Professor Cuno’s institute, left the land which is now the modern state of Nigeria not with the informed consent of its people but as booty in a punitive military raid?

Culture and politics go hand-in-hand in Professor Cuno’s America, a nation which also justifies its present-day structure, power and attitudes by combining historical fact and myth. The greedy and knowing acquisition of looted antiquities by its great museums is a bad mistake in the long term. The countries which lose their antiquities that way perceive the Americans, when legitimate means of acquisition become blocked,

as turning to thievery and deception. So the conditions

for distrust and defensive possession by each of what we still have and can hold are strengthened, rather than the better attitude of sharing and common human heritage which both Professor Cuno and myself dearly wish for.

Although a different kind

of story—not recent looting but the removal of major sculptures from the Parthenon in 1801—the Elgin Marbles now in the British Museum remain the most celebrated of antiquities disputed today. The Greek Ministry of Culture has now built a very large and handsome museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi, on the slope of the hill below the Acropolis in central Athens. In sight of the Parthenon itself, it will house, the Elgin Marbles—reunified with other surviving pieces— when (or if) they are at last returned from London. So this is a good moment to reissue a revised version of Christopher Hitchens’s short and excellent book, now subtitled “the Case for Reunification” (previously “the Case for Restitution”). It reprints the 1987 central text,

a lively and compelling argument as to why the sculptures were unlawfully removed in 1801, and why there is no good reason for them to remain in London. Bracketing this are an energetic new preface by Nadine Gordimer, a new introduction, and a good account of new conservation and restoration—“restitution”—work in Athens. Ms Gordimer’s preface sets the tone: “How parts of the Parthenon frieze came to be in England in the first place is an example of imperial arrogance manifest in marble” (the opening sentence); “Restitution now, in the 21st century, is on wider (appropriately) than legal grounds, grounds of dishonesty in colonialism justified as the acquisition of art”; and “they are the DNA, in art, of the people of Greece”. This last remark underlines the nationalist heart of the issue: for the people of the land of Greece underwent many transformations, biological and cultural, between the ancient Hellenes and the population which achieved a state independent from the Ottoman empire. The sculptures became the DNA, in art, of the people of Greece because Greek nationalism found its inspiration there, in the virtuous heritage and example of Ancient Greece, rather than as a simple matter of historical fact.

Christopher Chippindale

Reader in Archaeology, Museum

of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

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