Elgin Marbles — theft or cultural preservation?

The Elgin Marbles, ancient sculptures originally part of the iconic Parthenon in Athens, Greece, have been on display at the British Museum since 1817 — much to the recent dispute of the Greek government. Although the British Museum acknowledges Greece’s standing request for the repatriation of the sculptures on their website, the institution also sternly defends its right to present the objects under the pretense of preservation and display to the “world-wide public.”

Such dispute between states and institutions has provoked a discussion in the world of cultural heritage: do artifacts like the Elgin Marbles belong to the nation of their cultural origination and importance (i.e. Greece), or to the so-called universal institutions that research and display them (i.e. the British Museum)?

Just this year, the British public spoke their opinion via a bipartisan bill presented in Parliament which would transfer ownership of the Elgin Marbles to Greece. As reported on the Museums Association website, Members of Parliament (MPs) behind the bill expressed regret at the “improperly” acquired artifacts, as well as a desire to undo a “200 year wrong.” The bill has since been tabled and will be reconsidered at the start of 2017.

Despite the interjections of both foreign and domestic lawmakers, the British Museum responded by reaffirming its stance as a presenter of world history in which the Marbles are “a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries.” And while this idea of a sort of utopian, come-one-come-all availability of the Marbles at the British Museum is honorable in theory, it fails in practice when the undisputed cultural home of the artifacts objects to their current stewardship.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Greek cultural minister Aristides Baltas spoke of rallying support from the international community — even the United Nations — to return the Marbles to Athens. Why should the UN care? Baltas says, “We do not regard the Parthenon as exclusively Greek but rather as a heritage of humanity.”

So both sides are arguing a claim based in shared cultural heritage. But whose is more valid?

The Museum’s own website celebrates its mission statement “that human cultures can, despite their differences, understand one another through mutual engagement” — a claim that disintegrates when the original culture’s participation is anything but mutual.

It seems ethically problematic for lauded institutions like the British Museum to continually dismiss accusations of improper ownership when such ownership blatantly breaks from their own published values.

How can a museum call itself “universal” in substance when its collection lacks universal, or mutual, agreement?

The British Museum and other cosmopolitan institutions may need to reconsider their strategy of artifact retention as local and global communities continue to tear down their ethical façade.

For now, at least, universalism remains the standard.

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