Should Museums Return Artifacts To Their Original Countries?

The repatriation of ancient objects is highly-charged and complex

The Parthenon at the Acropolis, Athens Greece. Source Wikimedia Commons

I recently stayed in Athens, and whilst there I took the chance to visit the Acropolis Museum, home to many ancient artifacts found on the rock of the Acropolis and on the surrounding slopes.

As I walked through the halls of the modern museum, I couldn’t help but be struck by the aptness of the museum being so close to the Acropolis itself. Only the day before I’d been up to the top of the rock and walked under the shadow of the great Parthenon temple. Now, at the museum, which sits at the foot of the rock of the Acropolis, I could look up and feel the presence of the old Athenian temples as I passed through the rooms of the exhibition.

The top level of the museum is set aside for the display of the Parthenon marbles, a series of stone sculptures that once adorned the outer edges of the famous temple. This floor is designed to sit in the same compass-orientation as the Parthenon itself and is laid out with the very same dimensions. You can even see the ancient temple on top of the rock through the glass walls, which permit natural light to illumine the marbles on display as they do on the Acropolis.

Entrance to the New Acropolis Museum, Athens. Source Wikimedia Commons

Despite the intelligence of the design, the Acropolis Museum has a major portion of its display missing. Around half of the Parthenon marbles are not in Athens but are housed in the British Museum in London, having been taken from the original site in the early 19th century by a British diplomat named Lord Elgin.

This is, in fact, quite convenient for me, because Britain is my home and London is only a short train ride away from where I live. It is certainly a lot closer than Greece.

Still, as I walked around the light-filled museum in Athens, I couldn’t help but see an undeniable logic in the calls for the return of the great marble sculptures back to the Greek capital. The dispute has been long-running, and doesn’t appear to be ending soon. Just recently, the current director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, defended the museum’s continued possession of the sculptures, saying that “When you move cultural heritage into a museum, you move it out of a context. Yet that displacement is also a creative act.”

His comments were not well received in Greece. “The imperialist patronage of the British Museum has no limits,” George Vardas, secretary of the international association for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures, said, also stating that Fischer’s comments came from a place of “amazing historical revisionism and arrogance.”

The Elgin Marbles display at the British Museum, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

The plight of the Elgin marbles reflects similar stories of other ancient objects, whose rightful location — some argue — is in the land where they were made, not in the hands of those who later acquired them.

Yet history is never quite so simple as this.

One problem with repatriation is the fundamental dispute over ownership. The Bust of Ankhhaf (circa 2,500 BC) is a limestone statue covered by a thin layer of reddish plaster. The statue was excavated in Egypt in 1925 by a team jointly funded by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Harvard University. It has been kept in Boston’s Museum of Art ever since, after having been given to the archaeological team by the government of Egypt in 1927.

Bust of Prince Ankhhaf, from Giza, tomb G 7310. From the 4th dynasty, during the reign of Khafra, circa 2575–2550 B.C. Painted limestone. Now residing in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Source (edited by author)

In 2011, Egypt demanded the return of the bust to form part of its planned Grand Egyptian Museum, despite the ownership of the object having passed to Boston in the original division of finds.

Moreover, the Boston Museum has argued that the 4,500-year-old statue, made of limestone and plaster, is too fragile to travel, even for a loan. As custodians of the object, the MFA director Malcolm Rogers has said, “This is not a question of Egypt. It’s a question of the object and its integrity. It’s a great, great treasure and we don’t want to put it at risk.’’

It is impossible to ignore how the history of archaeology is intimately connected with the history of European colonialism. Originating in 15th and 16th centuries during the Renaissance period, archaeology was first expressed as a desire for collecting antiquities whose intrinsic value had, for many centuries, been ignored. This interest soon led to sponsored excavations in ancient sites and the development of Classical archaeology. Museums were set-up to house and display the finds, and with the Classical world held up as an ideal, European collectors began to exploit their colonial footprint for more artifacts.

The Bust of Ankhhaf is not the only object that the Egyptian authorities wish to see returned. Their list also includes the Rosetta Stone, currently in the British Museum. This is a 2,200-year-old block of basalt stone on which is inscribed lettering in hieroglyphic, demotic (the native Egyptian script used for daily purposes), and Greek. It became a valuable key in deciphering the hieroglyphic system used in Egypt’s past.

The Rosetta Stone, property of the British Museum. Source

That the Rosetta Stone would later find a home in London was partly a result of Anglo-Franco imperialistic ambitions. The stone was discovered in Egypt by a French officer in 1799 and acquired by the British when they defeated the French in 1801, who transferred it to the British Museum in London in 1802. There it remains, a prize possession of the museum and one of its most well-known exhibits.

Many other objects from around the world are the subject to similar debates. There’s the Koh-i-Noor Diamond (circa 3,000 BC), a 105-carat diamond in the possession of the British Crown Jewels despite the fact that India has demanded its return since Independence in 1947.

Then there’s the Ishtar Gate (575 BC), an ancient entrance-gate to the city of Babylon (in modern-day Iraq), made from enameled blue and green bricks and decorated with hundreds of reliefs of dragons and bulls: it is currently in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

It would be easy to posit the colonial past as a good enough reason for all of the objects mentioned to be returned to the lands of their origin. Yet the stories of such acquisitions often contain crucial subtleties that make any claim subject to doubt.

With the Parthenon marbles, the logic of bringing back the critical Parthenon sculptures rests principally on the fact that they would be back in the place for which they were made. For academics and tourists alike, the consonance of seeing the sculptures in their Athenian home — with its myriad of ancient monuments spread across the city — is surely the end of the argument.

Not quite. The counter-claim is that the British Museum has been long-standing custodians of the sculptures whose fate might otherwise have been much different. When Lord Elgin took to the stones, the Parthenon was in a ruinous state after years of neglect, with many of the stones on the site having fallen from the temples and being scavenged for building material.

The Acropolis at that time was an Ottoman military fort, not the prized site of ancient buildings we find today. As such it is uncertain if the sculptures would have survived at all if not for Lord Elgin’s intervention. Elgin claimed he had written documentation from the Ottoman’s to enter the site, and from 1801 to 1812, agents of Elgin were at liberty to remove about half of the surviving sculptures, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum.

The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, London. Image shows part of the central section of the east frieze. Source Wikimedia Commons

In this sense, the exact circumstances of the acquisition — the agreements that were made at the time — do not always give rise to decisive narratives of stolen goods. Disputes over history — questions of “who said what” — render most arguments less than clear-cut.

There is also the broader argument over the value of museums themselves: the vast scope of the British Museum’s collection means that objects from diverse cultures can be viewed alongside each other, compared and contrasted. To visit a museum of its kind is like walking into the pages of an encyclopaedia. Objects and curiosities that have been gathered up over centuries, from territories near and far, provide a universal type of experience. This is part of the enlightenment spirit, of sharing and learning about each other’s culture.

These are high ideals. They also agree with the argument that to fulfill all restitution claims of ancient objects would have the effect of emptying many of the world’s great museums.

In the end, solutions are not easy to come by. Naturally enough, museums are keen to stake their claim for objects in (or not in) their possession. Given this competition, perhaps the best thing we can hope is for museums around the world to undertake a more generous spirit of working together, loaning and trading objects, so that artifacts of universal cultural significance can be seen by as many curious eyes as possible.

Christopher P Jones writes about culture, art and life. Sign up for more.

A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

Christopher P Jones

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Art historian, writer, artist. Interested in fact, fiction and culture. Website


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

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