Owning Culture: Indigenous Rights and the Elgin Marbles

Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times art critic, offered yesterday in his Abroad column a remarkably ill-argued defense of the British Museum’s continued possession of the Elgin marbles, which, two hundred years ago, were taken from the Acropolis in Athens by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Constantinople. The marbles are only among the more famous examples of the much wider issue of the theft of cultural patrimony. Such theft, of course, is pretty much inherent to conflict and conquest, so is probably as old as culture and conflict themselves. Which is the first obfuscatory point that defenders of the fruits of the colonial era and empire generally make. It’s all so complicated, they’ll say; it reaches so far back in time, to peoples and civilizations no longer extant – what folly to think of attempting to rectify all the world’s historic injustices.

The Elgin marbles, The British Museum

Let us stipulate, then, that there should be no attempts to adjudicate disputes arising from the Gutian conquest of the Akkadian empire (ca. 2083 BCE).

The case of the marbles, however, like that of the artifacts from Machu Picchu that Yale University continues to hold, despite the request of the Peruvian government for their return – like that of most indigenous lands – is not nearly so tangled in a web of historical complexity. The colonial era and the more general conquests of empire led more powerful nations and cultures to take from the less powerful what the latter possessed and the former coveted. How complicated. All of the Western Hemisphere, it is clear to see, cannot be returned to its native peoples. The Elgin marbles are a somewhat less complex problem.

Machu Picchu

In the case of the marbles, however, Kimmelman decides to get high-minded.

And in the end patrimony is about ownership, often of objects that as in the marbles’ case, come from bygone civilizations. What, in this context, does it really mean to own culture?

This is an argument, to draw a surprising connection, not unlike that made by its enemies against the existence of Israel. For reasons ill considered, in Kimmelman’s case, or ill willed, what has been long fine for everyone else – cultural self-determination in the form of a nation-state, in the case of Jews, the concept of ownership in the case of the dispossessed – is inconveniently for Jews and the ripped-off now an antiquated barbarity of conception no longer intellectually coherent or morally appropriate.

Kimmelman engages in a kind deconstructive historicism to deny any coherent meaning to the notion of cultural continuity.

When Walter Benjamin wrote in the last century about the original or authentic work of art losing its aura, he was in part suggesting that the past is not something we can just return to whenever we like — it’s not something fixed and always available. It’s something forever beyond our grasp, which we must reinvent to make present….

Today’s Acropolis is itself a kind of fiction….Modernity has mostly stripped the site of all those layers of history to recover a Periclean-era past that represents, because it has come to mean the most to us, its supposed true self — a process of archeological excavation, based on another modern kind of fiction about historical and scientific objectivity that inevitably adds its own layer of history.

The Acropolis
The Acropolis

The Greece that was doesn’t even exist anymore! The Acropolis that was is just an Acropolis of the imagination, a fiction we create in order to believe we step into the same river twice. This is just as enemies of Israel will attempt to deny any ancient (never mind continuous) Jewish connection to the land, as the opponents of indigenous rights will confuse the pursuit of justice with a foolish desire to return to some nostalgically imagined pre-colonial paradise.

Kimmelman raises the obvious objections to his own position, but he dismisses them simply by passing them by.

Americans, excepting Indians, may find this whole issue hard to grasp. We don’t tend to think in terms of American cultural patrimony, save perhaps for the Liberty Bell or the Brooklyn Bridge, because we’re an immigrant nation worshipful of the free market. Demanding the return of American art and artifacts to America sounds, well, un-American, not to mention bad for the bottom line.

Well, of course, American Indians are a very big exception. How does Kimmelman deal with them? He ignores them. Sound familiar? And really, just imagine the British Ambassador made off with the Liberty Bell or parts of the Brooklyn Bridge. Americans would have cultural patrimony coursing like a rain-swollen river through their veins. But in the case of the Acropolis, it was then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, a Sultan of which, Elgin claimed, said of the marbles, “Sure, take ’em.” (Black Hills gold? Sure, take it.) And all is fair in love and empire, and we can’t litigate the past, we can barely litigate the present, which, by the way (wink, wink) will pretty soon be past.

The Black Hills, South Dakota

Kimmelman argues

The effect of this vandalism on the education and enlightenment of people in all the various places where the dismembered works have landed has been in many ways democratizing.

That’s not an excuse for looting.

But that’s exactly what Kimmelman’s essay is, a long rationalization for looting: first, cultural discontinuity that renders the notion of “return” meaningless; second, the dissemination of the cultural gift of the marbles – made possible only by their removal from the Acropolis – has been, as John Berger argued about reproduction, not so much about theft -democratizing; and third

Art …. summons distinct feelings to those for whom it’s local, but ultimately belongs to everyone and to no one.

We’re all custodians of global culture for posterity.

Neither today’s Greeks nor Britons own the Parthenon marbles, really.

Well, actually, no. A “custodian” is somebody responsible for holding or looking after valuable property on behalf of a company or another person. I am sure the Greeks will agree that the world’s culture “belongs” to all of us, but they think they are the proper custodians of the marbles no less than are Americans of the Liberty Bell or the Peruvians (more precisely, the Quechua) of the riches of Machu Picchu.

Not so deeply buried in Kimmelman’s brief for continued British possession, aided by disparagement of Greek interest in the Acropolis and of the new museum constructed on the Acropolis that would hold the marbles, is the notion that the British museum, and Britain, are culturally superior in their ability to do the marbles justice.

That’s the kind of argument of which we should already have had enough.


2 thoughts on “Owning Culture: Indigenous Rights and the Elgin Marbles

  1. To my aesthetic, I don’t understand why these ancient sites, the Parthenon, the Colliseum, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, Stonehenge, Angkor Wat… are kept as ruins.

    Restore them. Rebuild them. Make them as they were. Restore all the statuary as it was. Use traditional masonry methods if you’re inspired. Pay for it with public money — no problem to recoup that in additional tourism.

    I can appreciate that there is some sabi spiritual sense to being in something ancient. But I don’t think that is dramatically enhanced by the place being in ruins as long as architectural care is taken.

    If they did that, everyone could understand immediately that the Elgin marbles belong back in the Parthenon.

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