Books - Museums Association


Sara Wajid examines the author’s case for and against repatriating artefacts
The dispute is a much-debated one: should museums repatriate works or not? Keeping Their Marbles opens with several well-researched chapters on the history of the modern museum, taking in Hans Sloane and the British Museum; Napoleon in Egypt and the Elgin Marbles.

There is some good material on Napoleon’s removal of artworks from conquered Rome and their subsequent return after his defeat, and on the looting and burning of the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860 by British and French forces, concluding the second opium war. After this preamble, the book’s author, Tiffany Jenkins, moves to her main focus: the modern world, museum ethics and culture wars.

Jenkins faces up squarely to the looting during the 2003 Iraq war and the fact that sites were “scavenged beyond recognition”. There’s a useful list of museums that have returned material on the grounds that it was acquired via illicit means in recent times, when the modern legal framework was clearly in place and the rights of original owners were beyond dispute.

Having covered these relatively uncontroversial areas, Jenkins gets down to brass tacks. She sides with “repatriation sceptics” and opposes the three-fold notion she claims is being held by her opponents: that museums serve the “interests of the powerful”, that they claim to show “the” truth as opposed to “a” truth and that the stories they tell can be “harmful to people”.

She is honest about the tide of opinion: 73% of respondents in a survey in Museums Journal in 2012 supported the return of the Elgin Marbles. Again she breaks the case into three segments. Repatriation supporters argue that objects are created “in a particular place and in a particular time” and therefore do something special for people who still live in that place. Ergo, they should be returned.

Jenkins is on firm ground when she opposes this first theory. Many of the nation states that now push for the return of objects, such as Turkey and Peru, did not exist in their present form at the time. She admits that people there may nevertheless have a special claim due to the relation of artworks to a location, but feels these are outweighed by their universal appeal and the passage of time. “Nobody can experience ancient culture in the way people did when it was first created,” Jenkins writes. If both these points can be disputed, she can safely disagree with the return of artefacts.

The test case is, of course, the Elgin Marbles. Greece may not have been a nation, but Athens was certainly a city-state when the Parthenon was erected. The frieze is rich in political meaning that relates directly to successful wars in the defence of Athens. And no, Greece is not the same after 25 centuries, but the Acropolis Museum has large portions of the frieze in its possession, so a return of the pieces in the Duveen Gallery in the British Museum could be seen as a reunion. Jenkins wisely accepts that she has no watertight argument to make here, but concludes that we have “two wonderful sets of sculptures in two wonderful museums”.

One other, and much grimmer, argument can be made in the defence of the retention of artefacts: that they are safer where they are. Jenkins discusses the destruction of Syrian antiquities under Islamic State; few would disagree with her. Rather more would take issue with her dismay at the return of human remains to native peoples. In North America, more than “half a million” sets of remains have been handed over to First Nation groups since the 1990s. Jenkins laments the loss of precious archaeological data, but it’s hard not to side with her opponents.

In general, she is not impressed with what she calls the “politics of tears” and “contrition chic”. Pope John Paul apologised more than a 100 times for various historical crimes committed by the Catholic church, and the US now has 16 Holocaust museums. Jenkins sees this as the “politics of regret” and as destructive nostalgia. She argues that in the past, national myths were based on “heroic deeds and victory” and “losers were brushed aside”. Not so. Exodus is a story of slavery overcome, with few heroic deeds on the part of the human protagonists. The grand narrative of the Roman state is the Aeneid, a story of a wartime refugee.

Sara Wajid is the Museums Association representative for London and the senior manager of public programmes at Royal Museums Greenwich

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