Cultural Riches

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I’ve long thought it curious that returning art confiscated by the Nazi regime gets treated under the heading of restitution of cultural heritage, given that it deals with personal property, seldom with what belongs to Jewish culture or German culture or whatever culture. I’m reminded of that by an article seeking to argue that we should all be equally eager to return everything else. Unfortunately, it's the kind of article that hares straight off towards a preselected conclusion; I was a bit surprised, for example, to be told that ‘the Ottomans ha[d] ruled Athens for centuries without harming the [Parthenon] sculptures’ without even a passing mention of that accident with the gunpowder...

The main thesis seems to be that ‘belief in the superiority of colonising cultures’ and consequent ‘disdain for non-Europeans’ explains ‘why the Elgin Marbles, not the Benin Bronzes or Aboriginal art or Chinese antiquities, are the face of the debate about cultural repatriation’. I don’t follow this notion of relative obscurity. I remember when Randall McGuire visited Durham and delivered a lecture on returning artefacts and human remains to the Yaqui: he made it very clear how little they possess of anything and how much they live on the edge. In contrast, the Bronzes, like the Marbles, have been subject to widely reported interventions by a national government; Nefertiti and the Rosetta Stone had Zahi Hawass; the Koh-i-Noor attracts high-level political interest... In that little list of famous cases only the Marbles are of European origin. It’s just that some heritage objects (notable exhibits in their own right) are in the eye of well connected, well monied, well heeled interests, whereas some... aren’t.

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