Friday, March 16, 2007


This item caught my eye this morning. A Swiss museum is returning its collection of Afghan artefacts to Kabul a decade after they were donated to keep them out of the hands of the Taliban. It was triggered by the calculation that Afghanistan is now stable enough: you may share my uncertainty over whether this decision is a little premature.

The event is being billed as "one of the biggest repatriations of a country's cultural heritage since World War II". Reading between the lines it adds to pressure on the British government to sanction what is known as restitution: the return of items like the Elgin Marbles or the Benin bronzes to their countries of origin.

A friend of mine is an expert on this (see him here hard at work on his research) but I think that there is a powerful argument in favour of any nation's cultural heritage being dispersed around the world. Dispersal is the best insurance policy. In Iraq and Afghanistan museums have been looted and their contents smashed respectively. Had items from either place held by the British Museum already been returned they would probably now be missing or destroyed. Similarly, I am always amused by the shameless determination of the Chinese government to reclaim Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts taken by Sir Aurel Stein, given the efforts they have gone to to pulverise Tibetan culture. Just as Britain prides itself a safe-haven for refugees so it should resist the calls to hand back historic artefacts in its care.

1 comment:

Patrick Kidd said...

An interesting point. At what stage does it become safe to return artefacts to a war-torn country? The BBC report does not say who made the decision to return (presumably the museum itself). Was Unesco involved? Should it be? Could the Swiss museum, if it wanted, have retained the artefacts as long as they wanted, once given to them?

I agree with you that Britain should resist calls for repatriation. I have long opposed the reunification of the Elgin Marbles (or the Parthenon Sculptures as the PC advocates for their return call them) but the BM's claim on them is problematic. Elgin's argument that he was given permission to take them by the occupying Turks is probally legally, and certainly morally, dubious. But there is no denying that the BM's tenure of the marbles has preserved them for thousands of visitors to see. War and pollution in Athens would have caused far greater damage to them than any alleged damage wrought by BM cleaners' over-zealousness.

A fresh campaign has just been launched, fronted by my old supervisor, Nigel Spivey, to get the marbles sent back to Athens, where a special museum has been built for them. The argument that war and pollution are now irrelevant in Athens holds water. But the BM has an understandable reticence, not only to lose their showpiece exhibits (what do they put in the Duveen Gallery in their place?) but to set a precedent for demands from other countries to return other works of art "stolen" during the British Empire.