Britain, Greece, and the Limits of Cultural Restitution

The British museum
The British museum. (Photo: Twitter)
Why has the UK resisted calls to return looted artifacts to their countries of origin? In part because Britons have no collective memory of humiliation or invasion themselves.اضافة اعلان

Call it a cascade of national self-examination – and restitution. In almost every week of 2023 there have been reports from wealthy countries of cultural treasures being surrendered by public or private collections and returned, where possible, to the original owners or place of origin.

Such stories come in half a dozen discrete categories, but the moral effect seems cumulative. Some concern the return of talismanic objects to indigenous peoples. Others involve gestures of atonement for egregious looting during the colonial era. And some reflect a new sensitivity to recent acts of opportunistic removal from places affected by war, anarchy, or simply inadequate policing of a shadowy trade in antiquities.

In the latest act of post-imperial contrition, the Netherlands vowed on July 6 to return nearly 500 objects to Indonesia and Sri Lanka. This followed pledges by Austria and Ireland, countries not usually associated with global conquest, to comb their collections for items tainted by colonialism.

Yet, despite the rush to return what was taken long ago, some countries – notably Britain – remain averse to the practice. The United Kingdom and its cultural establishment stand out among wealthy countries for their resistance to the global movement toward self-scrutiny and selective return.

A Cascade of Surrender
Consider a few of this year’s examples. In January, the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences in Texas returned an ancient wooden sarcophagus to Cairo as part of the Egyptian government’s push to end trafficking of its ancient artifacts.
Creating this global British Museum was the dedicated work of many generations. Dismantling it must not be the careless work of a single generation,
A few days later, Italy’s culture ministry displayed 60 illegally acquired objects that had been clawed back from American museums and collections: a third were former exhibits at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The haul was presented as a showpiece of collaboration between American and Italian law enforcement.

Then in February, Harvard University’s Peabody Museum returned a 12-foot wooden house post to one of the First Nations of Canada, the Gitxaala people, an act preceded by the return of a traditional kayak to its place of origin in Alaska.

Attention has also refocused on the ongoing effort to reverse the effects of art looting by the Nazis. In the run-up to the December anniversary of the 44-nation Washington agreement on Nazi art crimes – scholars and curators are holding a raft of deliberations on the future of restitution.

Nor is Nazi-related activity confined to talking; legal processes are grinding on. On February 10, after a decade-old wrangle, a French court told the Musee d’Orsay in Paris to surrender four important paintings (by Renoir, Gauguin, and Cezanne) to legatees of the former owner, Ambroise Vollard. Vollard, along with his Jewish assistant Erich Slomovic, ranked among the top art dealers in pre-war France.

British Exceptionalism?
The United Kingdom is notably absent from this rush to return stolen relics. For a window into British thinking, consider its attitude to what may be the world’s sharpest quarrel over looted artifacts - the sculptures which once adorned the Acropolis in Athens and are now held in London.

Greek officials took heart on March 24 when at the behest of the Pope, three marble fragments from the Parthenon were transferred from the Vatican to the Acropolis Museum. This redoubled their determination to press for a vastly bigger prize, the 75-meter segment of the Parthenon frieze, spirited to Britain 200 years ago, which now rests in the British Museum.

Predictably, the British refused. With respect to the Parthenon sculptures, the British Museum has always insisted they were legally acquired and cannot be disposed of under the museum’s charter. British governments have emphasized the museum’s independence and made clear their unwillingness to consider legislation that would free the museum’s hand.

Hope rose of a win-win solution to this hoary old dispute when it emerged that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held secret meetings in late 2022 with the British Museum’s chairman, George Osborne. They mooted the idea of sending some sculptures back to Athens via long-term loans while finessing the question of ownership. But on March 13, Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister, signaled a harder line, insisting that the UK already did enough to share its treasures with the world. 

In the short term, the gap seems to be widening. On July 1, when Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, suggested an “accommodation” allowing the sculptures to be enjoyed in both London and Athens, many Greek and pro-Greek commentators called his proposal inadequate while the Museum reaffirmed its determination not to “dismantle the collection.” 

Battle of the Bronzes
Another example of the difference between British and other Western views on restitution is the contrasting response to the so-called Benin Bronzes, which spark equally strong passions.

The issue arises mainly from a burst of punitive pillaging perpetrated in 1897 by British forces raiding Benin City, now part of Nigeria. The haul included bronze and ivory sculptures as well as figurines and bells. More than 2,000 items found their way to public and private collections, and the term “Benin Bronzes” has become a cipher for looted African treasures and their dispersal across the wealthy world.

“If you live anywhere from Seattle to Stockholm, you are probably near a museum with a collection of Benin Bronzes,” notes journalist Barnaby Phillips, who has written a book about the Victorian-era grab. “As acts of pillage go, this one was very well-documented, even photographed, and the sculptures rank among Africa’s greatest cultural treasures.”  

Several Western governments have responded boldly to the moral challenge that the bronzes epitomize. In 2017, soon after his election as French president, Emmanuel Macron made a pledge that led to a high-profile investigation, changes of legislation (with three new laws now in the pipeline) – and some demonstrative acts, including the return of 26 sacred objects, seized by French forces in 1892, to the independent country of Benin.

Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, made a similar move in December 2022 when she returned 20 prized bronzes – more spoils from Britain’s 1897 raid – to Nigeria. As in France, the action was part of a long-term and strategically organized initiative to reverse the effects of colonial depredation and help countries of origin to display the returning treasures.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington transferred ownership of 29 Benin bronzes (also seized by the British) to the people of Nigeria. But the pace of restitution in the US has been set by a mix of activism by passionate campaigners; the growing determination of federal and local authorities to crack down on illegal traffic in cultural objects; and the eagerness of leading museums to be proactive in purging collections.
At the British Museum, and indeed for the UK government, the shadow of the Parthenon looms large over all debates on restitution. The arguments relating to the Parthenon marbles have been so well-rehearsed over 200 years that it is easy for the institution to fall back on its usual line.
In practice, these factors converge, as can be seen in Matthew Bogdanos, a former Marine colonel and Iraq war veteran who has turned the New York District Attorney’s office into a powerhouse of investigation into cultural crime. Having helped reverse the looting of Iraq’s National Museum in 2003, he created an antiquities trafficking unit that has relentlessly pursued museums and collectors over their murky acquisitions.

Since 2010, Bogdanos and his team have convicted a dozen traffickers, seized more than 4,000 items valued at more than $200 million, and repatriated more than 2,000 objects.

Debating an Imperial Past
In Britain, there’s no obvious equivalent of the political guidance offered in France and Germany, or the investigative zeal shown by the likes of Bogdanos.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that Britain has been free of rancorous debate about the legacy of its imperial past. Arguments about how to present history have surged since June 2020, when an angry crowd toppled a statue in Bristol of a notorious slave-trader, Edward Colston. The National Trust, the country’s best-known heritage agency, has been accused of excessive political correctness in its eagerness to avoid showcasing the lifestyles of wealthy Brits who profited from the spoils of empire. Others want the Trust to go further.  

Nor are authorities in Britain completely deaf to demands for the return of the Benin Bronzes. But the response has been piecemeal rather than considered or systematic. Under a policy sometimes known as “retain and explain,” the British Museum has altered the way it presents its own Benin collection: it acknowledges that the destruction of the African capital and the seizure of royal and sacred objects was an act of cruelty and arrogance.

A much smaller British museum, the Horniman, announced last August that on moral grounds it would surrender ownership of its 72 bronzes. Six significant items, including an ivory object that had been donated by a participant in the Benin raid, were handed over to Nigerian officials in November.

But this falls far short of the moral consensus that has developed in most wealthy countries.

The Shadow of the Parthenon
In the view of Alexander Herman, director of the Institute of Art and Law, an independent educational body, Britain’s tortured relationship with restitution reflects the way one issue – the Parthenon marbles – overshadows everything else.

For those influential Brits who favor keeping them in London, the well-rehearsed case for retaining the marbles has become a default mode for all similar arguments. According to this view, the British Museum has a mission to present the pageant of human achievement, enabling visitors to understand how civilizations influenced one another.

As Herman, a prolific author on culture and law, puts it: “At the British Museum, and indeed for the UK government, the shadow of the Parthenon looms large over all debates on restitution. The arguments relating to the Parthenon marbles have been so well-rehearsed over 200 years that it is easy for the institution to fall back on its usual line.” 

In Herman’s view, this ethos of entitlement differs from continental Europe or America – in part because Britain has no collective memory of humiliation or invasion. Even France, for all its cultural confidence, experienced the removal of treasures from the Louvre in 1815 after Napoleon’s defeat.
If you live anywhere from Seattle to Stockholm, you are probably near a museum with a collection of Benin Bronzes,
In his annual speech to Museum trustees, Osborne sounded at times like an old-fashioned Brit. “Creating this global British Museum was the dedicated work of many generations. Dismantling it must not be the careless work of a single generation,” he said. The best antidote to the “silos and splintering” of modern times was to make the London collection into a “museum of our common humanity” and “a place that binds us in a world that is pulling us apart.”

Looking Beyond Britain
To British ears, such talk may sound bold. To many non-British ones, it sounds grudging and patronizing. But that uncomfortable gap did not prevent some progress, and good chemistry, in Osborne's secret negotiations with Mitsotakis late last year.

Having won a handsome election victory in June, Mitsotakis is now under pressure to make good on his pledge to bring the marbles to Athens without compromising the Greek principle that they were stolen.

How flexible and creative can a re-elected Mitsotakis be? In other areas of cultural policy, he has shown willingness to set aside nationalist sensitivities: for example, by awarding a spectacular makeover of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens through a rigorous international tender, won by the British architect David Chipperfield. But any gesture which implies acceptance of the British Museum’s legal title to the marbles will cause a furore in Greece.  

Osborne, for his part, wants to revamp the Museum with a $1 billion transformation entitled the Rosetta Project – after the Rosetta Stone, the rock that allowed hieroglyphics to be deciphered. (Its return to Egypt has been demanded by more than 100,000 signatories, led by an archaeologist.) It would be the costliest museum renovation in British history.

Unilaterally ploughing ahead with the Rosetta project in advance of any understanding on the Parthenon sculptures will be seen by many people outside Britain as a symptom of that country’s arrogance and lack of cultural empathy.

Bruce Clark is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and author of Athens: City of Wisdom. Twitter @bruceclark7

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