Cultural Treasures Should Be Returned

Last updated: December 20, 2016

Should cultural treasures be returned to their country of origin?

Cultural Treasures Should Be Returned
Yes because...

Cultural treasures should be displayed in the context in which they originated; only then can they b...

Cultural treasures should be displayed in the context in which they originated; only then can they be truly understood. In the case of the Elgin marbles this is an architectural context which only proximity to the Parthenon itself can provide.
No because...
Art treasures should be accessible to the greatest number of people and to scholars, and in practice this means retaining them in the great museums of the world. Returning treasures to their original context is impossible, too much has changed physically and culturally over the centuries for them to speak more clearly in their country of origin than they do in museums, where they can be compared to large assemblies of objects from a wide variety of cultures. In any case, perfect laser-cut copies could be placed on the Parthenon and in other original locations, if it were so desired.

Cultural Treasures Should Be Returned
Yes because...

Display of cultural treasures in western museums is a last hangover from the imperial belief that “c...

Display of cultural treasures in western museums is a last hangover from the imperial belief that “civilised” states such as Britain were the true successors to Greece and Rome, and that the modern inhabitants of those ancient regions were unable to appreciate or look after their great artistic heritage. Whether that was true in the 19th century is open to doubt it certainly is not valid today and the display of imperial trophies in institutions such as the British Museum or the Louvre has become offensive.
No because...
For whatever reason the treasures were first collected, we should not rewrite history; sending artefacts such as the Elgin marbles back to their country of origin would set a bad precedent that could denude museums around the world of their collections. Placing great artefacts in a geographical and cultural ghetto, whereby Greek sculptures could only be viewed in Greece, or Egyptian mummies in Egypt, would leave the world much poorer and reduce popular understanding of the achievements of such civilisations.

Cultural Treasures Should Be Returned
Yes because...

Artefacts such as the Parthenon marbles were often acquired illegally, for example through looting i...

Artefacts such as the Parthenon marbles were often acquired illegally, for example through looting in war (the Benin bronzes), under the duress of imperial force (many Chinese artefacts), or by bribing officials to ignore the carrying away of sculptures from monuments they were meant to be guarding (the Elgin marbles).
No because...
Although some art treasures may have been acquired illegally, the evidence for this is often ambiguous. Lord Elgin’s bribes were the common way of facilitating any business in the Ottoman Empire, and do not undermine Britain’s solid legal claim to the Parthenon marbles, based upon a written contract made by the international-recognised authorities in Athens at the time. And while some Benin bronzes were undoubtedly looted, other “colonial trophies” were freely sold to the imperial powers, indeed some were made specifically for the European market.

Cultural Treasures Should Be Returned
Yes because...

Some cultural treasures, e.g Native American artefacts, have religious and cultural associations for...

Some cultural treasures, e.g Native American artefacts, have religious and cultural associations for the area from which they were taken, but none for those who view them in sterile glass cases. To the descendants of their creators it is offensive to see aspects of their spirituality displayed for entertainment.
No because...
This may be true, but religious artefacts may have been originally purchased or given in good faith, perhaps with the intention of educating a wider public about the beliefs of their creators. Later descendants should not be allowed to second-guess their ancestors’ intentions. On the other hand, a great many cultural treasures relate to religions and cultures which no longer survive and there can be no such claim for their return.

Cultural Treasures Should Be Returned
Yes because...

It may have been true that countries such as Greece were not capable of looking after their heritage...

It may have been true that countries such as Greece were not capable of looking after their heritage in the past, but that has now changed. A state-of-the-art museum has now been completed in Athens to house the surviving marbles, while pollution control measures have reduced sulphur-dioxide levels in the city to a fifth of their previous levels. At the same time the curatorship of institutions such as the British Museum is being called into question, as it becomes apparent that controversial cleaning and restoration practices may have harmed the sculptures they claim to protect.
No because...
In the case of the Parthenon marbles, Lord Elgin’s action in removing them was an act of rescue as the Ottoman authorities were pillaging them for building stone, caring nothing for the classical Greek heritage. Furthermore, if they had been returned upon Greek independence in 1830, the heavily polluted air of Athens would by now have destroyed them. Similar problems face the return of artefacts to African museums; wooden figures would decay in the humid atmosphere, while corruption has meant that 50 pieces disappeared from Nigeria’s premier museum in 1998.


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Kyra

I think No they shouldn’t be returned because they might not be looked after properly however in a big museum they would look after it properly!