When you go to a history museum, maybe you expect a couple mummies, some frayed portraiture, and antiquities from dead civilizations. You don’t expect a controversy that has spanned decades and has nations riled against each other. The restitution debate drew me in again recently when I studied abroad in England and visited the British Museum in London. As a future museum studies student, this debate is one to be passionate about because it is of legal and moral consequence. For those unaware, there are artifacts from nations that are housed in other nations without governmental consent. Some call it stealing and others think the unlawful acquisitions are theirs because they are protecting the artifacts. One well-known example of this debate focuses on the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.
The Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon Marbles, are sculptures and other structural pieces taken from the Parthenon and Acropolis buildings. Phidias created them in the mid-5th century. In the early 19th century, the Earl of Elgin acquired the pieces and took them to Britain. When Greece separated from the Ottoman Empire, they began restoring architecture and called for the return of the marbles. The two nations are still feuding about these marbles because they are priceless artifacts that any museum or country would want to claim.
This claim to property rights was a topic of discussion several times amongst my university professors while I was abroad, and I heard both sides of the argument first hand. Mind you, they were sipping tea and preparing to lecture the class, so there were no fists raised over the debate, but there was clear tension that ended with a classic line: “Let’s agree to disagree.” My female professor supported the relocating of the Elgin Marbles to their original home, Greece. My male professor played devil’s advocate and was a proponent of keeping them in England. She mentioned how the pieces are original to Greece, and how their declined economy could benefit from the return of the artifact. He discussed how the British Museum had the finances and resources that Greece did not to preserve the artifacts for many years to come.
A question I have asked myself is who really owns these artifacts? I feel they are humanity’s relics, and no matter their location they should be available to the public and an artifact’s supposed nationality is non-existent. Despite that, I also think it is economically important for nations to have a claim on the items for tourism purposes. Also, experiencing artifacts in their home location should bring chills to any history buff. It would be expensive to return the marbles to Greece, but there is a new Acropolis Museum there that could properly preserve them. Also, the marbles belong to larger pieces, and their rejoining would be a magnificent sight that would be a first for modern observers.
Abby King is a senior studying history and classics at the University of Kentucky. She studied abroad in Summer 2016 in England where she participated in the Durham University Summer Fulbright Institution and learned about ancient and medieval history and archaeology.