I am neither an Athenian nor a Greek, but a citizen of the world.
The question of who owns a work of art can get pretty complicated. In A Case in Antiquities for ‘Finders Keepers’, John Tierney reports that Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, considers the Rosetta Stone, as well as other Egyptian antiquities, to be stolen property. And he’s gotten some museums–including the Louvre–to hand over some pieces.
The Rosetta Stone–discovered by French soldiers in 1799 and acquired by the British after the defeat of Napoleon–is also not the only disputed piece of art in the British Museum. There are also the famous Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon and other Greek sites in the early 19th Century. I’m sure there are others that I don’t know about, but the whole thing just raises really big questions that I have a hard time wrapping my head around. Who owns certain works of art–particularly ancient works that predate the existence of any modern country?
I think the argument that’s made for keeping certain works in their place of origin is so they can be understood in context. Where a work of art was created helps us understand why it was created, and how the people who created it and for whom it was created viewed it. And there’s also the financial benefit. Another controversial piece, a bust of Nefertiti, is in the Neues Museum in Berlin, but Dr. Hawass is also demanding that it be returned to Egypt. Would people still flock to the Neues Museum if it were to lose its prize exhibit? Although I don’t know if he’s said so, Dr. Hawass’s argument is probably more about economics than it is about national pride. Not that there’s anything wrong with a museum benefiting financially, but is it right that a country should claim ownership of a work because it was produced there?
Even though it meant taking them out of their original cultural context, taking works of art from one part of the world to another meant people could see and enjoy them. They became shared property in a very broad sense, especially when they were made accessible to the public. Works from the bust of Nefertiti to the Rosetta Stone to the travelling Tutankhamen exhibit have inspired archaeologists but, more importantly, they’ve inspired cross-cultural understanding. National identity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s easily misused. Tierney mentions that numerous politicians have used antiquities to bolster their own power, including Saddam Hussein, who turned “Iraqi archeology museums into propaganda for himself as the modern Nebuchadnezzar.” It was both a gross distortion of history and an attempt to own a cultural heritage so ancient it really belongs to all of us. The bust of Nefertiti and similar antiquities have become, in a real sense, citizens of the world. Dr. James Cuno, in his book Who Owns Antiquity?, says,
It is in the nature of our species to connect and exchange…And the result is a common culture in which we all have a stake. It is not, and can never be, the property of one modern nation or another.
Works of art, particularly the oldest works of art, speak to a shared cultural heritage, and I’d like there to be a happy medium, a sharing. Tierney says that,
Dr. Cuno advocates the revival of partage, the traditional system in which archeologists digging in foreign countries would give some of their discoveries to the host country and take others home. That way both sides benefit, and both sides have incentives to recover antiquities before looters beat them to it.
It’s a good idea, although deciding what stays and what gets taken home is going to be tricky. And if some politician in the country of origin decides to stake a claim to antiquities that an archaeologist was allowed to take to another country, what then? I don’t know. There are a million arguments and counter-arguments, but I keep coming back to the idea of sharing. The whole idea of sharing requires giving up something but also getting something. Sharing also requires trust, and even though that’s always in short supply I can’t think of a better way to create trust than by the cultural exchanges that show how much we have in common.
Another important thing to consider–perhaps the most important thing–is that the life of even the most well-made antiquities is finite. The surviving monuments of the ancient world have an austere beauty, but many of them were originally as bright and gaudy as the Vegas strip. Marble wears down, paint disintegrates, clay crumbles. Preservation is a worthy occupation, but only so much restoration is possible. We have to enjoy great works of art while we can, and there’s no better way to honor the people who made them than by sharing them with as many people as possible.