The quest to determine who actually owns the past generally involves the digging and sinking deeper in the cultural heritage of different communities and exploring their cultural endowments in order to know who owns what and to what extent the community was involved in the development of the cultural heritage.
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In seeking to answer the question, who owns the past, exploration of the Elgin marbles or the Parthenon marbles becomes of critical importance. The transportation of the Elgin marbles from the Athenian museum to the British museum led to controversies in which, scholars and British politicians held different views on the appropriateness of returning the marbles to Athens or let them remain in the British museum.
According to Rudenstine, “…the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799-1803, had obtained a controversial permission from Ottoman officials to remove pieces from the Acropolis” (1999: 356). The controversy of the removal of the sculptures and their transportation by sea to the British museum led to the public debate of the British Ambassadors action. Heated debates in the parliament led to the sale of the Elgin marbles to the British government.
Still on the quest of who owns the past, the debate on indigenous cultural objects is inevitable. Cultural objects of a community including pieces of music and language and other objects of cultural heritage expression remain property over the community, which has authority over them all. in fact, the earliest inhabitants of any cultural heritage or art pieces hold that, they possesses the sole authority, control and presentation of their cultural heritage and not the local upcoming metropolitan museum or anyone else for that matter. Therefore, in the light of this insight on cultural ownership, who really owns the past?
Overview of the debates on Elgin marbles and the indigenous cultural objects
The heated debate surrounding the Elgin marbles led to the sale of the marble to the British government, which placed the marbles in the British museum. Before settling on the controversial selling of the marbles, the Greeks wanted the Elgin marbles back to the Athenian museum for in their campaigns according to Jenkins (1999, they wanted a reunion of all their cultural inheritance in Parthenon to restore “organic element” (43).
The reunion of the cultural heritage preservation of cultural homogeneity and cohesion would facilitate the process of giving visitors an opportunity to see and appreciate the cultural heritage of the Greeks in totality. Jenkins continues to rue that, “…at present our cultural heritage is without cohesion, homogeneity and historicity of monumental museum” (1999: 44). This misfortune occurs, as a surprise to Jenkins because, Greece, a country highly endowed with a rich cultural heritage, now remains deprived of her wealthy historical cultural museums.
Furthermore, for better understanding of the sculptures and architectural forms would mean, return of the marbles to their historical and original setting. Hamilakis observes that, “presenting all the Elgin marbles in their original historical and cultural environment would permit their fuller understanding and interpretation” (1997: 316), because to understand and interpret or even appreciate the values of a marble or any other piece of art, it would be imperative to place it in its context.
The Elgin marbles carried no ‘British’ meaning or value in them but they carried great ‘Greece’ value in them for Greeks made the marbles for Greece and overlooking this seemingly straightforward insight infringes conventional thinking. According to the Greeks, placing the Elgin marbles in the British museums brought less understanding and poor interpretation of the sculptures hence less meaning to the visitors. Returning the Elgin marbles to Athens, which is their original historical origin, would give better and deeper meaning after interpretation.
The major controversy on how the Elgin marbles left the Athenian museum remains a cause of disagreement. The Greeks feel that, the removal of the marbles and their delivery to British museum was illegal. Cook and Boardman are concerned that, “The marbles may have been obtained illegally and therefore should be returned to their rightful owner” (1954: 147).
The permit to remove the marbles obtained by the British Ambassador in the Ottoman Empire was controversial and therefore the allegations that the marbles were stolen from the Athenian museum might be true. According to the Greeks, a return of the Elgin marbles would solve this long-standing dispute.
Moreover, the Athenian museum authorities expanded their museum facilities in order to keep safely their cultural inheritance and even went ahead and acquired a new museum in Acropolis. The expansion although expensive seemed necessary as a campaign tool for the return of the Elgin marbles. Gardner in his book says, “Safekeeping of the Elgin marbles would be ensured at the New Acropolis museum build to hold the Parthenon sculptures in natural sunlight” (1996: 326).
The Greeks remained optimist that their ‘looted’ marbles would finally get back to Athens and therefore, they build the museum in preparation to receive the Elgin marbles as part of their cultural heritage lost to the British community.
On the other hand, the British government defended the return of the Elgin marbles to The Athenian museum and advocated for retention of all the Elgin marbles in their museum as part of their cultural heritage. Even though the Greeks campaigned tirelessly for the return of the marbles, the British political community continued being stringent on their quest to retain the marbles.
In the British campaign to retain the Elgin marbles, they argued that a central collection of the entire world’s cultural heritage was necessary and therefore, a cultural center would only be possible in London where many people can access the facility and view the cultural objects.
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Gibbon says, “…maintenance of a worldwide cultural collection center, all viewable in one location was critical” (2005:146). The British government was for the idea that a world’s cultural center would solve the disagreement in the debate on who owned the Elgin marbles. With the formation of the collective world’s cultural heritage center the Elgin marbles would remain in the British custody enriching their cultural endowment. Nevertheless, British’s argument falls short in many ways.
One, the issue of accessibility is gone by the wind thanks to the current innovations; anyone would access Greece as easily as Britain. Moreover, the issue of solving the controversy in a partisan way is tantamount to neo-colonialism. The controversy revolves around who owns the Elgin marbles, and therefore, conceding the fact that the marbles belong to Greece but retaining their custody in London on grounds of ‘creating a central location’ deepens the controversy.
Some people had completely different view over the Elgin marbles debate, which still does not offer conclusive solution. According to Merryman, returning the Elgin marbles back to the Athenian museum would deprive the British museum and other museum, which had similar sculpture the fame of attraction (2006: 367).
Attraction of people to the museum by the Elgin marbles created fame for the British museum and therefore, withdrawing the Elgin marbles would affect negatively the fame of the museum. Fear of losing fame also in the international cultural exhibitions, British government remained ready to purchase the Elgin marbles after striking an agreement.
Therefore, the debate now shifted from whether to return the marbles to Greece to whether to sell the marbles to the British government. Defensively the British government defended its action of removing the Elgin marbles from the Acropolis museum in Athens by arguing that, the removal of the marbles protected them from destruction by pollution. Heffernan says, “…marbles were saved from what would have been severe damage from pollution and other factors” (2004: 389).
Those who hold this view argue that, were it not for the efforts of the British government, the Elgin marbles would have been destroyed; therefore, the Elgin marbles exist courtesy of the British authorities’ efforts to conserve these treasured art works. For this reason, the British government feels they own the past because they took care of the same.
In a different view, Oddy observes that about 50% of the Elgin marbles taken to British museum have been lost over time and therefore, returning the remaining marbles would not adequately solve the dispute (1975: 145). Due to delicacy and fragility of the marbles, transporting them back to the Athenian museum would even cause more damage to the marbles losing their value as cultural objects.
Transportation of the Elgin marbles to the British museum by sea caused damage to most of them and therefore on reaching the British cultural markets many European cultural institutions including museums were reluctant to purchase them. On the other hand, transporting the marbles back to their original historical origin would destroy them hence no need of returning the Elgin marbles, another misconstrued school of thought.
Scholars believe that the Greek government could not pursue the case on the illegal possession of the Elgin marbles simply because the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire obtained permit of removal from the officials of the Acropolis museum.
Clifford argues that, “…scholars agree that Greece could mount no court cases because Elgin was granted permission by what was then Greece ruling government” (1991: 243). The lack of any legal follow up of the marbles by the Greece government implied that, the marbles remained in the custody of the British museum. These marbles being a sign of the past and in sole custody of British museum therefore meant the British government owned the past.
After a stalemate on determining who owned the Elgin marbles, the Greek government decided to sale the Elgin marbles to the British government. Although the British government finally owned the marbles, the originality of the Elgin marbles remains to be Greece and as Merryman says, “Marbles should be returned to Greece where they belong because they were formed by the Greeks. They were created in Greece by the Greek artists for civil and religious purposes” (2006: 96). This remains a confirmation that the Elgin marbles belonged to the Greeks and not the British.
For the indigenous cultural objects debate, some philosophers hold that, the same way natural resources such as the forests, wild animals, and the environment at large require people’s concerted efforts to conserve and preserve, the same way cultural resources need collective efforts to preserve.
Lowenthal posits that, “Cultural property belongs to all people” (1996: 227), in a given culture. This rich observation underscores the inalienable fact that both the old and the young generation possess equal authority over the control and presentation of cultural heritage. This view contradicts earlier thoughts that the indigenous people controlled the expression and presentation of cultural heritage only. The implication here is that, the indigenous people created the cultural objects and hence knew better how to present them.
Conflicts on cultural presentation continue across communities most especially where indigenous inhabitants continue to live. In these communities, heated debate arises in the quest of finding the best person to own and present the community’s cultural heritage. Brown observes that, “Conflicts over the control and presentation of heritage have become especially impassioned…” (1998: 342)
. The indigenous people in cultural presentation and control would always want to dominate causing the conflicts. Even in the cultural museums, the indigenous people want appointments to be in charge. In essence, the indigenous people prefer to control and present the indigenous cultural objects, which is sound and acceptable.
In many communities, cultural activities pass from the parents to the children hence runs from one generation to the next. The cultural objects received become part of the indigenous cultural objects of that community and should remain protected and shielded from destructive forces of technological advancement.
The receiving generation of these objects assumes ownership but in the real sense of ownership, they belong to the indigenous people who formed them for specific purpose. According to Davison, “In its original sense, heritage was property which parents handed on to their children” (1996: 376). Property passed from generation to generation remains owned jointly by the community.
The indigenous people do not welcome the idea of collecting cultural objects together in a museum and therefore their push towards the return of the indigenous property from museums back to them is sound. Regrettably, museum never uses the cultural indigenous objects to benefit the indigenous people or to benefit the workers of the museums.
As Des observes, “Museums hold items in trust for the community: they can no longer treat their collection as booty or treasure enhancing the status of those who manage them” (1995: 463).
The significance the indigenous people places to their pieces of art remains paramount as every item created bears a purpose both religiously and politically; therefore, indigenous people would not like any separation from their cultural objects.
Smith says that the only good that the museums can do to these indigenous people is to involve them in the museum’s programs as staffs (2007: 56). Inclusion of the indigenous people in the museum management would give extensive meaning, understanding, and interpretation of the indigenous cultural objects simply because that is what the apparently ‘weak’ indigenous people can afford to do.
The quest to unravel the mystery behind who owns the past forces one to explore the debates concerning the Elgin marbles and the indigenous cultural objects. In both cases, there is a push from each side of the debate each party safeguarding and defending its willingness to own the indigenous cultural property.
In the case of the Elgin marbles, heated parliamentary debates led to the sale of the Elgin marbles to the British government hence possessing the ownership of the Elgin marbles. The change in ownership of the marbles meant that British government now owns the past.
On the other hand, debate on the indigenous cultural objects, the indigenous people who formed the objects feels that they posses the authority to control and present the cultural heritage and in this sense the indigenous people feels they own the past. Nevertheless, it is important to note that, the ownership of any cultural object through buying does not confer ‘the past’ to the purchasing party.
For instance, the Greek authorities simply decided to sell the Elgin marbles to the British government after failing to reach a consensus to secure the return of the marbles to Greece. Therefore, then past belongs to the indigenous people who ‘made’ the cultural objects for in that context, the objects have meaning and value. If past were to be defined in terms of the Elgin marbles; then Greece owns the past.
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Davison, G, Heritage from patrimony to pasticle, Melbourne University press, Melbourne, 1996.
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Oddy, A, “The conservation of marble sculptures in the British museum before 1975”, Studies in conservation, Vol. 47, no.3. 2002, pp.145-146.
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Smith, P, Making history at the national museum of the American India, Oxford press, New York, 2007.