Calling all art lovers, humanities students and those who are appreciative of cultural articles; in the United Kingdom, you have been given a free pass to visit many museums and galleries – to roam around through the profusion of relics and curiosities available. But wait – we’re just going to return all of these articles back to their land of origin, the ones which now don’t belong to us, because they came from other nations. Don’t worry. You can jump on a plane whenever you like and view them. You don’t have any tuition fees to worry about, or any other responsibilities. After all, it’s just not worth seeing them at all if they’re not in the location in which they originate from.
We’re talking about the repatriation of all artefacts back to their place of “origin”, its impact on our societal culture and why I’m strongly opposed to the notion.
Let’s be realistic here. The world simply has not formed itself into neat little pockets that we can clearly distinguish between; many of their cultures coincide. Look at Kurdistan, for example – it bodes over four different countries. It will also be of little surprise to you that nations have not always kept to their own pockets, whilst sometimes trying to get their hands into somebody else’s, to take their loose change – or perhaps oil – or some other useful resource to them. Not only are nations not easy to distinguish into neat geographical pockets, but many of their pasts have been far from ethnically uniform. To take another example, Cyprus has been ruled by many different powers: Venetians, French and Ottomans, just to name a few. To recognise a country’s origin or heritage is complex enough. Where do we draw the line of ownership without rigging out age-old conflicts?
To make this issue more complicated, many individuals now are of mixed ethnicity – more so than ever before. The United Kingdom, one of the most cosmopolitan nations in the world, recorded 1,192,879 people in their 2011 consensus identifying themselves as being of mixed ethnicity. To repatriate all artefacts back to their “home land” deprives the over 1,000,000 individuals, in this nation alone, of appreciating work from their own heritage. For some individuals, like myself, it is impossible to identify themselves within one “pocket”. I simply can not jump on a plane to one of my countries of heritage – as much as I’d love to – every time I want to appreciate original pieces from these nations – pieces that may be personal to our identity and cultural history as much as those who live in these countries. Not only this but by giving all nations the power of distributing their own artefacts, you are much more likely to see their best pieces never being loaned or shared elsewhere.
Despite those who may be connected to these countries by heritage, there are many areas of study which require students to engage closely with original sources and cultural objects from a plethora of nations. Of course, in our modern technological age, there are many more resources and ways to discover pieces. Yet to be able to experience these first hand is a massive enrichment to our studies. It has been argued that students will only be able to feel the real contextual benefits of these artefacts in their original environments. Regardless, the global landscape and social conditions of the world have drastically changed since the creation of many of these artefacts, and many of these specific conditions would be unrecognisable today. Of course, not all students study about the nations that they live in. So surely the correct thing to do would be to ensure that students internationally can view at least a portion of work from different origins.
In London alone, one of the world’s landmarks for culture, there are many institutions which house these artefacts. The National Portrait Gallery, the Saatchi Gallery and the Tate Modern are just a few of these. They contain pieces which are not only invaluable to students and Londoners, but also to the many individuals who populate Britain’s booming tourism. For this reason, I believe that there isn’t a harsh colonial or political motive behind keeping pieces from other nations. I believe that as public institutions, let’s remember, that many of us pay for in taxes, these galleries serve as institutes of entertainment and an insightful hotbed for all walks of life to enjoy.
Moreover, surely the countries who safely cater for these artefacts and can provide the best security for them should be the morally responsible keeper. CNN establishes how groups such as IS, who are a large cause for concern in today’s global climate, are responsible for the wreckage of many ancient artefacts; these are artefacts that constitute for many, personal and historical value: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/07/02/world/isis-syrian-artifacts/.
I ask you, would it be a responsible choice to allow these artefacts to be transported to nations who can not provide strong security for these pieces? Is it best that they can be responsibly housed in another nation, rather than being destructed before many can even lay eyes on them? Whilst admittedly we could assist funding for these nations to improve their security measures, is it really worth the risk of trial and error in order to establish this precaution, when faced with living examples of terrorist action? Arrogance, you may call this, but I believe it is none other than ensuring that these artefacts survive, for ourselves and our future generations – being able to be loaned and enjoyed internationally.
Not all of the nations which we “owe back” artefacts to, such as the Elgin Marbles, derive from institutionally unstable countries. Greece is equally the home of institutions which would be able to inhabit the marbles. In cases such as these, and especially pieces which have been widely toiled over, perhaps it would be a graceful endeavour to give these marbles back – an act of solidarity amongst their economic crisis. Despite cases such as these, we simply cannot afford to return all foreign artefacts. Multiculturalism forms an instrumental part of our society. Whilst some of these pieces may have been derived from a period of colonialism, it is a symbol of the development of our society to recognise our past; of which, many mediums such as art and literature provided some of the most profound accounts of these often horrific atrocities. That does not mean that we celebrate them through the ownership of these pieces, but we can consolidate and educate ourselves upon them.
And supposing that we do decide to repatriate all of these millions of artefacts dating back to the beginning of the creation of pockets, how are we supposed to harmlessly return them to their “homes”? Can we really transport the Elgin Marbles with guaranteed safety, without them getting even the slightest bit damaged – and who will take responsibility if they turn up in bits and pieces? Additionally, these artefacts are not only high in cultural demand, but would bring about more than a small fortune, and would provide an ideal target for acts of wreckage and destruction to specific cultures.
So yes, maybe you have lost your marbles, or a portion of your artwork, or other artefacts of importance to you. But maybe it’s for the greater good that they remain safe, shared and ultimately, as a symbol of multiculturalism, enjoyed by many.
Words by Lydia Ibrahim