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« MOL (Men of Letters) or WB (Wind Bags)? | Main | When Will We "Know" What To "Believe?" »

May 22, 2006


One interesting observation about the general culture in poorer countries- that which is new and shiny is valued over old and decrepit. If I were to take something with an antiqued appearance as a gift to my relatives in India, they would look askance at it. Here in the West, there is a general reverence for artifacts ancient and not-so ancient- witness the popularity of shows like the Antiques Roadshow in encouraging people to bring out attic 'treasures' which have actual monetary value- one can't imagine such a thing happening in India.
Or maybe it's time to 'create' a new market for these heritage items in India, just like the other marketing campaigns for luxury goods, iPods, cell phones, etc. Then we'll see a renewed interest in maintaining the treasures of the past.

I am, of course, sensitive to those countries that have suffered cultural losses, such as Greece, whose Parthenon marbles were raided by Lord Elgin. But to look upon the Parthenon today, and to see how fast its existing friezes are deteriorating, makes me at least partially glad that the stolen marbles are protected and cared for in the British Museum--even if they have been removed from their intended context.

But my main argument is this. The Parthenon marbles and so many other transplanted artifacts are today a part of our common heritage and culture. They "belong" to us all. The Parthenon marbles, particularly, may be the supreme expression of Greek architecture, but they are, more important, symbols of Western civilization, indeed, civilization as a whole. They should no sooner be repatriated than should the Mona Lisa be sent back to Italy, or any number of Renoirs and Monets to France. (I realize that the Mona Lisa, in the example above, was not acquired in the manner of the Parthenon marbles, but any Italian might say, "This is the highlight of Italian culture. This belongs in Italy, where it was created.")

The question is: Where does it stop, this sending back of artifacts? Should American museums only display American works? What would the experience of visiting the Met be, if one could not enter its massive architectural spaces replete with Near Eastern wonders, the Temple of Dendur, for example? Yes, Egypt gains by repatriation, so do Greece, Turkey, and any number of countries. But London loses, as do Paris, New York, and Washington, D.C.

The problem is complex, but trying to remedy the wrongs of colonial raiders must not strike a blow against our common world culture today. Otherwise, we will see art become a provincial, nationalistic affair, which makes us all poorer in the end.

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