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« Sotomayor, Eagleton and hullo (D) | Main | In which Paul Krugman annoys (D) »

May 13, 2009


I accompanied Ruchira to the exhibit and found her comments to be very thought provoking. Ancient civilizations leave a lot of footprints behind that may or may not command the respect of the current inhabitants. Here in the US we don't often confront startling evidence of other cultures. Mesa Verde et al don't turn up every time we dig a sewer. I've found a few arrowheads in my youth in the Texas Hill Country, but that's about it. Perhaps that's why we gasped at the ending of the original Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston happens upon the head of the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand. Romans probably encounter such things every time they try to dig a swimming pool.

So I imagined a scenario a thousand years from now in which our culture has passed away and North America, whatever it would be called, is inhabited by a race of "people," or whatever they may be, who have no interest in history. Perhaps they are too consumed with the challenges of surviving without fossil fuels, supermarkets and the internet to have that luxury. They spend their time warring with each other and trying to see that their tribe survives. For them, the past has no meaning unless it can be plundered to supply current needs. Into this new world come some explorers who have a more sophisticated culture far away. Unlike our inhabitants, they do have the wherewithal to get excited about artifacts. In their explorations, they happen upon the pieces of what appears to be the massive marble figure of a pensive bearded man seated in a badly damaged stone chair in the ruins of what we now would call a Greco-Roman structure. They eagerly gather up the fragments, many of which already have been carted away to build crude fences to separate warring tribes, and they carefully transport their discovery back to their own land to reassemble it bit by bit.

When completed, their exhibit causes much excitement among the scholars and public, and becomes the centerpiece of a museum dedicated to the Mysteries of the Past. The plaque beside the restored giant says something like: "We may never know the identity of this intriguing figure, but his demeanor, posture, and setting indicate that he was either the representation of a god or an important ruler of this lost civilization."

That's better than the Lincoln Memorial becoming a fence, don't you think?

It's an interesting topic. I'm thinking of the Egyptian collection at the British museum...perhaps it's already been repatriated, or someday will be. Do I guess right that there is a large Indian collection as well?

I'm of many minds on this topic. I once coveted a friend of my parent's mesoamerican pottery collection. Do I think now he should have returned it? I don't know. And why are ancient artworks less important than more modern art? Should Monets never be allowed to leave France (even if the French hardly deserve them)? I'd hate to think of all the empty American museum walls if that were the case, or all the bad AE we would get in return.

And what about an Indian citizen? Should she be allowed to own beautiful objects of Indian antiquity? What if she moves to America? If she could take it with her, could she ever sell it? Only to another Desi?

If you were a landowner in India and found a beautiful and rare bit of antiquity buried on your property, would it be yours? What if you had immigrated there?

And not just art or artifacts. What if I were hiking in public land in North Dakota and (instead of Morels) I found a Velociraptor Skull. Could I keep it?

I do think Museum collections can be better preserved and I like how they are made available to all, but shouldn't Bill Gates be allowed to own a ming vase? And I hear your argument about unstable regimes potentially being poor stewards, but who are we to judge (even though sickening things can certainly happen like those poor Buddhas)? I recently read that there is collection of western art in Tehran, which while too prurient by their current standards was nevertheless preserved.

And finally, from your pullquote, should Afghanistan return some parts of their collection to the countries they came from? Can Italy still claim to be "Roman" when issues like this arise, and request the return of their heritage from Kabul? Can Saudi Arabia lay claim to the Alhambra or more transportable artifacts from no-longer-muslim Spain which was taken from them by force of arms (never mind what got them there in the first place)?

Kind of off the wall thinking, but the idea of unwinding rights of possession might have made me a little dizzy.


Massively interesting post and comments, everybody. To say that the artistic patrimony of a country must remain inside its borders is almost to say that history, with all its frantic dislocations, had better not happen. Some art belongs to the world -- the Elgin Marbles, for instance, which would not be better off or safer in Athens than in London. They are, right now, where they can be seen for free by the greatest number of people, people of every stripe who have an interest in them. I think it's paramount to put the art itself, and its prospects for a long, long future ahead of the kind of national interests that make art a rallying point.

i think part of the subtext here is the west vs. the rest. it's more complicated than that. consider the wackiness of saudi fundamentalists who have destroyed much of the historic architecture of mecca and medina. one of their rationales is that if people get too attached to buildings (this includes even the site of the tomb of muhammed) it's idolatry. so a lot of these people have conflicted relationships with their own history, and want to deny or destroy it (similarly, korean fundamentalist protestants have vandalized statures of buddha or damaged historic temples). it's naive to project back a nation-state sensibility to the past. many pakistanis don't see the roots of their civilization as mohenjo-daro or harrapa, but cultures of arabia, persia and the turkic world.

The question here isn't whether Human Aesthetic Heritage Material should/must remain within the borders of its locale of creation, but whether the direction of expatriation (or kidnapping) must always be towards "Western" money. No adequate storage/display facilities in China... ?


I'm a little surprised by your comment here about the Elgin Marbles. Put me in the many-minded camp of Carlos, where at the grandest level art and artifacts are the wards of humanity as a whole, not of whatever satrapy that happens to currently rule the land they were forged in. But there are mundane and political concerns here too, especially since we have as yet no United Nations for the humanities. There's no getting around the fact that the marbles were looted, with Ottoman complicity. I think it's a little too facile to presume that the British Museum is the de facto repositor of antiquities. Perhaps the crown (and the Vatican, and the robber-baron institutions in the US) could kick in a few coins for a "world museum" in some area that could desperately use the development, and the tourism?

To argue that more people will see the artifacts in London is a little bit like Secretary Geithner's position on bailing out Wall Street (pretty awful as self-fulfilling prophesies go).


If you look at my original post on this matter that I have linked to above, you will find that I made a few suggestions along the lines that you are thinking. Professor Amardeep Singh too had a couple of ideas on how to compensate (or at least, acknowledge) for purloined treasures.

It’s travel 3.3 -3.7 kilometers of rough ride through mountains, various shades of rocks, ledges & metallic relics. Apart from the famous Buddha statues from Bamyan, there are some fabulous caves around.

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