Monday, December 10, 2012

Who owns the past? Turkey Wants Statues Back.

Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
Two marble statues from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.
 Photograph: The Trustees of the British Museum
I was interested to see that Turkey is suing the British Museum to return statues from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus that was built in the 4th century BCE. Some of the statues were "acquired" by the British ambassador in 1846 others during excavations in the 1850's. The British aren't the first to move them since the Crusaders pillaged the site centuries before. You can read the whole article in Guardian

Turkey's case mirrors another one that has been in play from Greece. The Greeks have been asking for the return of the "Elgin Marbles" which were taken from the Parthenon in Greece by Lord Elgin between 1801 to 1812. These statues are also in the British Museum. 

One issue that will complicate the cases is that when the statues from Turkey and Greece were moved to Britain both of the "donor" countries were being run by the Ottomans, not the current democracies that are now in place. So there will be a question as to how a court can rule on the acts of a government that has not existed for almost 100 years.

But a bigger question that I think needs to be addressed is who owns the past? Does any country have a right to claim back artifacts from another simply because they were found on land that now incorporates a modern country? Don't get me wrong, I am not taking sides with the British Museum, but I am wondering about statue of limitations. 

If we agree that these artifacts must be returned, then where do we draw the line. If the British return the statues to the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus will the Turks in turn return artifacts that are not from Turkey? Will they return, for instance, the artifacts from Jerusalem, Megiddo, Gezer and other places in Israel and Palestine? What about all the sarcophagi that are in the Istanbul museum, but were discovered in what is modern Lebanon and Syria?  Or if we reach back even further into the past, will they return to Egypt the Obelisk of Tuthmosis III which he erected in Luxor in 1490 BCE? It made its way to Constantinople in 390 CE when it was brought there to adorn the hippodrome of Theodosius the great. 

And speaking of Constantinople/Istanbul, I suspect the Greeks would like the city back, or at least Hagia Sophia. 

My point is this, artifacts from other countries are spread all around the world, many of them in the museums of western countries. And the pillaging of artifacts is part of the dark legacy for colonialism. But I am not sure simply suing one another for particular artifacts is the best way to go about it. As in the case of Turkey, it seems that several countries could bring the same type of legal action against it. Perhaps it is time for an international discussion about who owns the past and how we are going to all share it. 

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