Who Owns History?


I didn’t know this before writing the paper but most of what’s held in museums today is there on the legal basis of “finders keepers”.  Many of the artifacts that are held by museums likely came to them by way of looters, burglars, or illegal digging.  These museum collections, some of which have turned out to be very famous and important, are now being reclaimed by the countries they were found in. Nations like Greece, Turkey, and Egypt believe that artifacts taken from their soil rightly belong to them.  They are challenging  the authority of previous governments (Turkey became a nation in 1923)  to have granted good titles and using slim evidence with public relations campaigns to pressure institutions like the Met and the British Museum  to relinquish their holdings.  Some museums have conceded objects when it like a true cause for the theft of the object had been.  The British Museum, in an effort to keep its famous Greek Sculptures, denied Greece their request for the return of the items. In Greece, where the Parthenon (where the sculptures were taken from) is their national symbol, the British denial is being interpreted as a direct insult to the Greek people. They claim it is an important part of their cultural heritage and they want it back.  The British say they have legal title, and the artifacts are important to the world, not just the Greeks. The question of whether national pride is a reason for a museum to give away its prized is debatable.  If this were good enough reason, the biggest museums of today could lose all of their collections to the countries they came from.  American museums would only have artifacts found in America. Countries say this is the best scenario because it allows the artifacts to be understood in their “context”.  While I think its wrong that much of the material we have is the product of theft or smuggling, it seems wrong that the Met could only have American artifacts and not all the interesting foreign  exhibits.


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