Who owns culture?

Tuesday 17 November, 5.30pm until 7.00pm, London School of Economics

Venue: Thai Theatre, London School of Economics, New Academic Building, 54 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3LJ

Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions) per person. Tickets are available from the Academy of Ideas website.

For the past two centuries, the West has acquired treasures of the ancient world to fill its museums, so that visitors to the British Museum in London for example can see historic artefacts from all over the world. In recent years, though, various countries and even ethnic communities within countries have begun to demand the return of artefacts. Several North American museums were recently rocked by claims from countries including Italy that objects in their collections had been acquired illicitly. In response they returned over a hundred objects. Meanwhile a former curator of antiquities from the prestigious Getty Museum is currently on trial for conspiracy to traffic in illicit antiquities. In response to this controversy, UNESCO has encouraged the development of policies and laws which state that artefacts excavated after 1970 belong to the nation states in which they were found.

Where do treasures from the past rightly belong, and why? Should they be housed in the country of origin where locals as well as visitors can see them in their historic context, or in an institution with objects from everywhere? Often it is not clear what it means to say something belongs to a particular country. The Parthenon Marbles pre-date by millennia the formation of the Greek state, for example, while terracotta Nok sculptures found in Nigeria have little to do with that country’s culture today. Some argue the policy of repatriating such objects, along with ‘nationalist retentionist’ policies, promote divisive identity politics over a universalist appreciation of objects of art as part of world history. But is this just a self-serving argument on the part of Western institutions who already have much of the best ‘stuff’ from world history? Some argue museums should return objects or at least consult with the relevant communities as a form of reparations for colonialism. But does this unhelpfully politicise museums in the here and now? Others argue contentious artefacts should be entrusted to an international nongovernmental agency. But who might sit on this suggested nongovernmental agency and what power should they have? So are things best left where they are, or returned whence they came in the interests of fairness?

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Dr James Cuno
president and Eloise W. Martin director, Art Institute; author, Whose Culture? The promise of museums and the debate over antiquity

Dr Maurice Davies
partner, the Museum Consultancy; senior research fellow, Department of Management, King's College London

Dr Tatiana Flessas
lecturer, cultural property and heritage law, LSE

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Dr Tiffany Jenkins writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there
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Session partners