Losing our marbles? Who owns culture?

Sunday 31 October, 12.30pm until 1.30pm, Courtyard Gallery

The ownership of the Parthenon Marbles has been disputed since their removal from Athens in the early 19th century, by Lord Elgin. Some argue the sculptures belong in Greece, where they were carved almost two and a half thousand years go. Advocates of repatriation insist that the marbles are part of the heritage of Greece, and should never have been taken in the first place. Others feel that the marbles are now part of the history of the British Museum, and point out that in their current Bloomsbury home they can be seen in relation to other cultures, as part of world history. But with the opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, a state-of-the-art centre, claims for their return are growing stronger.

The marbles are not the only cultural artefact under dispute. Egypt’s chief archaeologist Zahi Hawass has demanded the return of the Nefertiti bust from the Neues Museum in Berlin, and secured the return of fresco fragments from the Louvre. Supporters of repatriation claims point to the dubious manner in which Western museums acquired their collections, often through colonial looting. Critics counter that for ancient artefacts there can be no such thing as a ‘rightful’ owner: the modern Greek and Egyptian states, for example, are vastly different from those that ruled when the artefacts were excavated, let alone the empires of Ancient Greece or Egypt. Moreover, it is suggested that the insistence of seeing artefacts in their original context undermines the very idea of a museum, which involves a necessary separation from context in the service of a universalist view based on knowledge and imagination. But those in favour of repatration argue the idea that Western museums are ‘universal’ is clearly self-serving, and suggest instead that returning such ill-gotten gains would be a progressive step to healing the wounds of the past.

What effects do repatriation claims have on modern archaeology and scholarship? Can political grievances be overcome through the diplomatic use of cultural artefacts? Does the universal museum exist, even as an ideal, or should we respect local and national identities? Where do the Parthenon Marbles rightfully belong and, more importantly, who owns culture?

Listen to session audio:


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

Dr Paul Thompson
rector and vice-provost, Royal College of Art

Karl-Erik Norrman
founder and secretary-general, European Cultural Parliament; former Swedish ambassador; author, The Gala Concert, Verdi/Wagner 200 years

Geoffrey White
retired barrister; founder member, Marbles Reunited

Pauline Hadaway
writer and researcher

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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