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Should ancient treasures be repatriated?

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The world’s top museums are home to some wonderful treasures that have been seen by millions of people down the centuries, but there is a huge question mark hanging over many of these artefacts, namely whether they should be there at all. Should they go back to their countries of origin?

There are many famous objects that fall into this category, and here are just a few examples:

The Elgin Marbles

In 1801 the Earl of Elgin visited Athens and took a fancy to the frescoes that lined the top of the Parthenon building that dominates the Acropolis. Greece was then part of the Ottoman Empire, and Elgin persuaded the appropriate officials to let him chip off the frescoes and take them back to London, where they have been one of the top exhibits at the British Museum ever since.

But should they go back to Greece? One argument has always been that the frescoes would have suffered severe damage from atmospheric pollution had they stayed where they were, and that there was nowhere in Athens that was suitable for their display. However, these problems no longer apply.

The Ishtar Gate (see photo)

This was the entrance to the ancient city of Babylon, built around 575 BC on the orders of King Nebuchadnezzar. It lay in ruins under desert sand for many centuries until discovered by a German team of archaeologists prior to World War I. They shipped all the pieces back to Berlin, where it was reconstructed inside the Pergamon Museum.

The modern state of Iraq built a replica gate on the original site, but would dearly love to be able to replace it with the real thing.

The Koh-I-Noor Diamond

This is a massive diamond that weighs 105 carats, making it one of the largest in the world. It was found in an Indian mine and was proudly owned by the Mughal emperors until the British took over India and the diamond became the property of Queen Victoria after the conquest of the Punjab in 1849. It was set into one of the crowns worn by British royalty and now forms part of the Crown Jewels on display at the Tower of London.

There is a problem with any potential repatriation of the Koh-I-Noor, namely where should it go to? It is claimed by India, Pakistan and Afghanistan!

Priam’s Treasure

This is a collection of Bronze Age jewellery and weaponry that was excavated in 1873 by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann from what he mistakenly believed to be the ruins of the City of Troy that featured in Homer’s Iliad. The treasures were taken to Berlin where they stayed until World War II when they were looted by the Soviet Russians in 1945 as they swept into Hitler’s capital city.

The argument was that Russia was entitled to take the treasure as part compensation for the destruction wrought by Germany on Soviet cities during the war. It is now on display in Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. But where should the treasure go now? Back to Berlin, or possibly to Turkey where it originated?

  • Question /

    In general terms, should all museum treasures go back to where they came from?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Question /

    Should treasures be returned only when requested by their original home country?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Question /

    Where should the Elgin Marbles be displayed?

    • London
    • Athens
  • Question /

    Where should the Ishtar Gate be displayed?

    • Berlin
    • Iraq
  • Question /

    Where should the Koh-I-Noor diamond be displayed?

    • London
    • India
    • Pakistan
    • Afghanistan
  • Question /

    Where should Priam’s Treasure be displayed?

    • Moscow
    • Berlin
    • Turkey

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What do you think?

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10 Comments

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  1. To my mind, what happened in the past, should remain as it is now.

    Why dig up the past again to try to rebury it right now?

    If somebody won the war fairly(??) at the time, why should they lose their spoils (??) now.

    It’s a bit like the Aboriginals trying to claim Australia is theirs, when they only took possession of it themselves, from who knows who too.

    Let the past stay buried, I would say, and just make the best of it now, without bending over backwards to try to stick bandaids on the past, which would never stick there for too long anyway.

    • There are a lot of questions here, which pose the huge difficulty of consistency – if you act in one way in case A, do you have to do the same in all other cases? How do you prove that the cases are equivalent to each other anyway?

      To be consistent with your general theme, you would also have to argue that any illegal act would have to be forgiven if a long enough time interval has occurred for it to be forgotten by anyone directly affected by it. What about Nazi art thefts, for example? Or the theft of Palestinian land by the Israelis? It could be a very long list!

      • True, consistency is a big factor.

        I actually think that illegal acts should be forgiven, if a long enough time period has occurred since they first occurred, provided that no other illegal acts have been committed since by that person.

        That aim of punishment for these acts to me is “reformal” (read reformment, I like to invent my own words…LOL..as even reformment is too, I suspect. Maybe reformation is the right word ) of the person involved.

        If someone has not recommitted an illegal act after 40 years, to pick, an arbitrary large number, of living in society, without being found out, or punished for it, to my mind, they should be allowed to stay free.

        This attitude does not jell, of course, with the current mentality to witch hunt and extract the last drop of blood from the flesh of these so-called and labeled “career criminals”, who were only bad, perhaps once, in their younger age, and never since.

  2. You pose some interesting conundrums, John. Some ancient pieces, such as the Ishtar Gate, are of such huge cultural significance that they are really the patrimony of the entire human race. We all saw what happened to the contents of the Iraq Museum in Iraq, as to other valuable artefacts there and in Syria. There is a good argument to be made for not returning artefacts unless their security can be guaranteed. Too much is at stake.

    • I agree. The Ishtar Gate – which I saw in Berlin only a few weeks ago – would not exist at all were it not for the dedication of the people who found it. It was shipped to Berlin in 500 huge crates and painstakingly assembled, based on documentary evidence of what it originally looked like.

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