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Cultural Heritage Ethics

Constantine Sandis

III. Ownership and Restitution

8. ‘National’ Heritage and Scholarship

John Boardman

Texte intégral

1The debate over the handling and publication of ancient artefacts acquired through channels other than official excavation has raged for over fifty years. The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property1 has effectively increased the value of objects known before 1970 but done nothing to halt the acquisition and marketing of objects ‘recovered’ since that date, although there are a few inhibitions about the way they are marketed. Robbing graves probably ranks alongside other ‘oldest professions’ of the world, although nowadays it is often accidental, and since ‘recycling’ is generally perceived as being a civilised activity, it could readily be defended. More general recognition of national responsibility for the preservation of the evidence of ancient cultures in or on its soil is now in place and selectively acted upon, except where issues of greater political or economic force prevail. We can probably not expect more. But it is still not uncommon to hear the term ‘national heritage’ being used, and this can easily lead to a more casual approach to some aspects of the problem. Better by far to speak of ‘global heritage’, the ‘heritage of man’ or even just ‘heritage’, and whether it has to be ‘cultural’ or not may be a moot point.

2The use of the word ‘national’ carries with it implications of moral or legal claims by any country on artefacts found on or in its soil. The implication is that the modern nation has a responsibility, which is not contested, but that is based on some positive link between the modern and ancient cultures that the land sustained. Where this is clearly lacking, problems arise. It is easy to see where ‘national’ interests have been counter-productive, even in recent years – the destruction of Buddhist monuments by an Islamic state, the destruction of Islamic monuments by a Christian state, the destruction of anything that gets in the way of any sort of ‘development’ that is deemed more important.

3Sometimes the argument for possession is more subtle or complicated. A fine Athenian vase made in about 500 BC was immediately exported to Italy where it was soon put into an Etruscan (non-Greek) grave and in modern times recovered ‘unofficially’ and taken to display in an American museum. It is a Greek product, its use was as an Etruscan grave offering, and its major period of display for admiration and study has been in a New World museum. It has been returned to Italy because it was found there, not because it was made there or because it might be a better demonstration of the quality of Greek art there. Objects of scholarly rather than aesthetic (i. e. for a modern public) importance are more easily judged and accommodated where they are best understood and appreciated, which is not always where they were found.

4The restitution of ‘works of art’ to their country of origin might be held to depend on whether it is thought that they are in fact best appreciated there. We could hardly wish for the dispersal of collections of diverse post-antique world art, and should treasure all the more those galleries of ancient art composed from widely different sources – the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, countless smaller galleries worldwide – which give the public the opportunity to judge and compare.

5In all this, ‘nationalism’ need and should play no part. Genetic and/or cultural continuity in populations is often too easily assumed and the markers for it (language, script) sometimes overvalued. Sometimes the differences are obvious – as in the Americas with their native and immigrant populations. Britain’s genetic past is so variegated that it poses no serious problems of this type. For Greece the alphabet provides the strongest link with the past since even the ancient physical type – tall, fair-haired, blue eyed – is at some variance with the modern Balkan (Christian) aspect, much adjusted by contacts east and west. The fact that, whatever is alleged, there are very few countries whose modern populations have any serious genetic or cultural links with their distant past, should not be ignored – a problem which is (understandably but nonetheless mistakenly) not much favoured in modern political and historical scholarship.

6The classical world is one in which the problem of restitution of monuments to their former physical position (not just environment) is at stake. Yet no one would put the Elgin marbles back on the rebuilt Parthenon where they would be barely visible, over forty-feet up. The marbles, which have been on display in the British Museum in London for nearly two centuries, have already proved their worth in the shaping of classicising arts as well as in general education for visitors from all over the world, through their juxtaposition with prime works from Egypt and the Near East. There must surely sometimes be a case to be made for not letting the past get in the way of the future.

7While many ‘source’ countries take their responsibilities seriously, there are many shortcomings. To understand the past we need access to all the evidence, in corpore or in publication, yet, for the classical world, both Greece and Italy have very poor records indeed in the matter of publishing their own excavations, and in providing scholars with access to the evidence gathered in the process. Not that they are alone, there are still western museums which choose to be selective of whom they allow to study their material, on nationalistic grounds. This is not simply a matter of laziness or indifference. The remark that ‘they want to steal our material’ can still be heard, as well as manifest examples of scholars ‘sitting on’ what they perceive as ‘their’ material indefinitely, indifferent to whatever regulations there may be about the period for which they might claim priority. Jealousy seems a very strong motive in many cases, often abetted by extreme views about what ‘copyright’ entails.

8For learned journals to restrict or ban publication of ‘doubtful’ objects is simply a censorship of scholarship indefensible on any grounds. Our attitude to the past, including that of scholars for whom it is a subject of intense interest and also often a living, can even verge on the superstitious. The worst example of this is the feeling that unprovenanced objects should not be studied by scholars, should not be published, should not be conserved, should perhaps even be destroyed – an approach which would not make the slightest difference to the discovery of objects, to a ‘trade’ and interest in collecting and display that is immemorial, and which reveals at the same time an indifference to the integrity of evidence and scholarly freedom, an attitude which is frankly itself unscholarly. That the American Institute of Archaeology takes some such views impugns its scholarly status. The German Institute is wary since the freedom of action by its foreign institutes might be jeopardised. Some scholarly journals are also wary, and they also thus betray their scholarly responsibilities.

9‘Ownership’ of the past does no doubt need closer definition, not least of the responsibilities which it carries with it – to display, educate and publish. Alongside this we need recognition that scholarship devoted to the past should be one human activity that should on no account or for whatever reason be subject to censorship or suppression.


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