A few days ago, we were discussing the current controversies regarding antiquities and their repatriation, such as the case between the Getty and Italy regarding items in the Getty’s collection that apparently did not rightfully belong to them. We also discussed an article about Thai antiquities from the ancient Ban Chiang culture that were discovered in 1966 and have found their way into private and museum collections, even though they were never officially released onto the market. Archaeologists have decried the practice of moving artifacts out of their country of origin, arguing that “it removes objects from their original information-rich context,” and that it “destroys the archaeological record.”The dilemma of antiquities collecting, especially that of museums owning items that were looted or stolen from other countries, is not an easy one to solve, and not a problem I want to answer here. I do, however, want to address the flaws in the archaeologists’ argument regarding keeping objects in their historical context.1. Now no doubt viewing Egyptian artifacts in Egypt with the entire Nile River Delta as a backdrop would be an unparalleled experience. But how many people can afford to fly all the way to Egypt to view Egyptian artifacts? For most of us, encyclopedic museums near our homes are the most accessible way to experience and appreciate other cultures.2. Mary made another good point. If we extend the archaeologists’ argument to its logical conclusion about keeping artifacts in their historical and archaeological context, then wouldn’t that mean leaving the artifacts in the ground? After all, that is now an integral part of their history—that they were buried beneath the earth by time.3. Now what about looted objects? Let’s take the Elgin marbles for example. Yes, they were looted? No, Lord Elgin probably shouldn’t have done that. Yes, they are now in the British Museum. Should the British Museum return the marbles to Athens? Ah, that’s the question. On the one hand, one could argue that the marbles belong back in the Parthenon because that is its proper historical context. But what does “proper historical context” even mean? True, the marbles used to be on the Parthenon. But an integral part of their history now includes being an object of plunder and a symbol of British power and influence in the 19th century. Its place in the British Museum is in keeping with its historical context.Of course I’ve only touched upon one facet of the antiquities debate. What are your thoughts regarding the legal and ethical aspects of antiquities collections? Should institutions like the British Museum return all previously looted objects?(On a slightly different note, it seems to me that the demand by certain countries for their objects back and the refusal of other countries to return them, is oftentimes motivated not by a genuine concern for the objects themselves, but is in fact a clandestine pissing contest between nation-states. No?)

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