Whose Heritage?

John Gould argues for the return of national treasures ... while Malcolm McLeod expresses reservations ...

The question whether or not to return what are currently called 'cultural properties' (such as the Elgin Marbles) to their countries of origin is not an easy question to answer and it raises some quite complicated issues.

Many of the most valued treasures in the museums of Europe are where they are (in the Louvre or the British Museum, for instance) as a result of the military or economic dominance of one power or other over the last two hundred years. Lord Elgin, for example, would certainly not have been able to acquire the great collection of Greek sculpture that is called after him, if British power had not been crucially important to Turkey in the first years of the nineteenth century as a means of protecting herself against the armies of Napoleon, and his opportunity would not have existed if he had been appointed British ambassador in Constantinople twenty years later, by which time public opinion in England was in favour of supporting the Greeks in their struggle for independence from Turkey. So the great museums of Europe are very much the beneficiaries of past history. In a sense they are the products of history and cannot now insulate themselves from changes in the world outside. We live now in a post-imperialist world and the one-time imperial dependencies of the Third World have gained their sovereign independence. Can we now insist on our right to hold onto what such countries see as the symbols of their cultural identity? Or is to do this rather like granting an incomplete and conditional independence?

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