IA Engagement: What Conflicts Arise Over the International Repatriation and Ethical Handling of Cultural Artifacts?

Elodie Soustelle, Guest Writer

This summer I stared at stunning marbles of intricately carved Athenian horses rearing their heads and of women and men adorned in flowing togas, but these glorious sections of frieze weren’t in Greece, they were in London. The majority of the sculptures created in the 5th century B.C.E. to honor the goddess Athena in the Parthenon temple at the Acropolis were hacked off in 1803 by a British diplomat, Lord Elgin, and carted to England because he wanted to use them as commodities to decorate his estate. After he divorced, Elgin sold the reliefs to the British Parliament. The marbles were named the “Elgin Marbles,” and became the core treasures in the newly established British Museum, where they remain today.

At another museum I visited in August, the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, much of the exhibit on loan from the British Museum was again the result of nineteenth-century excavations of yet another self-proclaimed British explorer, Sir Austen Henry Layars. The Getty proudly displayed Babylonian friezes which had also been cut off ruins in what is now Syria.

Classical archaeology is a field I dream of pursuing, but in the past archaeologists have been some of the worst actors when it comes to the pillaging and removal of cultural artifacts, especially in the global south – most often in Africa and the Middle East. As a potential future archaeologist, I feel that I have an ethical duty to help repair past injustices.

The possibility of the restitution of ancient artifacts to their countries of origin has recently received international coverage in the news, with particular attention on the debate over the return of the Elgin Marbles. Greece won its independence in 1830, but first officially asked for the return of the Parthenon marbles in 1983, claiming that even if the Ottoman Empire had given Lord Elgin permission to take the marbles, that choice did not reflect the wishes of the Greek people or nation.

Presently, the acropolis museum in Greece only contains 30% of the sculptures and fragments that were left behind: “There are heads, feet and torsos of the same warrior, centaurs and gods 1,500 miles apart in London and Athens,” says the director of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Nikolaos Stampolidis, “If I cut your legs and hands off, would you like them back or not?”

Now in 2022, the debate over the return of the Parthenon Marbles to their rightful home in Greece is at the forefront of ethical responsibility in the international handling of cultural artifacts. Greece is calling for the UK to acknowledge its unethical “ownership” of the marbles.

The pressure on Britain has been heightened due to France’s public return of looted artifacts to Benin in order to help strengthen and repair France’s standing with its former colonies in Africa. In December of 2020, France’s Parliament passed a law to return African artwork to the countries from which they had been stolen during the French colonial era. Over a year later, the country took action to return twenty-six African artworks to Benin. The Quai Branly Museum in Paris previously held thousands of works from former French colonies, including these twenty-six pieces; in 2018 it was estimated that up to 90% of African art was located outside of its continent.

French President Emmanuel Macron publicly announced that there is “no valid, lasting and unconditional justification” for holding on to the looted artifacts. France’s actions have turned attention towards Britain, placing international pressure on the U.K. to follow suit; otherwise France comes out looking like the better postcolonial actor, in an era where Britain’s international standing has already been destabilized because of Brexit.

Even so, the British Museum does not plan on returning the marbles to Greece, arguing that they “show the ‘global story’ of human development” and are “an absolute integral part of the British Museum.” The fact that the museum mentions integrity is interesting, because there is a large difference between the “egoism of the created history of 200 years of a museum or the 2,500 year old creation of the Parthenon,” as British journalist Sarah Baxter writes.

A YouGov poll from November 2021 found that 59% of British participants believe that the “Elgin marbles” belong in Greece while 18% of them want them to continue being held in Britain and the remaining 22% don’t have an opinion either way. Some who wish for the marbles to be returned to Greece but understand their importance in the museum are pushing for perfect 3D replicas of the Elgin marbles in Pentelic marble.

However this idea is receiving some pushback on the grounds that ‘people come to the British Museum to see the real thing.’

Overall, this case study can be analyzed through various different lenses: soft power, critical race theory, ownership rights, cultural heritage, liberalism and orientalism. A critical race analysis would highlight the historical practice of looting cultural artifacts from anywhere that wasn’t considered as part of Europe. An emphasis on ownership rights in correspondence with cultural heritage would lead to questions such as: what belongs to the state of origin, what belongs to the state that currently has possession of the artifacts and what happens when ethical and international responsibility and justice come into play? A soft power framework would take into consideration the direct correlation between how the taking and return of artifacts affects states’ images, in this case specifically as “narratives and symbols from ancient Greek history and mythology proliferate and are exploited for national consumption,” sociolinguistics Jo Angouri states.

Furthermore, the UK Parliament’s original 19th-century arguments for keeping the Parthenon marbles at the British Museum was that the marbles are better preserved and protected there than if they were to remain on the Parthenon, where they would be destroyed. Their role in “saving” the Parthenon marbles underscores the harmful language of the legacy of “rescuing by purchase in crisis.” This framework sets up a dichotomy where western neoliberal powers are seen as saviors of culture. If local museums in the “western world” don’t acknowledge this reality and even orientalist undertone, then they are not educating their patrons.

If you are interested in this issue, the Parthenon Project is a non-profit organization supported by some politicians and prominent members of British society that was created to help find a solution acceptable both to Greece and the UK. The Parthenon Project urges the British Museum to return the marbles to the new Acropolis Museum and suggests that Greece loan artifacts like King Minos’s funeral mask to the British Museum on a rotating basis.

So, the next time you are at a museum with ancient sculptures, vases and artwork from Greece or other parts of the world, ask a curator what their policies are on educating the public about how the artifacts on display were acquired and how their history links to the larger history of colonialism and the legacy of looting.


This article serves as an engagement for the author’s Global Politics Internal Assessment. It has been edited for length and clarity and to uphold Inkwell’s standards for published content.