Friday, May 2, 2014

‘Who Owns Culture?’ The Complexities of Cultural Property In the Battle Over The Parthenon Marbles

“The sea-ruling Britannia snatched the last spoils of Greece, that was in the throes of death.” – Lord Byron

“The British say they have saved the Marbles. Well, thank you very much. Now give them back.” – Melina Mercouri, Greek Minister for Culture, 1981-1989/ 1993-1994

"The request for the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is not made by the Greek government in the name of the Greek nation or of Greek history. It is made in the name of the cultural heritage of the world and with the voice of the mutilated monument itself, that cries out for its marbles to be returned." - Evangelos Venizelos, Greek Minister for Culture, 1996-1999/ 2000-2004

For over 150 years, the marbles of Greece's Parthenon have been situated in the British Museum. Known as the Parthenon or Elgin Marbles, they continue to be the focal point of an ongoing debate about the ownership and display of cultural artifacts, often acquired from the developing world by imperial powers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and now displayed in Western museums. The British Museum’s charter implies that the institution cannot legally return items from its collection: “The Trustees of The British Museum hold its collections in perpetuity by virtue of the power vested in them by The British Museum Act (1963)”. Yet the debate rages: should cultural property such as the Parthenon Marbles be returned to its country of origin? And, more broadly: who has “rightful” ownership of cultural property? Is it “universal” cultural institutions or nation states?

 A large sign which marks the ancient city of Tyre in Lebanon as protected cultural property according to the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. 

The debate, then, broadly positions an internationalist perspective on the ownership of cultural property against a vision of cultural property as national cultural patrimony. The concept of national cultural patrimony views cultural objects produced, or first discovered, within a state as belonging to that state based on special relationship between that state’s people and their cultural artefacts (Thomason, 1990). All cultural heritage found within the borders of a modern nation-state is defined as its cultural patrimony. More importantly, cultural patrimony is understood to comprise both the artifacts produced by a particular living culture, and those produced by past cultures to which modern nation-states consider themselves heirs. The debate surrounding universal museums is centered on this claim to the products of antiquity. And cultural nationalism, in short, demands the repatriation of cultural patrimony “wrongly” located in universal collections (Bell III, 2010).

Critics of the nationalist approach, on the other hand, see access to cultural property as a universal human right, arguing that, in our “global age”, we cannot rely on outdated constructs like the nation-state to dictate the rules of cultural property (Kimmelman, 2010). Major proponents of the internationalist argument are thus encyclopedic or universal museums – like the Met, the Louvre and the British Museum – which see themselves as truly cosmopolitan institutions, promoting tolerance, understanding, and a shared sense of history, while opening visitors’ eyes and minds to the wide diversity of world culture and the stunning art that –in their eyes - is our common heritage (Cuno, 2011). 

With the diversity of art in their collections, encyclopedic museums thus argue against a narrow definition of culture (Cuno, 2011). Instead, they urge their visitors to view cultural heritage as transcending political boundaries. Cultural property — paintings, artifacts, music, or dance — transcends the cultures and people that create them, intertwining the histories of different peoples. For example, in relation to the Parthenon Marbles the British Museum writes:

“The sculptures from the Parthenon have come to act as a focus for Western European culture and civilisation, and have found a home in a museum that grew out of the eighteenth-century 'Enlightenment', with its emphasis on developing a shared common culture that goes beyond national boundaries.” (The British Museum website)

The British Museum. Link to source.

Cultural internationalism, thus, considers cultural heritage as belonging to all people, but “owned” by no one person or nation. It is essentially shorthand for the proposition that everyone has an interest in the preservation and enjoyment of cultural property, wherever it is situated, from whatever cultural or geographic source it derives (Merryman, 2005). This perspective, therefore, defends the continued right of universal museums to acquire, hold, preserve and display the common cultural heritage of mankind, in trust for all people of current and future generations. When art and culture are strictly attached to a nation, universal museums argue, we lose the cross-culture ties that bind many different peoples together.

At the heart of both the internationalist argument and the debate over the Parthenon Marbles, lies the idea of conservation or safeguarding from potential destruction and abuse. Many commentators have pointed out that Elgin’s “purchase” of the marbles was indeed motivated by the real risk to their survival. In fact, British journalist Richard Dorment has argued in a 2009 piece for the Telegraph, that “Greeks should erect a statue of Lord Elgin near the Parthenon to express their nation's gratitude to him for saving the Marbles”. According to Dorment, the Parthenon wouldn’t have made it into the 21st century given its history of plunder and exploitation. And indeed, over the past centuries the Parthenon has been shaken by earthquakes, ravaged by fire, turned into a church and then a mosque, bombarded and quarried for building materials (Jenkins, 2007). Yet Greece has been an independent – and relatively peaceful – nation since 1829, which means that this initial act of protection has been completed for the past 185 years.

New Acropolis Museum, Athens
Credit: ©Peter Mauss/Esto

Why then do the Brits refuse to return the marbles? It is often argued that, unlike other artifacts that have been successfully repatriated in the past, the marbles have come to play a dominant role in Britain’s own cultural history. As Anthony Snodgrass (2004) has pointed out, following their arrival in London, the sculptures were heavily celebrated and imitated by British artists, critics and poets. Over the next two centuries, they also became a subject of detailed scholarly research by British art historians and archaeologists. For the British Museum and especially for its Greek and Roman Department, this has embedded them too deeply in the British scholarly and cultural consciousness for them ever to be uprooted (ibid.). One may detect faint shades of Edward Said's Orientalism (2003) here: the propriety of knowledge acts as a legitimation for possession, in this case no longer territorial, but physical all the same.

Nevertheless, as long as the objects remain at the British Museum, they represent enduring symbols of colonial injustice, as Elgin never obtained permission to remove the marbles from Greece, but rather the temporary occupational government at the time - the Ottoman Empire. Michelle Caswell’s (2011) powerful argument for the return of the Iraqi Baath Party records to their “birthplace”, illustrates this point. As Caswell (ibid.) points out, in this contemporary act of “cultural salvation” which saw the aforementioned records seized during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and subsequently transferred to Stanford University, the power inequalities inherent in their acquisition have been completely overlooked. In a similar manner the British government has been avoiding questions about unequal power distributions, opting rather to reinforce narratives about the unique educational value of encyclopaedic collections.

'The British Museum: the Zoological Gallery, crowded', Wellcome Library, CC BY-NC

By preserving and displaying objects whose origins lie across the world and in different time periods, the argument goes, universal museums provide access to the great diversity of the world’s artistic and cultural production. At last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for example, a panel that included the directors of the British Museum, the Hermitage, the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and the International Council of Museums argued that national governments that restrict trade in their self-defined cultural heritage, were “denying their citizens to cultural objects from different parts of the world, perpetuating dangerous stereotypes of foreign peoples and foreign cultures, and working against the promise of encyclopedic museums to promote the understanding of and respect for difference in the world” (Cuno, 2013).

However, interest in and ownership of cultural property is much less dictated by ideals about connectedness and cross-cultural engagement, than it is by underlying economic interests, as Caswell (2011) points out.  From that perspective, digital repatriation suggestions that are becoming increasingly prominent in the aforementioned educational narrative must be viewed with suspicion. As cultural institutions are reconfiguring their identity in light of technological change, arguments in favor of digital repatriation could be reversed to question the materiality of the museum space and its collections. After all, if digital 3D copies of the Parthenon Marbles – and digitized cultural property in general - really are viable alternatives to the “real thing”, then why not use digital copies to promote museums’ educational vision and mission while returning the actual physical artefacts to their place of origin, where their absence is most deeply felt?


Bell III, M. (2010, November 2). Who’s Right? Repatriation of Cultural Property. IIP Digital. Available at <>

The British Museum (n.d.). The Parthenon sculptures: stewardship. Available at <>

Caswell, M. (2011). " Thank You Very Much, Now Give Them Back": Cultural Property and the Fight over the Iraqi Baath Party Records. American Archivist,74(1), 211-240.

Cuno, J. (2011). Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum. University of Chicago Press.

Cuno, J. (2013, January 30). The Arts on the World Economic Stage—Notes from Davos. The Getty Iris. Available at <>

Jenkins, I. D. (2007). The Parthenon Sculptures. Harvard University Press.

Kimmelman, M. (2010, May 5). Who Draws the Borders of Culture?. New York Times. Available at <>

Merryman, J. H. (2005). Cultural property internationalism. International Journal of Cultural Property12(01), 11-39.

Said, E. (2003). Orientalism: Western conceptions of the Orient. Penguin Books Limited.

Snodgrass, A. (2004). What do the Parthenon Sculptures embody? Working Papers in Art and Design. Available at

Thomason, D. N. (1990). Rolling Back History: The United Nations General Assembly and the Right to Cultural Property. Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, 22 (47).

Zeman, A. (2012). A Game Changer? The Complexities of Cultural Heritage in the Debate Over the Elgin Marbles. Senior Capstone Projects. Paper 67. Available at <>

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