Restitution: When?

Given the vast number of antiquities that people transported over hundreds of years to different countries away from their origins, we have an enormous philosophical problem on our hands. Should those materials be returned to their home countries? When is restitution of the materials warranted, and when not?

Both Lowenthal and Glendinning mention the hundreds-year-old debate over the Elgin Marbles, looted off the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in 1802. Should they be returned to Greece? Or, since they were relocated hundreds of years ago, is it in fact preserving history to keep the marbles in England in perpetuity?

The debate is enormously complicated. Undoubtedly, both Greece and England feel they can lay some claim on them, though they are, after all, inherently Greek. Since the Parthenon is a famous, respected monument, we can be pretty sure that Greece would take excellent care of them if they were to be returned.

The debate gets more complicated, though, when considering antiquities that were looted from countries experiencing social or political unrest, or without the infrastructure in place to fully care for returned artifacts (architectural or not). What should happen then? Is keeping remnants of the past from their homelands ever justified? Who gets to decide whether a home country is “fit” to care for its antiquities? I’d like to think that if I were to make these decisions I’d always side with the home country, but I can imagine circumstances where choosing to relocate something back home to a place where it might be destroyed would be troubling, if not impossible.

In the end, perhaps the answer lies in determining our preservation goal. If it’s preservation of the materials themselves at all costs, that would imply one set of treatments, but if we’re seeking to serve collective memory, that could imply another set altogether.

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