Museums of blood? A review of Who Owns History

By Charmaine Manuel
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure. ­

Geoffrey Robertson

Knopf Australia 2019

Returning antiquities to the countries where they originated is one of the most controversial and divisive issues in the art world. Do cultural objects belong to humanity as a whole or do the descendants of a particular civilisation have a unique claim over their use and display? Who owns the past? These questions among others are what Geoffrey Robertson hopes to answer in his newest book, Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure.

Robertson, perhaps the most well-known human rights lawyer in the world, is noted for his advocacy of journalists, dissidents and nation-states. In 2014, Robertson and his legal team (including a certain Amal Clooney) advised the Greek government in their bid to retrieve the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum. As part of this process, the team published a report setting out the historical, legal and cultural case for the return of the Marbles, which argues passionately for the return of stolen treasures from the world’s museums. In turn, this impassioned report formed the basis for Who Owns History?

Do cultural objects belong to humanity as a whole or do the descendants of a particular civilisation have a unique claim over their use and display?

Robertson’s defence of repatriation is based on the idea that “art is not just property, but has a special quality – that of heritage – because of its continuing significance to the people from whom it has been wrested, and a cultural value because of its religious or political context or connotation, or through the historical memories it evokes.” This principle undermines the basis of the global museum which puts forward an “encyclopaedic” or “universalist” vision of the past. Encyclopaedic museums include institutions such as the British Museum, the Louvre, the Met and the Getty whose vast collections resemble “a cabinet of curiosities” drawn from a range of geographical regions and time periods.

Proponents of this ideal reject calls for restitution, arguing that “encyclopaedic” museums promote the commonality of the human experience over narrow nationalist narratives. They aspire to universal ideals of humankind and purport to be “repositories of a global community.” Robertson has little patience for such bland statements of internationalism given that these lofty ideals do not acknowledge that many objects in these museums are the result of theft, violence and dispossession. For Robertson, objects must be viewed in a cultural context that acknowledges their removal and the injustices experienced by their original owners. As he argues “these items are not merely of artistic value, but are freighted with the meaning of their removal, because they are not only emblematic of a civilisation but of the end of that civilisation.”

The first half of Robertson’s book outlines the case of the Parthenon marbles, also known as the “Elgin Marbles”, after the man who forcibly removed them from Athens. The British Museum maintains till today that the Marbles were obtained lawfully, with “ the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities.” In a lengthy but skillfully-told account, Robertson argues that this is untrue. His conclusion is based on the absence of a firman –  a legal document which would have authorised Lord Elgin to remove the sculptures from the Parthenon. A firman, signed and sealed by the Sultan and copied into the archives would have been the required documentation to remove sculptures from a site as revered as the Parthenon. The surviving historical record reveals that the only authorisation that Elgin had was in the form of a letter from an Ottoman official which gave Elgin’s men permission to sketch and make moulds of the marbles. 

For Robertson, objects must be viewed in a cultural context that acknowledges their removal and the injustices experienced by their original owners.

While the British establishment might still maintain the legality of Elgin’s actions, it is worth noting that Elgin’s crime garnered disapproval even from the British parliament of the time. As the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Elgin had abused his diplomatic immunity and soured relations with an ally of Britain. Robertson tells us that criticism of Elgin’s actions “were widely shared in the British establishment of the time, and most MPs who spoke in the debates were critical of Elgin’s behaviour on moral and legal grounds.”

Robertson then widens his scope to other notable claims for restitution: valuable and culturally important artifacts like the Koh-i-Noor Diamond, the Rosetta Stone and the Benin Bronzes are discussed, among other treasures, and their claims for restitution are evaluated. Robertson’s discussion of the Gweagal Shield is especially pertinent to Australians, given how few of us (including this reviewer) know of its history and its significance as a symbol of Indigenous people’s resistance. 

Finally, Robertson presents a legal approach to the issue of cultural restitution. What recourse to international laws and treaties could states have in retrieving objects that were taken from them? Wading through human rights law, the laws of war, and conventions and treaties on cultural heritage, Robertson shows that while there is no current legal framework, there is an established custom for restitution. This is an implicit norm, “waiting as if in suspension for the ICJ (International Court of Justice) to declare it…” As no such written procedure currently exists, Robertson takes it upon himself to sketch what such a document would like. The penultimate chapter presents a draft of such a convention. 

Robertson’s discussion of the Gweagal Shield is especially pertinent to Australians, given its significance as a symbol of Indigenous people’s resistance. 

Overall, Robertson’s work is a great layman’s introduction to the cultural restitution debate. His readers are led through lively discussions of history, law and politics that illustrate Robertson’s expansive erudition. Robertson’s passion is contagious and his vivid descriptions of the injustices faced by colonial peoples will surely inflame the hearts of many readers as it did mine. It remains to be seen if Robertson’s advocacy will be sufficient to take on the might and cultural influence of global institutions such as the British Museum. If recent history is anything to go by, it seems that the restitution debate is doomed to dip in and out of public consciousness until it finds a firm political will within the international community.

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