Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Does cultural property make sense?

The postwar concept of "cultural property" is increasingly intruding on museums and their ability to offer a cornucopia of the world's material culture. It sounds like a good, liberal idea: returning things to their countries of origin. The classic case is apparently the Elgin Marbles, parts of the Parthenon and other classical Greek ruins removed by Lord Elgin (the British ambassador to the Ottoman empire) in the early 19th century and placed in the British Museum. But even though Elgin was criticized at the time, it's hard to see how he did anything but good.

Like many such ideas, it's actually more politically correct than liberal. It's based on a weird inversion of liberal values -- the value of diffusing knowledge, especially to the general public that goes to and supports museums -- mixed with bogus history. Ben McIntyre of the London Times has a look over here and finds the whole movement questionable at best.

The Elgin Marbles themselves, once their full history is understood, are a perfect example. When Elgin removed the marbles from the Parthenon, there was no modern Greek state to claim them. In fact, at the time, few Greeks knew or cared about the leftovers of classical antiquity. Athens was controlled by the Ottoman Turks, and the Parthenon was a military fort. The Greeks were fighting a war of independence, heavily supported by the British, and eventually won in 1833. Elgin spent about £75,000 (about a couple million dollars today), part of it to pay the Ottoman government, the only government there at the time. And it's clear that the friezes would have been even more damaged than they are already were at the time, if they had been left on the Parthenon, exposed as it was to rifle and artillery fire. The Parthenon had already been badly damaged in previous wars.

There are many other examples of the same mix of selective and garbled history and chauvinism, like Kennewick Man. Discovered in 1990 in the Pacific Northwest, this skeleton, wrongly claimed by certain American Indian tribes as a ancestor, is of unknown origin. Fortunately, it's still open to scientific study. Only through the willful PC ignorance of history and acceptance of cultural chauvinism by whoever's anointed and designated as "oppressed," while rejecting the cultural chauvinism of "white Europeans" or whoever's the latest designated "oppressor," can bad ideas like this get a foothold. But wait! Aren't the Greeks white Europeans?

Anyway, as McIntyre argues correctly, the material culture of the past deserves to be shared more, not to be monopolized.* This is another example of our "post-liberal" culture: Enlightenment ideas (here, a shared past "owned" by no one) opposed by superficially "progressive," but in reality, parochial and narrow, agendas.
* Meaning that the British Museum, say, should be sharing more and not itself act as a monopolist. In some cases, works could be moved permanently elsewhere, if there is a museum that can care for the objects in the same way. What's bogus are the legal and historical arguments often given and used in court cases.

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