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In a latest opinion piece, Elizabeth Marlowe proposed that what she phrases the “Elgin marbles” shouldn’t be returned to Greece — no less than not but. Note that I consult with them because the Parthenon sculptures, not the “Elgin marbles.” Not even the British Museum calls them that anymore, since to make use of the time period implicitly grants legitimacy to their elimination by Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin. The thrust of Marlowe’s argument is that there are extra urgent gadgets of colonial plunder that needs to be returned first — particularly, the Maqdala treasures and the Benin bronzes — and that specializing in the Parthenon sculptures affirms the incorrect precept. To prioritize the Greek declare, she contends, shifts the dialogue away from colonial violence and in the direction of what she labels “interfamilial bullying” between European nations.

While I’m sympathetic to Marlowe’s total view that museums needs to be working in the direction of restorative justice and decolonization, her argument is flawed, each conceptually and technically. The precept that one misdeed deserves to be redressed earlier than one other, as a result of it stems from a state of affairs of larger violence, is incorrect. Looting of cultural property is all the time against the law, regardless of who did it and below what circumstances. If it may be demonstrated that artifacts have been acquired illegally, they need to be returned to their rightful homeowners. That applies to all of them, no matter whether or not they have been robbed at gunpoint, smuggled out in stealth, or bought below duress.

Meting out justice for all is a elementary tenet of any trendy authorized system, and nobody has the precise to conclude that some victims are extra deserving than others. The fallacy of such reasoning turns into obvious, in Marlowe’s article, when she lists amongst “the wrongs that get righted most quickly” the looting finished, respectively, by Napoleon and by the Nazis. Given that Holocaust-era restitutions are ongoing and works plundered over two centuries in the past nonetheless cling in French museums, it’s deceptive to posit that justice was swift and certain, in these circumstances.

The argument fails when it creates a false equivalence between Greece and Britain. According to Marlowe, each are “self-proclaimed inheritor[s] of the classical tradition” and heirs to “the powerful myth of ‘Western civilization,’” in essence, members of the identical membership of European nations. The elimination of the Parthenon sculptures, she says, is “to put it bluntly, a wrong done by White people to White people.” That is a surprisingly callous declare. Wrongs are wrongs and needs to be righted. To diminish them on the idea of the perceived ethnicity of the wronged is odious. To blame the Greeks for the appropriation of their historic tradition by northern Europeans is the least decolonial gesture conceivable.

While Greece was simply an occupied province, Britain was embarking upon probably the most expansive imperial venture the world has ever recognized. There isn’t any justifiable comparability between them. The presumption of equivalence between European nations reveals a woeful disregard of historical past. “Western civilization” and “the classical tradition” are certainly highly effective myths or, no less than, complicated historic constructs. The trendy concept of Europe is based upon them. It could be historicist, nonetheless, to map them again onto a interval once they weren’t but totally shaped. When Lord Elgin, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, started to take away artifacts from the Parthenon website, the Greeks have been topic to domination by a overseas energy they thought-about oppressive. Many individuals in Britain agreed with them — notably, the poet Lord Byron, who denounced Elgin as a vandal and gave his life to liberate Greece.

The explanation for Greek independence galvanized standard feeling and fed the concept that northern Europeans have been the rightful heirs to Greek antiquity (a debatable declare, at finest). In contradiction to the Hellenizing assertions of poets and artwork historians, nonetheless, race science held fairly a special view of the Greeks. As schemes of racial classification developed over the nineteenth century, southern European peoples have been virtually invariably relegated to a decrease rung within the racial hierarchy. British commentators thought-about trendy Greeks inferior to their historic forebears, supposedly degenerated by centuries of combination with non-European peoples — all of the extra motive to take from them objects they weren’t deemed worthy of possessing. To postpone the return of these treasures at this time based mostly on decrying Greek whiteness is to misconstrue how that class has been constructed traditionally.

Archibald Archer, “The Trustees in the Temporary Elgin Room” (1819) oil on canvas, 37 x 52.2 inches, the British Museum (photograph by the British Museum courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Discussing the Parthenon sculptures when it comes to decolonization requires not shedding sight of the larger geopolitical image. The Greek War of Independence, fought over eight years and costing over 150,000 lives, foreshadowed a reconfigured stability of energy in Europe. Britain, France, and Russia banded collectively to ship a blow to the Ottoman Empire, irritating imperial ambitions in Vienna and Berlin, within the course of. After the years of Napoleonic upheaval, the battle for Greece displays a world order that will prevail for a century — the so-called Concert of Europe, below which a lot of the world was partitioned amongst a handful of European powers. Demonstrating that European nations, appearing in live performance, may successfully prolong the borders of Europe, it was a harbinger of the “high imperialism” to return.

The debate over restitution of the Parthenon sculptures has lengthy hinged on whether or not their acquisition was exercised below due authority, a query riddled with authorized intricacies and archival gaps. Less mentioned is the broader strategic context, earlier than and after the gadgets have been taken. Elgin’s defenders allege the elimination befell below the sovereign authority of Greece’s Ottoman rulers. Two a long time later, Britain backed a battle to oust these very rulers, a reality inconsistent with their earlier regard for the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. On each events, self-interest appears to have prevailed over summary ideas of legality. Such arcane particulars could carry little weight at this time, however they’re related to understanding the historic nature of colonialism. The overarching doctrine of imperial energy is that the principles of the sport solely apply when your aspect is profitable. To counter that perspective successfully, decolonization should persist with ideas and struggle for what is true, not decide and select what issues.

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