October 04, 2009

Cultural Property

Mary Beard has written an interesting article for the TLS focussing on cultural theft. She links together two recent books- the first analysing what the ancients thought about cultural plunder, the latter looking at the same issue two thousand years later in the reign of Emperor Napoleon I. She is right to target this as a vexed issue and brings to light many was in which cultural plunder and restoration is not a simple question- there are many types of coercion and many types of exchange, culture itself often ends up being returned not to where it came from but to somewhere else- so Italian monuments returned in the 19th Century did not go back to their old resting places the small churches but to large museums. Also the original owners of property often acquired it through holding wealth based on immoral actions- slaveholding in the ancient world or straightforward feudalism in the modern. Often that injustice could cross what are now national boundaries: who owns an ancient monument, the decendents of those who owned it, or the decendents of those who built it and how could we work out who was who? Property rights here clash with natural justice. There aren't obvious answers to these questions: but there are obvious relevances to the modern world and the febrile politics of cultural reclamation.


James H said...

Yes, and of course also the question of whether the supreme cultural monuments of civilisation can fairly be said to belong to anyone other than the world: I think the Elgins come into this category, which will save Pickfords the trouble of steering them gingerly through the BM's narrow Victorian exits.

Off topic, a little, here's Mary Beard and Goddard in the same piece.