Inside Story

Poem in stone

Books | Has Geoffrey Robertson made a persuasive case for returning heritage objects?

Stephen Mills 2 March 2020 2488 words

Rent asunder: part of the British Museum’s collection of Parthenon marbles. Teseum/Flickr

Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure
By Geoffrey Robertson | Knopf Australia | $39.99 | 304 pages

The Institute of Ethiopian Studies stands on the lush green campus of Addis Ababa University, housed in a palace of former emperor Haile Selassie. As a museum and research library, the institute is a showcase of Ethiopia’s remarkable cultural heritage. Ancient stelae and animist grave sculptures are displayed alongside medieval silver crosses, illuminated manuscripts, traditional musical instruments and, rather bizarrely, the pink- and blue-tiled bathrooms installed by the imperial first couple in the 1960s.

Amid these marvels, a modest display case located just inside the front door is easy to miss. It is empty except for a couple of framed colour photographs, one showing a golden chalice inscribed “Emperor Tewodros,” the other showing an intricate necklace of silver and beads. But the accompanying labels, in English and Amharic, provide an eloquent explanation.

The first reads: “Looted by British troops, 1869.” The other: “Currently housed at Victoria and Albert Museum, London.”

The missing objects form part of a hoard of treasures plundered 150 years ago by British soldiers under Lord Napier after a punitive raid against Ethiopia’s Emperor Tewodros. Gathering up as much as they could carry and burning the rest, the army took the gold and silver, the jewellery, the sacred religious items back to London where — in a further travesty — they auctioned it off to defray the costs of the military expedition.

Many of the best items, including Tewodros’s exquisite gold crown, are on display today in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Ethiopia has asked repeatedly for their return, but all the V&A has offered is a “loan.”

This stand-off is an echo of the better-known dispute between Greece and the British Museum over the marble sculptures stolen by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in 1801. But unlike the Greeks, Ethiopia can’t afford a grand building like Athens’s new Acropolis Museum, built to await the return of the marbles from London. Nor has it attracted the passionate advocacy of the well-connected London literary set, schooled in the “glory that was Greece” and ready with their pamphlets and books, their networks and committees. Ethiopian history is a closed book by contrast; its diaspora in the West is limited in size and voice; and, no doubt, the imperial connotations of a stolen crown seem less noble than the profoundly democratic narrative of the looted marbles.

So the Institute of Ethiopian Studies can only remember, mourn and accuse.

Geoffrey Robertson’s latest book, Who Owns History?, gives new impetus to the debate about the return of the Parthenon marbles and looted cultural heritage more generally.

In this account, Lord Elgin’s action in removing the marbles was plainly illegal: he did have permission to draw the sculptures and make plaster casts, but no document has ever been produced to show that the Ottoman authorities granted permission for removal. (The British Museum claims he acted “with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman authorities.”) Moreover, Elgin engaged in activities — bribery, deception, conspiracy — that were improper, to say the least, for a British ambassador in Constantinople. He compounded his theft by inflicting permanent damage on the marbles (some were sawn in half; some were mislaid in transit in a shipwreck) and on the ancient building itself. Hypocritical, you might say, for a professed philhellene.

Later, bankrupt, Elgin sold the marbles in 1816 to the British government, which deposited them, by act of parliament, in the British Museum. Subsequent trustees, directors and curators of the museum have inflicted further damage on the marbles. Meanwhile, the Greek government and the Greek people have pleaded for their return from what the country’s president last year called their “murky prison” in London.

Robertson is a practised advocate — a celebrity barrister in the Old Bailey and international human rights advocate — and reading this part of his book is like sitting through an aerial bombardment or some sort of sonic tidal wide. He piles his evidence in great waves, his case unfurling like a great rolling fugue for brass trumpets. He scathingly pillories the prisoner in the dock (the British Museum). He hammers his strong points once, twice and three times in case we missed them the first and second times. He deftly sidesteps his weaknesses and omissions.

It’s a comprehensive account, but it contains little new evidence. Much of the research for this book seems to have originated as a consultancy project for the Greek Ministry of Culture, which may explain the stylistic clunkiness and some gloriously legalistic phrasing (“It follows that the British Museum’s first proposition is otiose”) that should not have been waved through by the editor.

Robertson’s admiration for classical Athens is transparent. Given the centrality of imperial rapaciousness to the case for returning the marbles, though, some acknowledgement of Athens’s belligerently imperial character would have strengthened his argument. It was only by extracting tribute from its subject cities that Pericles could pay for his huge public works program atop the Acropolis.

Robertson’s larger contribution lies with his second theme, which frames the broader debate about the return of plundered heritage within a reasoned, though speculative, framework of international law. He proposes an international convention and tribunal to adjudicate and enforce the “right of return” of heritage objects. If ever such a body is set up, his chapter identifying the factors the tribunal should weigh will prove a useful template.

Robertson identifies seven positive criteria any tribunal should consider: an object’s cultural value (pricelessness or special significance); its international importance (by reference to the UNESCO World Heritage list, for example); if it was taken as a “spoil” of war; if it was acquired illegally (by grave robbing leading to the private art market, for example); if it was acquired unconscionably (by forced sale, for example); if it was acquired legitimately but is still of great heritage significance; and if the holding institution (museum) has been careless or disrespectful in its custody.

Offsetting these criteria, Robertson posits three further considerations for the tribunal to weigh against return of a heritage object: if a returned object could not be preserved securely in its country of origin; if it was to be used for propaganda purposes; and if its return would reward states that trampled on the human rights of its citizens.

Taken together, these criteria would enable the tribunal to order the return of the Parthenon marbles as objects of priceless value with universal and national significance that were illegally acquired. The careless custody angle would also doubtless be argued, leaving the British Museum to compare its inadequate and faded sixty-year-old display gallery with the sparkle of the new Acropolis Museum.

Robertson goes on to show how other items of plunder would be considered by the tribunal. The crown of Tewodros and other Ethiopian treasures stolen in 1869 would be returned because of, at least, their national heritage value and their acquisition as spoils of war. The Benin bronzes, acquired in remarkably similar circumstances by another rapacious British military raid in 1897, would likewise be ordered back to Nigeria. The tribunal would likely order Queen Elizabeth to hand back the Koh-i-Noor diamond, unconscionably acquired as a forced “gift” by a young maharajah to Queen Victoria — though it would have to weigh the rival claims of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The bust of Nefertiti would depart Berlin’s Neues Museum for Egypt because of its unique historical and cultural significance and its acquisition by deception.

His positive criteria, then, recognise a direct connection between the claimant state and the artists working in the original political entity. But Robertson’s tribunal would need to interrogate this closely: timing and sequence are critical. The modern Greek state, founded shortly after the Elgin heist in the 1820s, must successfully identify itself as the legitimate claimant for the artistic output of fifth-century BCE Athens. Cultural and ethnic considerations — notably, shared language — would help. Intervening periods of Greek occupation (Roman, Frankish, Ottoman) would need to be “seen through.” Ethiopia actually has a much stronger claim than Athens for its treasures: it was already a sovereign nation within established boundaries when Tewodros’s crown was stolen, and it has remained so ever since, never colonised, and with an undisrupted line of government.

But there is a deeper problem inherent in Robertson’s approach: his vagueness around the concept of cultural value or significance. He waxes long and hard about the “supreme importance” of the Parthenon marbles “to the world as well as to Greece,” derived from their intimate association with the emergence of democracy in classical Athens. But this argument cuts both ways. If the marbles have international or global significance, then this supports the universalist claims of the British Museum (“Here [the marbles] are seen by a world audience and are actively studied and researched by an international community of scholars”) and erodes the more limited national claims of the Greeks.

Indeed, there is a troubling relativism at work when Robertson claims that the Benin bronzes are artworks of “significance to Africa, but not to the world in the way that the Marbles have international resonance.” Isn’t this what gets the Ramsay Centre’s Western Civilisation program into trouble?

The three negative criteria would certainly reassure Western governments and cultural institutions that their storerooms will not be emptied in favour of corrupt, neglectful or insecure regimes. But the fact that many countries — Iraq, Turkey, Brunei, Russia, China — would likely fall foul of one or more of these considerations makes it much less likely that international agreement could be found for any convention, and would severely limit the operation of any right of return.

The human rights criterion, moreover, relies on a reading of restitution as itself upholding a human right — namely, the right to understand and enjoy one’s own culture. Human rights are of course universal, but this will be a hard sell outside the West. Authoritarian and party-led states, many of them former colonies and understandably hungry for the return of their heritage, will likely not appreciate another lecture on human rights.

Robertson’s tribunal would clearly have its work cut out.

The prospect of returning plundered heritage poses a profound existential question for the British Museum, the V&A and indeed all other Western collecting institutions. As the hapless British prime minister David Cameron put it when he was asked about the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond during a visit to the Punjab: “If you say ‘yes’ to one request, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.”

Forget that the diamond itself is not in the museum but in the royal collection; Cameron put his finger on these institutions’ central postcolonial fear. Return one object and you open the floodgates. The fear was made more tangible a couple of years later when French president Emmanuel Macron declared his support for the “temporary or permanent” restitution of African cultural heritage acquired during France’s colonial era: “African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums.” Apart from the commissioning of an expert report, though, the French have undertaken little actual restitution.

Macron’s policy underlined the tendentious nature of defences of the great museums of London, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam. Cloaking themselves as encyclopedic repositories of universal, supranational human culture, open to all to visit, photograph and research, are they not actually the self-interested beneficiaries of colonialism, implicated in the imperial projects of previous centuries and compromised to this day by their continuing denialism? And what about their network of accomplices, if that is the right word — the English missionary, the French art specialist, the German archaeologist, the American collector?

Australians must not feel comfortably removed from this debate. As both colony and coloniser, we too are deeply implicated. The grieving pleas by Indigenous Australians for the return of human remains are not all directed at European institutions; Mungo Man was returned only in 2017 from the research laboratory at the Australian National University. Cultural objects such as the Gweagal Shield — likely dating back to the first contact between Eora people and James Cook in 1770, and retained now in the British Museum — are also subject to claim for return, even though they have likely survived only because they were taken away.

Equally, Australians must contemplate a two-way exchange, where objects held by Australian institutions are returned to rightful owners overseas. The Australian National Gallery was forced to return a number of Indian statues purchased through a dodgy New York art dealer. The Shellal mosaic in the Australian War Memorial — a beautiful fragment of ancient Roman mosaic discovered by Australian soldiers in Gaza in 1917 — is at best a war trophy but more likely a straightforward example of pilfering. Should we not also look with a critical eye at the significant collections in Australian museums from Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific dating from our own period as coloniser?

The quest for a solution to the Parthenon marbles dispute through international law reflects the fact that the British Museum has legitimate title backed by specific legislation and can’t be forced under British law to return them. Even so, an enforceable right of return under as-yet unnegotiated international covenants before an as-yet unconstituted tribunal would require an immense institutional transformation — a transformation that seems, for this reader, insurmountable.

But there is of course a much simpler reason to return the Parthenon marbles. Doing so would be an act not merely of restitution or repatriation, but also of reunification.

The Parthenon marbles constitute a single ancient masterpiece, embodying in sculpture and architecture a grand narrative, a sublime artistic vision of civic virtue and divine benevolence. Christopher Hitchens described them as a “poem in stone that was carved as a unity and that tells a single story.” Elgin tore it in half. He took around seventy-five metres of frieze, leaving eighty-five metres behind; the best fifteen of the ninety-two metopes; and seventeen figures from the two pediments — an act of dismemberment and fragmentation that was a triumph of individual greed and selfishness over the collective conscience. The rest remains in Athens.

Robertson endorses and echoes Hitchens, so it is not clear why reunification — the bringing together of objects of cultural heritage that have been separated by war or theft — should not constitute a standalone criterion for consideration by Robertson’s proposed tribunal.

Can the British Museum be induced to return the marbles as a gift? Frankly, that isn’t likely. But an act of grace and generosity to achieve reunification of this astounding artwork would be perhaps marginally more likely, and certainly more palatable to the museum, than an act of enforced restitution in acknowledgement of past wrongs.

Whatever the merits of displaying some of the marbles in the British Museum and some in the new Acropolis, they fade and vanish against the magical prospect of seeing them all reunited, telling their story and projecting their vision once more, in a single location. And that location has to be Athens. •