To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.


When it comes to confronting historical facts of how colonial objects were taken – from marbles and statutes removed from ancient temples to religious and cultural artifacts taken as war booty or unrestrained rapaciousness or trickery or coercion, to grave robbing for ‘scientific’ reasons or for (curiosity) display – reversing Voltaire’s quote seems more appropriate. The dead are owed respect; the living the truth. With the truth the dead are not just honored, but culture and heritage pass on through memory, created and sustained. But whose truth? Whose historical facts? And what of cultural heritage? One overarching question that touches on both the return of claimed cultural objects found in museums and cultural heritage is who owns cultural objects or to whom they belong? This short series will attempt to address this and other relevant questions. It will do so by reviewing two recently published books. First, my take on the return of claimed cultural objects.

In displaying cultural objects, museums, especially the self-proclaimed “encyclopedic” ones such as the British Museum and the Louvre, often describe the provenance of a particular piece or set of pieces. The narrative (generally repeated by official tour guides) of the object’s biography and how it came into the Museum’s (lawfully assured) possession is not always entirely accurate. Curators are not beyond spinning polished yarns when pesky facts reveal troubling acts and events best swept under the rug.

Historical narratives of how the objects were removed are often sanitized. Offensive facts besmirching official conduct (state sanctioned pillaging as war booty or connivance or outright taking in keeping with colonial or imperial prerogatives) are jingoistically packaged to lend legitimacy and righteousness. Skirting around historical facts or refashioning them with alternative facts, museums (and collectors) endeavor to preserve institutional (ownership) integrity.

Where notorious facts cannot be overlooked, spin is applied like a soothing balm. Narratives of the Kipling The White Man’s Burden variety are invented (why let the facts get in the way of a self-indulging yarn) to justify and legitimize illicit acts:

But for the removal of the object(s) and entrusted into the safe hands of the museum, the objects – now of universal importance for all humanity to enjoy and access – would have been lost or worst yet, destroyed by the uncivilized and uncultured and unappreciative savages.

How magnanimous of these self-anointed guardians and civilizers of the uncivilized, notwithstanding the artistic and cultural and humanistic fruits these uncivilized produced and protected and preserved quite nicely (thank you very much) before the civilized showed up.

The other excuse – them’s were the rules back then – is another favorite. Surely, by today’s standards and law, the behavior of colonizing states and their agents in removing cultural objects – use of violence, threats of violence, trickery – would not sit well. The common refrain is that those events were a long time ago, let bygones be bygones, c’est la vie.

Epitomizing Thucydides’ famous realpolitik quote in The History of the Peloponnesian War, where the Athenian emissaries to the leaders of the Island of Melos said, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” states and state-funded/affiliated museums and agents and proxies unabashedly argue that even if objects were obtained under circumstances which today would amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity or domestic crimes (often sanctioned by the state), legal title of ownership legally is with the wrongdoer possessor. As the adage possession is nine tenths of law goes, so does their claim of ownership. Possession, however, does not nor should not trump ownership based on rights, equity, custom, and law.

When it comes to the return of Parthenon Marbles, my position is unequivocal and uncompromising: even by the laws applicable at the time when the Marbles were barbarously ripped off the Parthenon, taken out of Greece, sold by Lord Elgin, and purchased by the British Government, Greece is the rightful owner and must be returned. (see here and here). Likewise, my sentiments on ill-gained cultural objects displayed in museums or in the hands of private collectors or claimed to be state owned are the same: cultural property must be returned to the rightful owner when requested.

It is repulsive that colonial and imperial powers indulged in unacceptable, often violent, and obviously inhumane practices in depriving the “inferior” colonized of their heritage. The essence of who we are as individual within a community or a polity with shared customs and traditions is reflected in “our” people’s tales, religious artifacts, art, literature, and history. These make us who we are. They give us a sense of being and of belonging. Linking the past with the present, they anchor and preserve our beliefs, our identification with and belonging to our ancestors. They facilitate passing on our culture, our heritage, our humanity, our history on to future generations.

Personally, I have no sympathy for museums being asked to return cultural objects that were wrongly taken from their rightful place and owners. I am deeply unmoved by the sort of arguments relied on to justify and legalize repugnant acts by colonial and imperial powers, their agents, their enablers in depriving peoples and communities and states of their rightful heritage. That it would be midnight for the “encyclopedic” museums were they to return cultural objects requested by states or communities or individuals (think of human remains taken for scientific purposes or as curiosity items for display), is a canard. But even if so, so what.

Colonial and imperial descendants are not responsible for the sins of their colonial and imperial ancestors. I ascribe no blame to today’s British for the British of yesterday who knowingly purchased stolen antiquities, knowingly turned a blind eye and a deaf ear towards Lord Elgin’s shenanigans, illegal bribing, false claims, mendacity, and willfully whitewashed (laundered) Elgin’s and their illegality by an act of parliament. Today’s British are not to blame for the ills and suffering and misery and rapaciousness and exploitation and takings of, by and for the British Empire. Bit nor should title pass on to them as a rightful and lawful inheritance.

History is a brutal judge. Best to confront the past, acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly, admit to the sins of forefathers, respect the sufferings and unfairness and victimization of those on the receiving end of the empire’s whims and whips, and embrace the truth. Anything less is insufficient. Moreover, states and museums become complicit to whatever brutal, violent, illegal, nefarious, coercive, contrived, dishonest, and fraudulent means employed by and justified for the removal of cultural property when they double-down with half-truths and creative lies, masquerading them as the basis for their “righteous” possession of illicitly removed cultural property.

Confronting the past serves more than just setting the record straight on the provenance of cultural property displayed in museums or in private collections. It allows space necessary for the search of a more reliable if not authoritative truth. Facilitating a corrected narrative enables descendants are better placed to more fully appreciate their history, while a return of wrongfully removed cultural property to their places of origin allows them (more) access to their cultural heritage.

Untangling the spurious past of cultural property displayed in museums can be a challenge. Finding a legal solution for their return is even more challenging. Black letter law is sparce. By today’s standards, customs, and law, much of what was taken would be considered unlawful. Applying today’s norms for acts committed decades and centuries ago have moral and equitable merit but are they available and binding to right past wrongs? Alternatively, should states, museums, and collectors hold on to what they possess under the specious cloak of legality in which the cultural property was obtained? Should restorative justice play a role? What about human rights – is it not a violation to appropriate and deprive a group, a community, a polity of its heritage? Where should the line be drawn in going back? Answering these and other pertinent questions, and maybe raising even more questions, will be discussed in Part 2, where I review CONFRONTING COLONIAL OBJECTS: Histories, Legalities, and Access to Culture by Professor Carsten Stahn.

Part 3 will deal with a different aspect regarding cultural property, mainly, the protection of cultural heritage. Here the discussion focuses not on the return of taken cultural objects, but on the protection and prevention of destruction of cultural heritage both from external threats in times of war and also internal threats in time of peace. Does a state have a legal obligation under international law (or otherwise) not to destroy cultural heritage located in its territory? Put differently, while there is a corpus of international law preventing the destruction of cultural heritage (save for military necessity) in times of war, is there a corresponding obligation in times of peace? Answering this and other associated questions, I will review Heritage Destruction, Human Rights and International Law, edited by Professors Amy Strecker and Joseph Powderly.

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About Author


Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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