All posts by mibrennanburke

Who Owns History?

Throughout this course we have argued that objects should be returned to their rightful owners through repatriation.  I aim to complicate this with the question, who owns antiquity?  When civilizations lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, who inherits their legacy and heritage?  With a global population that is widely dispersed between multi-ethnic nations, it is hard to define any kind of pure cultural heritage. Who owns the past? Gillman queried if national heritage reflects the makeup of  current inhabitants of a state or past groups that occupied that same space.  Current nation-states do not reflect the geographical makeup of the past.  How do we account for this when considering ownership of antiquity?  How does this affect repatriation?

Symbolism from antiquity can be found all over the globe.  The Roman symbol of the fasces can be found throughout United States Government buildings,  including many locations in the U.S. House of Representatives.   Does the United States have a right to use this Roman symbol?  The United States uses symbols like these from antiquity to ground its own legitimacy as a western nation.  As people of Roman descent now live all over the world, who owns Roman heritage?  If  Italy does,  antiquity is limited by geographical boundaries that may not reflect the widespread communities who claim Roman ancestry.

Office of the Clerk, House of Representatives
(Office of the Clerk, House of Representatives)  Note the Roman symbol of the fasces, a large bundle of sticks tied around an axe, in bronze on the wall of the U.S. House of Representatives
Close up of fasces in House of Represntatives
Close up of fasces in House of Representatives

With physical artifacts from antiquity, this discussion of ownership is incredibly relevant.  Changing nation-state configurations today affect ownership of antiquity that can be especially detrimental in current cases such as the destruction of cultural heritage by ISIS and the Assad regime.  The Taliban, as leaders of the state of Afghanistan used its authority to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas.   These nations have used their power to control heritage.  Yet this is no new trend in history –  throughout time nations have destroyed objects that would now be considered important to cultural heritage.  Antiquity is used as a political tool for power by nations.

Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by Taliban in Afghanistan
Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by Taliban in Afghanistan

James Cuno argues that national cultural-property laws  “ are not intended to protect the world’s ancient heritage…they are used to legitimize modern governments’ claims as heirs to an ancient past.”  Nations can determine their own laws and what they wish to do with their antiquities.   UNESCO has attempted to mediate this by the creation of World Heritage sites that are supposed to be respected as international sites of heritage.  How, as an international community, can strive to better value and respect antiquity across national boundary lines?

Recommended and Referenced:
James Cuno – “Antiquity Belongs to the World”
Peter Lindsay – “Can We Own the Past?”
Gillman. The Idea of Cultural Heritage, 2010.
UNESCO World Heritage
Information on fasces and fasces image source
Wikipedia Bamiyan Buddhas image source
Amy Gazin-Schwartz -“What the Islamic State’s Destruction of Antiquities Means to Archaeologists”

Protection in the Face of Destruction

The destruction of memory has disastrous implcations.  Though it may seem incomprehensible that groups such as ISIS in Iraq, and Assad in Syria, focus so intently on destroying museums, they use the destruction of cultural objects as a means to erase cultural memory.  When, if cultural history and memory are at stake, is it important to protect these sites and artifacts? At what cost should people fight against tyranny to protect cultural heritage?

In Dr. Richard M. Leventhal’s lecture, “Killing Culture: Heritage Destruction in the Syria and Iraq Conflicts,” he discussed the importance of cultural heritage, how it is being destroyed by groups such as ISIS and Assad, and what should be done about it.  Beginning his lecture with videos of ISIS destroying sculptures in the Mosul Museum and the ancient city of Hatra, Iraq, Dr. Leventhal emphasized the very real and imminent destruction of heritage in Iraq and Syria.  As I watched this graphic destruction, I wondered about the intent of individuals who are a part of ISIS.  Clearly, destroying objects in the Mosul Museum was a project designed to garner a reaction (as a video of the act was created by ISIS and was posted online).  The destruction was personal – individual men and women hacking away at ancient sculptures.


Photos from ISIS propaganda video depicting the destruction of sculptures in the Mosul Museum in March, 2014
Photos from ISIS propaganda video depicting the destruction of sculptures in the Mosul Museum in March, 2014

Image Source
Compiled Video Footage of ISIS in the Mosul Museum

When a state and its leaders are so determined to destroy, how can we protect heritage? When asked by curators at the Libyan National Museum how they can protect the objects in their museum from threats of destruction, Dr. Leventhal advised that they hide objects in their homes or put them in the ocean. He advocates the importance of protecting cultural heritage. Because once these world treasures are demolished, they are permanently lost, Dr. Leventhal, and a team from the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (CHC), are doing all they can to protect and safeguard objects and sites of cultural heritage.

Sandbags placed to protect mosaics at the Ma'arra Mosaic Museum against attack
Sandbags placed to protect mosaics at the Ma’arra Mosaic Museum against attack

For Image Source and Further Information

With the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq Project (SHOSHI), Dr. Leventhal and the Penn CHC are working to protect sites in Syria from attack. They work to catalogue objects, complete training workshops for a Syrian Heritage Task Force, and lead projects to protect cultural heritage sites. Beginning with a project to protect the Ma’arra Mosaic Museum with a careful layer of tyvek and sandbags (a technique used in WWI and WWII), the team at Penn and its collaborators on the ground in Syria hope to guard heritage sites against destruction. There are many brave men and women in Syria and Iraq working to preserve their culture through the conservation of these heritage sites.

For Further Reading:
Penn Cultural Heritage Center
The Penn Museum
Philly City Paper
New York Times

The Disputed Future of the Parthenon Sculptures

To whom in the world does the Parthenon belong? Naturally, believing that the Parthenon resides in Athens, one might argue that the important historical building is the property of Greece. However, after portions of the building, wall friezes, and sculptures were removed and displayed within museums in other nations, the question of ownership is complicated. Roughly half of the frieze from the Parthenon, as well as a great number of sculptures, are now owned by the British Museum in London.

I. Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)
I. Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)

Central scene of the east frieze of the Parthenon

According to the British Museum, Lord Elgin acquired the “Elgin Marbles” while he was an ambassador to the Ottoman Court. He was granted the privilege of studying and rescuing antiquities as reward for his good service. After bringing the collection to his home in Scotland, Elgin later sold them to the British government which displayed them in the British Museum starting in 1816. While in its online articles about the Parthenon sculptures, the British Museum repeatedly claims that Elgin intended to donate the pieces to the Museum, it also acknowledges that Elgin encountered financial problems that forced him to sell the works to the government. This begs the question – what was Elgin’s intention? Did he always plan to donate his collection? Or did he plan to retain the works until he experienced financial trouble that spurred him to sell?

The British Museum argues that “Lord Elgin can only be judged by the standards of his own day.” (The Parthenon Sculptures: Facts and Figures) It justifies Elgin’s actions, and the Museum’s current ownership, by arguing that others both before and after Elgin’s time took pieces of the Parthenon that are now housed in Museums across Europe. Yet does this justify the Museum’s ownership? “Just because everyone else was doing it” is not an acceptable argument for why the British, and other nations, should own part of another country’s national heritage site.

More than just national heritage, The Parthenon is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes other monuments of the Acropolis in Athens. Greece has asked, both through UNESCO and a bilateral request to the British government, to have the Parthenon sculptures returned to their home in this World Heritage site. The British Museum rejected both these requests, asserting that the pieces have become an important part of world history within the context of other works from the museum. Further claims that having the Parthenon sculptures inspired European powers to aid the creation of the Greek state are a striking justification for housing the collection in London.

B.F. Cook, The Elgin Marbles, 2nd edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1997)
B.F. Cook, The Elgin Marbles, 2nd edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1997)

Marble metope from the Parthenon

One of the most complicating factors in the “Elgin Marbles” case is the question of preservation. If Elgin had not brought the Parthenon sculptures to London, would they have been destroyed? There was great damage to the Parthenon before Elgin arrived and increasingly damaging restoration work completed on the remaining portions in the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps the Parthenon sculptures were safer in the protection of the British Museum. Yet who were they saved for? The British Museum places huge emphasis on being an educational resource for the world. However, removing these essential portions of the Parthenon to preserve individual statues and friezes, caused irreparable damage to the site and limits the view of the Parthenon for all peoples of the world who visit that site.

The future of the Parthenon sculptures is still undetermined. The British Museum Act of 1963 makes repatriation impossible without amendment. The British House of Commons completed a second reading of an Amendment to the British Museum Act of 1963 that would allow for the Museum to legally return the Parthenon to Greece. Perhaps with legislation change, the British Museum will consider the value of returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. For the time being, however, the British Museum believes that the Parthenon Marbles are an integral and historically important part of its collection.

For more information about the Parthenon sculptures at the British Museum:
The British Museum “What are the Elgin Marbles?”
The British Museum “Lord Elgin and the Parthenon Sculptures”
The British Museum “The Parthenon Sculptures: Facts and Figures”
The British Museum: “The Parthenon Sculptures: Stewardship”
BBC “Parthenon Marbles: Taking up the fight” by Trevor Timpson