February 03, 2004

Money, Archaeology, and National Pride

With the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens approaching quickly, Greek nationalists have been eager to push for the return of the Elgin Marbles. The issue is extraordinarily complicated, however. Support for the return of the Marbles appears to be growing in Britain, but museums the world over have championed the universalistic argument that to return all antiquities to their original home countries would be a disservice to the world; the debate on the Elgin Marbles has touched on the questions of whether Greece has the facilities to care for the sculptures properly and of whether the restoration of the Marbles to the Parthenon would be the most appropriate way to display them.

Nearly everyone in the debate acknowledges that disputes over antiquities need to be considered individually, but a newly prominent case out of China casts these issues in a fascinating light. What difference does it make if a country is willing to pay for the return of its artistic treasures?

As The Globe and Mail reports, wealthy Chinese businessmen are banding together to regain a group of bronze sculptures of zodiac animals from Beijing's Summer Palace, which were looted by the British and French during the Opium Wars. An excerpt from the article:

China Poly Group, a conglomerate with links to the Chinese military and business interests in property development and telecommunications, purchased three of the bronze statues for $5-million from foreign collectors at an auction in 2000. Another prominent Chinese businessman, the casino tycoon Stanley Ho, paid more than $1-million to buy a fourth bronze statue from a New York collector last September. He promptly donated it to the Poly Group, which has displayed the four bronzes at its private museum in Beijing and at temporary exhibits across the country.

When the four bronzes were displayed in Macau last month, Ho said the display was an "exhilarating" boost to Chinese national pride.

At the ruined summer palace, Yang maintains that China shouldn't have to pay anything for the recovery of the looted treasures. He believes they should be legally returned to China without cost, since they belong to his country. But despite his qualms at the price, he is pleased that foreign collectors are now recognizing China's ability to protect and preserve its own treasures. In the past -- partly because of the chaos in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s -- many foreign collectors argued that China could not safely protect its own heritage.

"Those relics are part of Chinese history and culture, and they should be studied by Chinese specialists, not by foreigners," Yang said. "I've read some of the things that foreigners wrote about our relics, and we can do a better job. We are their home, so we should display them. Everyone can see now that we have the ability to preserve them."

This whole controversy is fascinating. What place should money have in archaeology? (A recent Reason article suggests that archaeologists have a lot to gain from the power of the market; it also calls into question the distinction between past "looters" and "excavators.") How is our perception of the Elgin Marbles campaign affected by our perception of Greece as the victim--and how is our perception of the Summer Palace situation affected by Chinese efforts to seize the initiative? What's the relationship between scholarly study and nationalism? (One Chinese scholar likens the Opium Wars to America's 2003 war with Iraq.) How much should we care about how the return of an artistic treasure will affect national pride?

I'm not going to take a position on whether the zodiac sculptures and the Elgin Marbles should be returned. I do believe, however, that decisions on the return of artistic treasures and antiquities need to be based in large part on the question of what's best for the study and preservation of the works in question. With that in mind, certain parts of the Chinese argument worry me. The final paragraph in the block quote above suggests that some Chinese scholars would be happy if the government limited Western scholars' access to the zodiac sculptures. The return of antiquities should always be part of an effort to make artistic treasures more accessible to the world, I believe--and any plan that fails in that goal is automatically suspect.

Posted by Ed at February 3, 2004 12:59 PM
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