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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Imperialism, Art, and Restitution by John Henry Merryman

MerrymanartI read a thought-provoking set of essays last night: Imperialism, Art, and Restitution, edited by Professor John Henry Merryman of Stanford Law School, which has just appeared from Cambridge University Press.

The collection, which are papers first delivered in 2004 at a conference the Whitney R. Harris Institute for Global Legal Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, address the question what should be done about repatriation of art.  The essays focus on the Elgin Marbles (we’ve talked a little about this already at propertyprof), as well as the Nefertiti bust repatriated from Germany to Egypt, and the Native American Graves Repatriation Act.  Perhaps my favorite set were the pro and con on repatriation of Nefertiti–-always interesting to see a clash of ideas (Kurt Siehr vs. Stephen Urice).

I want to focus on two of Merryman’s essays.  His introduction provides a good roadmap of issues in this area, where moral claims seem to be more powerful and important than legal ones.  He provides a map of how cultural property is lost–-through aggression, opportunism, partage (dividing treasures between the people who unearth them and the nation where they’re found), and accretion; as well as principles to consider–-nationalism, legality, morality (lots to talk about here), and cultural property internationalism (I’d think this overlaps substantially with morality).

What interests me most are the arguments employed around the morality of repatriation.  As I remarked in regard to John Boardman’s Wall Street Journal op-ed,  What Were the Elgin Marbles, a few months ago, the arguments against return seem largely based on ideas of need and utility.  There’s a lot of talk in this volume (especially from James Cuno) about the “universal museum”–-the idea that museums are entrusted with preserving knowledge of many cultures and disseminating that knowledge to many people.  (Reminds me of one of my favorite books,Anke te Heesen'sThe World in a Box.  Check it out!--another brilliant book from the University of Chicago Press.  And I do mean brilliant.  We could use an essay along these lines for the Encyclopedia Americanae.  But now I'm getting rather far afield.)

Merryman argues in his chapter on the Elgin Marbles that their presence in the British Museum serves a more important educative function than if they were returned to Greece.  He also argues that they are part of the world’s cultural patrimony and thus should be in a place where people can explore them in the context of art from other places.  Here are a couple of paragraphs that give you the flavor of Professor Merryman’s argument:

Museums are educational institutions whose exhibitions of art from other times and places help us understand, appreciate and respect our own and other peoples’ cultures.  The exhibited collections of the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and Louvre and other great museums temper, if they cannot totally eliminate, cultural parochialism.   In the case of the Marbles, their installation in the British Museum has had and continues to have, as Elign hoped, a strong education impact, quickly commanding respect not only for Greek art but for the civilization that produced it.  Today Greek achievements in art, dama, literature, philosopher, and science permeate Western culture.  If all of Classical Greek art had remained in Greece, our world today would be a significantly different one.

    . . .

The late art critic John Canaday argued that American art should be “spread around,” not kept at home.  The idea of “missionary art” that makes a culture vivid and comprehensible abroad is, as we have already seen, an appealing one that promotes international understanding and mutual cultural respect.  If all the works of the great artists of Classical Athens were returned and kept there, the rest of the world would be culturally impoverished.

So Merryman, with Boardman, focuses on the contributions of the relocation of the Elgin Marbles to the growth of interest in Greece and to the growth of western civilization more generally.  Not sure I’m entirely convinced of their centrality–I’m not a fan of single-causation theories, but this is an issue on which I am sure there’s a lot to talk about. And I obviously have much to learn.

I am partial to arguments about spreading the wealth around.  So I’m intrigued that the argument around the morality of repatriation so readily moves into talking about spreading the art wealth and focusing on the benefits to humanity.  I’m also interested in how much repatriation arguments correlate with recent arguments about reparations, which focus on current need and considerations of utility (like where can we spend money that will be most beneficial in repairing past harms). 

What continues to surprise me is how flexible these arguments are and how the argument becomes: more people benefit from having the art in Great Britain than in Greece (or in Egypt).  Very interesting how these arguments can be used to justify keeping art in the more affluent place.  Much to think about in Imperialism, Art and Restitution, including voices of people who want cultural property returned (like Talat Halman).

I highly recommend this volume.  It will make you think, which is the compliment I give to books I really enjoy.

Alfred L. Brophy
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