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Millennium Post

A stolen history

The British Museum in London has a complicated role in the modern-day UK. On the one hand, much like the Royal Family, it connects the British to their 'glorious past'. On the other, it connects them to the shame of a colonial past that the British have not fully confronted to date. The museum is a frequent source of controversy as time and again, former British colonies and activists accuse the museum of hoarding pilfered cultural property. When the museum or British leaders are confronted with the sheer vastness of the stolen goods stored in its neat catalogued displays, the response is always stand-offish, somehow or the other claiming legitimacy over the stolen item and bluntly refusing to return it. Take the recent and still ongoing case of the Parthenon marbles. The 2,500-year-old statues that are currently displayed in the British Museum once used to rest in the fabled Parthenon temple in Athens. They were taken from the temple in the early 19th century by a British diplomat named Lord Elgin. Greece then was under Ottoman rule. When Greece finally became free in 1832, it raised a demand for the return of the Parthenon marbles, a demand that has been blatantly ignored and then refused. The British Museum maintains that Elgin acquired the statues legally under a contract with the Ottoman Empire and that they were now being displayed as "shared heritage". Now, it should be noted that the position of 'legal right' in regards to Elgin's activities in Parthenon is actually a dated argument. The argument of legal right proclaims that Elgin actually took the marbles to 'protect' them. The Ottomans did not care much for the antiquity of the Parthenon. They turned the Acropolis into a garrison and the Parthenon itself was turned into a mosque. When the Ottomans fought the Venetians in the area, the Parthenon was used to store gunpowder and actually did face tremendous devastation. In the subsequent years, there were many reports of a broken Parthenon being pilfered piece by piece as travellers made away with artifacts with the presumed purpose of 'preserving them'. This was also the case with the story of Lord Elgin. Elgin was the British Ambassador to the court of Ottoman Sultan Selim III. It was during the course of his tenure as ambassador that Elgin gained permission to sketch and survey works of art in the Acropolis. It was also in this authorisation that a particular statement permitted Elgin to take away 'pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures' for study. Elgin conveniently interpreted this to mean he could take away a significant portion of the marble statues of the Parthenon. Thus began the age-old controversy. Did Elgin have the right to remove the marbles? Was he actually given permission? A 1967 investigation by British historian William St Clair found that he did not have the right and that Elgin did indeed conveniently interpret the words of the Sultan to approve of his pilfering activities. Elgin apparently had likewise admitted that his act was probably illegal in front of the British Parliament but insisted that he did so only to protect the sculptures. To complicate matters, Elgin sold the marbles to the British Government which made it complicit in his act of pilfering. Ever since, the British Museum has refused to hand over the marbles to Greece. This is, obviously speaking, not a unique situation for the British or indeed the colonial powers. Many have resisted the modern-day calls to decolonise their museums which they continue insisting bring the world together. Obviously, there is nothing quite like having your historical artifacts stolen from your country for the 'gawking pleasure' of crowds when it comes to 'bringing the world together'. Now, it is understandable that the process of returning such artifacts will not be simple. There is plenty to be done but it can only start when these former colonial powers start confronting the fact they have pilfered the culture and history of other nations in the name of 'conservation' and curiosity. Perhaps Boris Johnson needs a history lesson if he assumed the British Museum has 'legal rights' to much of its ill-gotten gains.

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