‘Why I believe Britain should return its loot'’
An art critic who has written frequently for The Guardian and appeared in the BBC television series Private Life of a Masterpiece. In 2009 he was a judge for the Turner Prize. He has also been a judge for the BP Portrait Award.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has vowed to return the famed Elgin Marbles to Greece if he becomes prime minister. Critic Jonathan Jones thinks museums should give up even more stolen booty.
Britain’s museums need to face up to a reality. Cultural imperialism is dead. They cannot coldly keep hold of artistic treasures that were acquired in dubious circumstances a long time ago.
Amal Clooney may or may not be the best ambassador for the Greek government in its long campaign to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. The celebrity support this cause has attracted ever since Lord Byron made it part of his romantic image in the early 19th century keeps it in the limelight, but also allows the British Museum, where the best sculptures from the 5th century BC Parthenon continue to be kept, to portray its critics as self-publicists.
Yet this is not the only case of a cultural treasure whose true ownership is disputed. The Benin sculptures in the British Museum, taken from the splendid West African city by a British “punitive raid” in 1897, are never going to rest easy in Bloomsbury. Meanwhile the international mood is shifting towards a consensus that many wonders of the world are wrongfully hogged by Western museums.
“Britain comes across as uniquely determined to hold on to its booty — a vast haul of world art.”
In France, whose museums are just as treasure-laden as ours, the inviolability of the “national patrimony” is finally being questioned. We need to follow them down that modern road.
Britain has a particularly bad image when it comes to this, for two reasons: Lord Elgin, whose stripping of the Acropolis has been a stain on our international reputation since the early 19th century, and the fact that we were, before 1914, the most powerful of all imperial powers. Instead of seeking to live down these blemishes, we are hugely self-righteous about our possession of a vast haul of world art. We come across as uniquely determined to hold on to our booty.
I realised this recently on the Greek island of Aegina. It has a superb classical temple whose sculptures were removed and taken to Bavaria at about the same time Britain took the sculptures of the Parthenon. Today they are in Munich, but there is no global outcry for their return. Why not? Well, if you visit the temple you can’t help noticing the prominent German involvement in archaeology and conservation work there. German scholarship has kept up a constant, reciprocal relationship with Aegina. There is no equivalent British involvement in the preservation of the Parthenon.
Why not? Instead of seeing Athens as its enemy, the British Museum should have got involved years ago in maintaining and researching the Parthenon. It should have collaborated on the new Acropolis Museum. The whole issue could have been diffused by a more generous cooperative attitude.
The Acropolis Museum, a wonderful gallery, reveals why cultural colonialism is doomed. The whole world flocks to the British Museum and the Louvre, and will continue to do so. But world-class museums are not confined to Northern Europe or North America. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has been criticised for the conditions inflicted on its workforce. But in the long term, it points to a world where great art collections will be widely and evenly spread. The excuses for keeping stolen or seized art treasures in former imperial capitals are becoming ever more feeble.
In the end, the defence for hanging on to contested cultural goods boils down to the deeply offensive notion that Britain looks after the Parthenon Marbles or Benin heads better than Greece or Nigeria ever could. How long can our museums keep up this arrogance? Not long.
The British Empire is dead. So is the age of cultural booty.
By arrangement with The Guardian.
- Should the current British government bear responsibility for the actions of the British Empire?
- Pick an artwork or artefact that was looted by Britain. In a two-minute speech to the class, explain its history, and what you like about it.
- Amal Clooney
- Human rights lawyer (and wife of actor George Clooney). In early 2015, she co-wrote a dossier urging the Greek government to seek legal action against the British Museum over the return of the Parthenon Marbles. The government opted not to.
- Parthenon Marbles
- A collection of marble sculptures which used to form part of the Parthenon temple in Athens. In 1801, the Earl of Elgin, a British diplomat, removed them and sent them to Britain, claiming that the authorities had allowed him to do so. Greece now disputes that claim, and has long sought to recover the sculptures from the British Museum, where they are displayed.
- Punitive raid
- Outraged that the ruler of Benin was asking its traders to pay custom duties, Britain sent a party of officers to speak with him. The officers were killed. On this pretext, Britain annexed and plundered Benin.
- District in central London, and home to the British Museum.
- National patrimony
- The total wealth of a country, including its cultural assets. The debate here is over whether looted art is part of the looter’s national patrimony.