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“Courageous and well argued.” Henrik Bering reviews Keeping Their Marbles

Pity the plight of today’s museum director: What used to be a quiet kingdom with creaky floorboards and sleepy custodians has become a raging battlefield where scarcely a day passes without a demand for the return of some of his treasures.

The Greeks have forever been clamoring for the Elgin Marbles, which have resided in the British Museum for two centuries. The Turks have their own list, including an ancient marble carving of a child’s head in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Egyptians want the Nefertiti bust from Berlin, and from Boston, the Nigerians want the Benin bronzes, sacrificial idols still “caked over with human blood” when taken by a British punitive expedition against the king of Benin in 1897.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are conducting a quiet investigation of what is where in Western museums from the 1860 sack of the emperor’s Summer Palace. So far no demands have been made, but just you wait.

In Keeping Their Marbles, a tough-minded examination of how the traditional role of the museum has come under attack, British sociologist and journalist Tiffany Jenkins sees the profusion of demands as the predictable result of the compulsive urge among Western politicians and intellectuals to apologize for the deeds of the past. keeping-their-marbles

We live in an age of “contrition chic,” where returning artifacts is considered a necessary part of atonement. Advocating the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens, the actor Stephen Fry quipped: “It’s time we lost our marbles.”

The repatriation campaigns have scored some notable successes. A few examples from Ms. Jenkins long list: The Metropolitan Museum in New York has returned relics from Tutankhamen’s grave to Egypt; Berlin has returned a Hittite sphinx to Turkey; and Yale has coughed up Peruvian artifacts discovered by Hiram Bingham, a model for Indiana Jones.

Unlike some repatriation skeptics, Ms. Jenkins does not underplay how many objects were acquired. Thus when the British and the French sacked the Summer Palace in Peking during the Second Opium War as retaliation for the torture and execution of British troops, Maj. Gen. Charles George Gordon was unhappy about the sheer destruction wrought, lamenting that “we could not plunder them carefully.”

Among the spoils, the troops brought back the Empress’s Pekingese dog, now responding to the name of Looty, which they presented to Queen Victoria—a nice portrait of him by Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl is in the royal collection. And, notes Ms. Jenkins, when things started to show up in British museums a decade later, curators chose to display them as loot rather than art in order to underscore the military might of Britain.

Two figures are commonly cast as the villains in the battle over “stolen” treasures: Lord Elgin and Napoleon. Elgin was the British envoy to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803 who watched in dismay as the Acropolis served as a garrison for the occupying Turks and the Parthenon as a quarry. “The Turks have been continually defacing the heads and in some instances . . . they have pounded down the statues to convert them into mortar,” he later stated.

Engaging in what he saw as a rescue mission, Elgin obtained permission to remove the statues from the Ottoman government, who “attached no importance to them.” Though his agents were less than gentle in removing the statues, says Ms. Jenkins, worse might have happened had Elgin not intervened, and legally the Greeks have no case. 

Napoleon, for his part, certainly did not hold back in cramming French museums with art from conquered nations, all for the greater glory of himself and France. After the French defeat in 1815, to teach the French “a great moral lesson,” the Duke of Wellington saw to it that many items were returned.

But even with Napoleon there had been contracts: He had signed treaties with the defeated nations, which made his takings legal seizure, says Ms. Jenkins, “part of the common law of warfare.” This was how things were done at that time.

Efforts to protect cultural property from seizure were made with the Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907, which did not seem to register with Hitler or Stalin in World War II. The Hague agreement of 1954 spoke of “the common heritage of mankind,” a collective good requiring protection, while the 1970 Unesco Convention, in an effort to curb the market in antiquities, spoke more in terms of the property of nation-states. 

But what concerns Ms. Jenkins is not so much the legal arguments but something deeper: From the early days of private curio cabinets and onward, the underlying idea of a museum was a desire to understand the world, an ambition to tell a common story. Thus the Enlightenment espoused the notion of a common civilization of mankind— Voltaire saw man as being “always what he is now.” It is this idea of universalism, the museum as a place of shared experience, that has come under attack. 

The Romantics were the first to rebel against the rule of reason, but as Ms. Jenkins notes, the real challenge to Enlightenment thinking came after World War II, with the theorists of the Frankfurt School, who saw rationalism leading straight to Auschwitz. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the great left-wing certainties, these trends accelerated.

Postmodernists, she says, doubt the very notion of knowledge and, much like the Romantics, focus on differences and schisms. Western rationality is viewed just “as one of many potential social constructs,” and an oppressive one to boot. 

The traditional museum concept of universalism, the British cultural-policy adviser Munira Mirza points out, is now associated with “imperialistic values” and the theft of other peoples’ identity, for which there is said to be only one remedy: to hand back our ill-gotten gains.

And just as countries claim ownership of cultural artifacts as part of their national heritage, so do indigenous people within countries. This accounts for the rise of highly politicized identity museums such as the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, with its mission “to improve the lives of Native peoples today” and with the tribes reserving for themselves the right to act as the sole presenters and judges of their history.

The result has been less than satisfactory. As a 2010 article in the New York Times put it: “Through a gauze of romance, that museum portrays an impossibly peace loving, harmonious, homogenous, pastoral world that preceded the invasion of white people—a vision with far less detail and insight than the old natural history museums once provided.” 

Not only does the museum engage in painting fairy-tale images, it is also handles ceremonial and sacred objects in a highly restrictive way. Some can only be viewed and handled by men, others only by tribal elders, restrictions that, the anthropologist Ruth Phillips has written, “erode the ideal of universal access to knowledge.”

This does not mean that there shouldn’t be specialized museums, says Ms. Jenkins, particularly since race plays a central role in U.S. history. What she deplores is the “this is an Indian thing, you wouldn’t understand it” mind-set: Man has an ability “not merely to understand difference, but also to transcend it,” in the words of Munira Mirza. 

Thus the problem with identity museums, the author writes, is that their approach “resurrects racial ways of thinking” through the notion that “knowledge and truth resides in blood or belief,” a somewhat paradoxical claim for institutions whose stated aim is to combat racism. “Far from tearing down walls between people, these institutions erect new ones.” 

More generally, Ms. Jenkins objects to the inflated claims that museums make for themselves as the answer to all manner of social ills or as contributors to world peace. Historically, she says, attempts to use museums as a means of social control have been unsuccessful. 

As for their international peacemaking role, sending one of the Elgin Marbles to Russia on a democratizing mission, as the British did in 2014, was unlikely to give Vladimir Putin sleepless nights.

Rather than engaging in identity politics or international missions, the museum should return to its time-honored role of examining the lives and beliefs of past people. 

For an artifact, Ms. Jenkins says, the basic criterion should be where it is “best preserved, best displayed and best understood.” In the case of the Parthenon sculptures, she finds the present split between London and Athens ideal: The Acropolis Museum shows them close to their place of origin, while the British Museum, in its encyclopedic collection, places them in a wider context, among what came before and what came after. 

But for a poorly run country like Greece, what better way for the government to distract the population’s attention than to engage in cultural warfare? From this perspective, says Ms. Jenkins, it is surely better that the marbles remain in Britain, so that the Greeks can continue to pose as much-wronged victims. Ms. Jenkins has produced a courageous and well-argued book; the howls you hear in the background are those of the contrition crowd.

—Mr. Bering is a journalist and critic.

Purchase a copy of Keeping Their Marbles