What do we talk about when we talk about cultural restitution? In popular discourse in Britain, returning artefacts to their communities of origin is almost invariably framed as a loss. Minds leap to a vision of our museums violently pillaged: walls bare, sculpture courts deserted, store rooms despoiled – a fascinating reversal of how at least some (albeit, to be fair, a tiny minority) of museum objects in the UK were actually acquired.
There is a constant fear, in this kind of thinking, that the restitution of one object necessarily leads to the restitution of all objects, that après moi, le déluge. Returning the Parthenon sculptures to Athens – to use a not-so random example – “would open the gateway to the question of the entire contents of our museums”, as Michelle Donelan, the culture secretary, put it in a BBC interview earlier this month. It would be, she said, “a very slippery slope to go down”. She described the sculptures as “assets of our country”. Losing the Elgin marbles, according to this kind of formulation, would lead to a kind of asset-stripping of the British soul.
I don’t think she’s right. Restitution claims hover over a tiny minority of objects in British collections: the British Museum, for instance, has around 8m objects in its collection, of which around 80,000 are on display in Bloomsbury at any given time. The Parthenon sculptures are exceptional in all kinds of ways – not least because of the manner in which meaning and myths have attached themselves to the carvings over the centuries so thickly, so ineradicably, that the objects seem to be like Glaucus, the fisherman-turned-sea god in Plato’s Republic, who’s hardly recognisable because of the barnacles and seaweed that have clung to him over the years. (The idea that a British politician might view them as an “asset of our country” would seem utterly bizarre to the Athenians who built the temple – but so would the notion, developed in the 19th century, that they contain the very essence of Greek nationhood.)
There is no other artefact in a UK museum that operates in quite the same way as the Parthenon assemblage in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum; nothing else that arouses so many passions and disagreements; nothing that is capable, even, of occasionally souring relations between two otherwise friendly nations.
Leaving aside the “thin end of the wedge” argument for a moment, consider this: what if that act of restitution was regarded not as a loss, but as a gain?
The objection to this point of view may seem immediate and obvious: objects are objects; they occupy physical space; you either have them or you don’t. But practical evidence suggests something rather different. Take, for instance, Manchester Museum – a university organisation unbound by the kind of legal constraints that prevent the British Museum from deaccessioning objects. This museum, housed in a magnificent Victorian building by Alfred Waterhouse, is home to a remarkable collection ranging from ancient Egyptian and Sudanese artefacts through to, in its vivarium, a small breeding population of the variable harlequin toad, a creature critically endangered in its home territory of Panama.
Next month the museum reopens after a £15m renovation. And not just a physical renovation, but an ethical one, too. Its director, Esme Ward, told me that she has been determined to broaden the definition of the idea of “care” that sits at the heart of the idea of curatorship. She believes that curatorship should go beyond the basic obligation of a museum to preserve artefacts; it should also care for its community.
The revamped Manchester Museum will do this in new ways, some of them very simple – the fact that there will be proper space for people with severe disabilities, the fact that the picnic area for visitors who can’t afford to eat in the cafe is a lovely and welcoming room, the fact that the museum is already used as a specialist college for young, neurodiverse adults. (To those who say this sort of thing is pure modern wokery and not a job for this kind of institution, Ward points back to a distinguished history of socially responsible museums including the Manchester Art Museum. Organised on Ruskinian principles in industrial Ancoats in the late 19th century, it offered a “poor man’s lawyer” and clubs for children and disabled people, alongside its collection of beautiful artworks.)
In this definition, or expansion, of the idea of curatorship, it only makes sense that a museum should regard itself as having ethical responsibility towards, say, indigenous communities from whom some of its collections are drawn, she argues. And so, after long conversations and exchanges, in 2020, Manchester Museum returned 43 sacred objects to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
When Ward speaks about this, she speaks only of the gain to the institution. Above all it is a gain in knowledge; the kind of haptic, experiential knowledge of place and use that can be absent from dry descriptions of artefacts in museum catalogues. The gain is also by way of a relationship with the Australian institution – one that may result in long-term cooperation, including possible loans to Manchester. And even considered in bald binary terms, her museum has “lost” only 43 collection items out of around 4,000 relating to Aboriginal communities.
None of this is ever straightforward. In her BBC interview, Donelan touched on the complexities of return, and she is certainly right about that. The question of to whom objects should be returned when the communities who made them are gone or transformed, or when there may be competing claims in the country of origin, is not simple. (A mischief maker, for example, might cheekily suggest that the Parthenon sculptures should be “returned” to Istanbul, since Athens was under Ottoman rule when Elgin removed them.) All that is before you even get on to the intricacies of establishing how objects were originally acquired, especially when “legally” or “within the law at the time” may be doing a lot of work to smooth over conditions that may well have been unjust or coercive. Each object is different; each object requires its own attention and demands its own research.
As far as the Parthenon sculptures go, it’s possible that recent speculation – and for some, wild hope – may have led to exaggerating how close Britain and Greece are to agreeing a settlement. The latest British Museum position – and as usual, there’s a touch of the delphic oracle about it, in its opacity if not its poeticism – states that “we operate within the law and we’re not going to dismantle the museum’s collection as it tells the story of our common humanity. We are however looking at longterm partnerships, which would enable some of our greatest objects to be shared with audiences around the world. Discussions with Greece about a Parthenon Partnership are ongoing and constructive.”
Make of that what you will. For my part, I do think things are shifting, but perhaps not in a direction of simply “restitute” or “keep”. Maybe the route out is not binary – perhaps to see the surviving portions of the Parthenon frieze and pediments reassembled, it will need Greece and Britain both to lend their sculptures to a third country. I don’t know; but what I do know is that to break the impasse, the usual ways of thinking, and the usual ways of framing ideas about cultural restitution, are going to have to change.
Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief culture writer