Former New York Times culture correspondent Waxman (Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System, 2005) adroitly and expertly explores a centuries-old struggle.
The British Museum in London contains some of the finest examples of classical Greek sculpture ever seen. Known as the Elgin marbles, they consist of friezes, statuary and architectural elements removed from the Parthenon in 1801 by a British nobleman. These spectacular marbles, the author notes, are among the most hotly contested items in a battle over repatriation of looted artifacts that rages all over the world. From the conflict between Cairo and Berlin over a exquisite bust of Nefertiti to Turkey’s successful reclamation of the “Lydian Horde” illegally excavated and sold to the Met, Waxman covers multiple dramatic stories of feuds over riches from the world’s ancient civilizations. Often cast as a struggle between former colonizers and colonies, with repatriation seen as a form of amends for generations of domination, the debate has more complexity in this presentation. The author presents multiples points of view. The almost invariably impoverished countries of origin, their representatives argue, had no choice but to allow excavations authorized by their colonial rulers. On the other hand, contend contemporary museum curators who fervently believe in the ideal of a “universal” museum bringing together many cultures, the nations demanding the return of these artifacts often do not have the resources to preserve them. Who has the right to the world’s treasures? The case of the Elgin marbles illustrates how difficult such questions are to answer. Much of the Parthenon was destroyed during the marbles’ removal, but the temple was being used at the time by the occupying Turks as a storage facility for gun powder, with more than one resulting explosion. Athenian pollution subsequently corroded much of what remained on site, but the British Museum’s attempts to clean the marbles has also had disastrous effects. In Waxman’s hands, the question of justice remains intriguingly slippery, and the argument over who owns history takes on new depth.
Erudite and wholly satisfying.