Book of the Month: Who Owns History?

Geoffrey Robertson QC is a human rights lawyer, academic, author, and broadcaster. He has fought for governments, people, and societies all over the world for justice, and in this book, he turns his mind to the case for the return of the Elgin Marbles (the friezes of the Parthenon stolen by Lord Elgin in the 19th century).

Robertson gives a thorough and accessible overview of the history of the marbles, the excuses the British Museum has used over the years to justify keeping them, and similar repatriation cases to build the case for an international code of laws to deal with the repatriation of artefacts of significant cultural value. This is an issue facing many countries today — many Western nations whose museums house thousands of stolen artefacts and many African, Asian, and South American countries whose culture was stolen by violent imperial powers. Robertson addresses the many defenses of Western museums, including the infamous “slippery slope” defense which claims if one artefact is given back, then the British Museum would be emptied.

The argument for repatriation is an important cultural discussion on both sides and is a call that demands justice for the countries, nations, and peoples that suffered at the hands of imperial powers (not just the British). In his final chapter, Robertson outlines his ideas for the international laws that should be in place to decide the outcome of repatriation claims. His outline is nuanced, not calling for the return of everything, but understanding the complicated history of objects and relationships between nations.

I would recommend this book for anyone interested in culture, museums, repatriation, and justice. While there are parts of his argument that I don’t agree with fully, this book is a great step in the right direction for real concrete change. I hope the international community can recognize this opportunity to put laws in place, not just publish more papers on what morals museums and galleries should be governed by. Robertson claims, without legislation, Western museums will continue to hold on to artefacts that house deep cultural significance for people around the world, clinging to their imperial past and refusing to recognize the human rights violation it is to deny a people their culture and their history.

Find it at Waterstones.

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