Give Back the Elgin Marbles and the Rest of the Loot

06/16/2010 12:29 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recently, the New York Times printed an article criticizing the demand for repatriation of art treasures plundered from their various countries and exhibited in major museums throughout the West. The Elgin Marbles. The Bust of Nefertiti. The Rosetta Stone. These are the shining examples of a trade in artifacts that has stocked the store-rooms of museums since the era of exploration. Now they are a marquee item in the theatre of nationalism.

The gist of the article is that there is no point in returning things lost. The deeds were long done. The demand for repatriation can only be understood as nationalist theatre produced purely for political spectacle. No true American, except maybe an Indian, would hold the position that art treasures, once taken, should be given back.

I wonder, though, why the New York Times believes that the Indian perspective is one that, with little explanation, should be so easy to discard. Is it because Indians don't really have opinions worth considering seriously? Or is it because so many things have been taken from these people that to give them back even a token would be to give back too much?

Or is it because we all know that Indians have no real sense of value for anything that had once been in their possession? Including the bones of their ancestors, which only achieved true significance once they were housed in a museum? This is what happened to the remains of many Indians and this is essentially the argument for not returning the Elgin Marbles: those Greeks, like those Indians, didn't know they had anything of value until we took it from them and made it something they could learn to value.

A special favor was done in the theft; it gave them knowledge--an itch to scratch, a sore they never knew was there. Until then, they were clueless.

Critics of repatriation take great stock in the fact that the plundered treasures in the museums of the world now truly belong to all mankind; the argument goes that they reveal our common humanity. Therefore, to return these treasures would not represent an act of restitution; it would be to steal our humanity away from us, negating our access to mighty symbols that function to constitute it within a collective unconscious. Of course, this assumes that these symbols will no longer be accessible once they return to other museums. This is also assumes that, even were they no longer accessible, they wouldn't continue to do the same symbolic work that they have always done through the advent of reproductive technology.

Isn't this the way most people experience them as symbols of a collective consciousnesses: not in person but on the internet?

This also overemphasizes a few pieces fetishistically displayed as crowd-pleasers that have trained our eyes away from what is really at stake. This is both a fault in the tactics of those for and against repatriation.

The redress movement seeks to repatriate marquee items because they index the whole junket of warehoused artifacts that few have ever seen and which will never become known. These unnamed items collect dust in holding the bones of Indian people.

If the point of the stored objects is to recognize our common humanity, shouldn't the next question be: what kind of humans are we? And also, what kind of humans do we aspire to be?