There is some irony to be found in the fact that the British Museum has sent one of the Parthenon Marbles for display to Russia, given that relations between the government in Moscow and Nato countries are at a historic low, while Greece is left discomfited.

The British Museum’s director said on Friday that such loans must continue between museums regardless of political disagreements at the level of governments, and it is hard to disagree.

Nevertheless, the sculptures being in the news again provides reason to reflect on how much cultural treasure from across the globe was removed from the land that gave birth to it — hijacked, bought for peanuts or shanghaied away during periods of direct colonisation or indirect influence.

In many countries that have lost parts of their history in this way, there are now a growing number of voices demanding that such ‘stolen’ artefacts be returned to their original homes, including Greece.

With reference to the Elgin Marbles, as they are also known — a nod to the British peer who saw to their removal from Greece just over two centuries ago — the Greek prime minister said in an emailed statement that the British Museum’s decision “taunts the Greek people. The Parthenon and its sculptures were vandalised”.

Those opposing the return of cultural artefacts to their original homes often say that these countries — many still struggling along the path to development — do not have the resources to properly look after them.

Indeed, many developing countries, including Pakistan, tend to be characterised by lack of desire to prioritise the protection of sites and artefacts of culture and heritage.

Whether it is the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan or the use of Pakistan’s Makli necropolis as a camping site for people displaced by the floods in Sindh, the attitude is one of neglect — even when, as in Pakistan, protective laws and government agencies are in place.

Old, it would seem, is still not gold in many countries.

Published in Dawn December 7th , 2014

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