The West must repa­tri­ate the looted trea­sures of an­tiq­uity

▶ Iraq’s bat­tle to re­turn an­cient art­work raises un­com­fort­able ques­tions for global mu­se­ums

The National - News - - OPINION -

He is one of the great fig­ures of Iraqi his­tory. Now, 3,000 years after his death, the Assyr­ian war­rior-king Ashur­nasir­pal II, founder of the an­cient city of Nim­rud, is the fig­ure­head of a bat­tle to re­claim that na­tion’s her­itage. The Iraqi govern­ment has de­manded the re­turn of a re­lief com­mis­sioned by the king in the 9th cen­tury BC. Un­earthed by the Bri­tish in the 1840s, the pri­vately owned winged de­ity was of­fered for sale yes­ter­day in New York, where it was ex­pected to fetch $10 mil­lion at auc­tion. The con­tro­versy high­lights a re­al­ity that the great mu­se­ums of the West, bulging with arte­facts taken dur­ing the days of em­pire, can no longer ig­nore. The time has surely come to re­turn the an­cient world’s looted trea­sures.

Reliefs from Nim­rud can be found in more than 60 in­sti­tu­tions around the world. The Bri­tish Mu­seum alone holds thou­sands of ob­jects taken from Iraq by Sir Austen Henry La­yard, who sold the Ashur­nasir­pal re­lief to an Amer­i­can mis­sion­ary in 1859. Auc­tion house Chris­tie’s and the mu­seum, which is about to open a ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion about Ashur­ba­n­i­pal, an­other Assyr­ian king, in­sist La­yard had the per­mis­sion of the Ot­toman au­thor­i­ties, but this is a red her­ring. The mu­seum uses the same jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for re­tain­ing Greece’s El­gin Mar­bles, but in both cases the Ot­tomans were an oc­cu­py­ing power.

There are signs the tide may be turn­ing. The V&A mu­seum in Lon­don plans to re­turn items taken from Ethiopia 150 years ago. A Ger­man mu­seum has al­ready re­turned arte­facts ex­ca­vated from Alaskan tribal graves in the 19th cen­tury. The bur­den of repa­tri­a­tion, doubt­less a mam­moth task, should fall on those who have ben­e­fited from them for so long. Some na­tions of ori­gin might feel they lack the nec­es­sary ex­per­tise and should be of­fered sup­port. In re­turn, they might be per­suaded to loan back arte­facts, to be dis­played al­ter­nately at home and abroad. The Bri­tish Mu­seum has done much to help Iraq to re­cover from the de­struc­tion wrought by ISIS by train­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of Iraqi ar­chae­ol­o­gists. Now it should go fur­ther and lead the world’s other great in­sti­tu­tions in restor­ing the lost her­itage of the an­cient world to the lands where it right­fully be­longs.

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