3 Civilizations, 4 Museums and the Morality of Collecting Antiquities

Book: Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, by Sharon Waxman

Destinations: Greece, Turkey, Egypt and the British Museum in London, Metropolitan Museum in NYC, the Louvre in Paris, and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles

Part of the Parthenon Freize in British Museum
Part of the Parthenon Freize in British Museum

Welcome to my traveler’s library.

Have you ever wondered how the lovely antiquities from some long-gone civilization arrived at a major museum?Looters have dug up treasures as long as people have been burying them. But when Napoleon set out to Egypt, he took an army of scholars with him and in recording and taking treasures, they started a trend.

Nineteenth century collectors took it for granted that the more advanced countries had a right to collect “because they alone know how to appreciate them,” as the author of an 1835 book, Voyage de Luxor said. Some people still argue that point of view. Others have become bothered by the lack of provenance on many objects in museums. Both factions will be enthralled by Sharon Waxman’s book, Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World

I got hooked on the debate over the morality of collecting antiquities when I first visited the Acropolis in Athens thirty years ago and saw the blank spaces where Lord Elgin relieved the Greeks of pieces of magnificent carving. He wanted them because at the end of the nineteenth century it was all the rage to decorate ones’ estate with statuary from Greece and Rome.Eventually, he wound up broke and sold his treasures to the British Museum.

In 2008 I traveled to London and visited the enthralling British Museum. Of course I toured its most popular space, the display of the Parthenon marbles. Forty-eight hours later, I was in Athens, visiting the Parthenon for the fifth time, on a scorching hot day.I also got a sneak-preview of the soaring spaces of the New Acropolis Museum and the space the Greek government has prepared for the return of the Parthenon marbles from England.

The top floor of the new museum provides a view of the Parthenon.

Opinionated as I am about the Parthenon marbles (which I will never call the Elgin marbles) Sharon Waxman made me question my stance on the rightful role of museums with her well-researched look at the needs of countries like Egypt, Turkey and Greece and the rationale of world class museums. Since the New Acropolis Museum has been completed, the argument has become more public.

While Loot certainly will not be found in the travel section of your bookstore, it nevertheless belongs on the travel library shelves. It helps readers understand the cultures of Egypt, Turkey and Greece and the long-gone civilizations that inhabited the land the modern countries now occupy. It also adds understanding of a culture the traveler may never have thought about—that of museums.

Where do you stand on the debate about ancient artifacts? Are their limits to what foreign countries should be able to keep from the source country?

The photos here were taken by VMB on a visit to London and Athens just one day apart.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.