Museums, World Heritage, and Interpretation -- the Case of the Parthenon Marbles
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The status of the Parthenon Marbles as objects of world heritage lies at the heart of arguments for their retention in the British Museum as part of one of the most significant universal museum collections in the world. This paper challenges the logic of this argument. After a brief description of the circumstances that enabled western museums to acquire their collections and led to the development of the “universal museum”, I will outline the efforts that have been made at national and international levels to protect cultural property, efforts which have curtailed the ability of museums to accumulate materials on the scale of previous periods in their history. I then discuss the reasons why, despite this, international cultural property protection measures do not resolve many of the debates surrounding ownership and repatriation of items in existing museum collections. I will then use the case of the Greek claim for the return to Athens of the Elgin collection of Parthenon Marbles, currently held in the British Museum, to examine the issues relating to the nature of universal museums and international responsibilities for the preservation and effective interpretation of items of world heritage value.