As European countries built their empires around the world, they acquired many treasures that are now displayed in their museums.
Recently, some of these items have been challenged and returned to their original owners – including the Benin Bronzes and the Kandy Cannon.
However, the UK government holds the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum in London.
Some other items are too fragile to be returned – such as the headdress of Aztec king Montezuma.
What is Elgin Marble?
The Elgin Marbles – or Parthenon Sculptures – are more than 30 ancient Greek stone sculptures preserved in the British Museum and dating back more than 2,000 years.
Most of them come from the Parthenon in Athens, a temple built by the ancient Greeks in the fifth century BC.
Some of the sculptures came from the Treasury of Atreus in Mycenae, which was built between 1300 and 1250 BC, indicating that they are more than 3,000 years old.
The marble was taken in the early 19th century by the British diplomat, Lord Elgin, with permission from the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Athens at the time.
Elgin said the sculptures needed to be saved from “imminent and inevitable destruction.”
In 1816, the British Parliament ruled that these materials had been acquired legally and later passed an act making the British Museum its owner.
The Elgin Marbles account for about half of the Parthenon’s surviving sculptures. The rest is in Athens.
Why doesn’t the UK return the marble to Greece?
In 1983, Greece officially requested the return of the Elgin Marbles for the first time. But the British rejected this request.
In 2009, a museum was built at the foot of the Acropolis with space allocated to artifacts taken from the United Kingdom.
Recently, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis after Mitsotakis publicly said the Elgin Marbles had been “clearly stolen” and made repeated calls for the fragments to be returned.
The UK says there are no plans to return the marble to Greece. He says that four million people from all over the world see these sculptures every year at the British Museum.
However, museum directors have shown that they are open to negotiating the temporary return of some sculptures to Athens in exchange for other ancient artifacts housed in Greek museums.
Which museums are returning their Benin bronzes?
Benin Bronzes are thousands of sculptures, paintings and metal sculptures made between the 15th and 19th centuries.
They were captured by British forces in 1897, while sacking Benin City, in present-day Nigeria.
Many of them were later sold at auction in London and some have been purchased by collectors around the world.
The Nigerian National Museums and Monuments Commission has issued formal requests for the return of the bronze statues to museums around the world.
In November 2022, the Horniman Museum in London agreed to hand over 72 objects, including some Benin bronzes.
“There’s no doubt they were looted, so there was a moral case for them to come back,” director Nick Merriman said.
The following month, Cambridge University agreed to return 116 bronzes, and Germany returned 22 bronzes in its possession.
Starting in 2026, the recovered bronzes will be on display at the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City.
More bronzes remain in the archives of other UK museums, including the British Museum, which has the largest single collection of around 900 objects.
The argument for this is that the British Museum legislation of 1963 prevents its return.
Who returns the looted Candy Cannon?
In July 2023, the Dutch government said the Rijksmuseum, the national museum, would return the Kandy ceremonial cannon to Sri Lanka.
This piece was looted by the forces of the Dutch East India Company in 1765, along with five other pieces.
Why doesn’t Montezuma’s headdress return to Mexico?
For years, the Mexican government has been lobbying for the return of the headdress believed to have belonged to the Aztec king Montezuma.
It is about 1 meter wide, made of more than 450 bright green feathers, and is currently kept by the Museum of Ethnology in the Austrian capital, Vienna.
Some believe it was a gift from Montezuma to the 16th-century Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. Others believe that it is a headdress worn by Aztec priests at that time.
The Austrian government was not willing to allow it to return to Mexico because Mexican law stipulated that the piece must remain in the country forever if it returned.
In 2012, Mexico changed the rules and Austria agreed to temporarily reinstate them.
However, museum experts then concluded that transporting the headdress to Mexico would damage the feathers beyond repair.
As “compensation”, the Vienna Ethnographic Museum offers free admission to all Mexican citizens who visit it.
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