Case Western University in Cleveland recently posted this talk on their Youtube page. Dr. Patty Gerstenblith spoke there in January, about the looting of antiquities. It’s a long video but it’s a good overview of the state of looting and the worldwide black market of antiquities.
What particularly interested me about this talk was thinking about the differences between the repatriation of looted antiquities and the repatriation of cultural material to indigenous communities. Dr. Gerstenblith focuses on the legislation that exists to prevent the traffic of looted objects, but doesn’t really say anything about the responsibility of museums in the matter. From her talk, one gathers that looted antiquities should be returned because they are illegal, not because it is morally right for any reason.
In cases of cultural repatriation concerning indigenous communities, the moral question is usually at the forefront. Particularly here in Canada, where there is no legislation in place concerning repatriation, museums return objects because it is the right thing to do, or to seek forgiveness for past wrongs or abuses of native communities.
It strikes me that the agents seeking to repatriate antiquities like the Elgin Marbles are often countries with some measure of political pull, so legislation might just work better in those cases. Native communities still being relatively politically weak, the moral argument is a more effective one.