By Douglas Van Anda
History belongs to the victors. A saying with debatable origins, but an idea that is as old as civilization. During the Nazi occupation of Europe, many dissenters were killed, many books were burned, many philosophical ideas were snuffed out in the effort to establish Nazism as the one, true, form of government and philosophical thought. Fortunately for Europe and the rest of world, the Nazis lost the war, both in terms of military and in terms of philosophical thoughts on government. For one moment though, let us consider how easy it might have been for Germany to snuff out the idea of democracy from the world. Some might consider it easy; Germany had just won a war, they would have most likely crushed a democratic England and France. However, the great bell of freedom would most definitely still ring across the Atlantic and a significant portion of the population of Europe already had a taste of representative government, including Germany. The point is that the idea of democracy was too widespread at that point for one empire to contain. It sounds at least improbable, if not impossible, for democracy to disappear. But what if a young, kinda-sorta democratic Athens is rooted up and destroyed by a more militaristic and autocratic society? In that case, the odds of democracy surviving seem a lot more like pulling the lever on a slot machine and hoping for a jackpot. The only way that democracy spread was through Athens and other societies spreading their philosophy and ideas mostly through artwork, what we might now consider historically significant western artifacts.
This is my definition of a historically significant artifact; an artifact that relates to the common history of one or multiple civilizations. The more importantly a civilization holds certain ideals, the more important that an artifact that depicts that ideal or idea will become in terms of historical relevance. For example, a statue that depicts the perfect warrior as a tall, broad-shouldered, stoic man, an ideal that is still culturally ingrained in western civilization, will be much more significant than an ancient text showing good accounting methods. While both are definitely ideas that are prominent in western countries, the idea of being a proud warrior figure is much more important to the common person and thus, the artifact showing this ideal also becomes much more important. The value of these artifacts is unknowable. The reason they are valuable is easy to answer though. These artifacts are valuable because they serve the purpose of reminding people of their common heritage. As people become more and more globalized, these artifacts constantly remind the viewer about, for example, the common heritage of Europeans found in Greece or the common heritage of Asians found in China. These relate to a common philosophy, a common view of the world, occasionally, a common religion, and most importantly, a common history. This is why it is important to keep the sculptures from the Parthenon where they currently reside, the seven museums scattered around central Europe.
I understand what Greece would achieve by receiving the pieces of the Parthenon back. They would be able to show their sense of nationalistic and historical pride proving how important Greece has been on the world stage since time immemorial. However, I believe the British Museum when they say that their goal is to “… tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago until the present day.” It remains vitally important for the British Museum to keep at least part of their collection of marbles so that they can accurately tell the story of British history. It also remains vitally important for the Vatican Museums and the Musée du Louvre to keep their pieces of the Parthenon so that they can accurately portray the history of the Catholic Church and France. Historical artifacts should be spread around, to all possible reaches of the Earth where they would be respected, to spread our ideas as a civilization. All peoples of civilizations that descend from Assyrian ideals should be able to appreciate Assyrian ideals in the heart of those civilizations, places like Paris and London. We should not only do this to spread these ideas, but to also protect them from disasters, natural and manmade.
Could you imagine if Thomas Bruce had been a couple hundred years earlier, removed the Elgin Marbles before the Great Turkish War, and waited around a century for the British Museum to open? Doubtless, priceless artifacts would have been saved from the damage caused to them by war. If we move into the modern world, we can see where efforts, moral or not, to remove artifacts from their original homes and move them to museums saved parts of history. In 2015, ISIL released a video depicting them destroying artifacts in the Mosul Museum. Sometimes, we go too far in playing devil’s advocate when we say that they could have a justifiable right in destroying these things because they are offensive or a counterpoint to their religion. An even worse argument states that western peoples have no right to complain because western peoples have done comparable things in the past. However, I would say that all destruction of historic property including this destruction is barbaric and disgusting. ISIL is not destroying their own property, they are destroying the property of almost all civilizations. Luckily, many artifacts from this period were moved to the British Museum, the Musée du Louvre and Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago and saved our constant reminder of a common past. We should look down upon ISIL pillaging, selling, and destroying historical artifacts the same way that we look down upon the Nazis burning books and art because they accomplish the same goal, eradicating ideas.
The question of the value and purpose of these historical monuments we hold to such high regard will always be one based upon human morality. There will always be the nihilist who watches the destruction of ancient art with apathy. There will always be the ideologue who seeks to destroy ancient artifacts because they subvert or outright disagree with their political or religious opinions. And there will always be the patriot who seeks to hoard all possessions of his country’s past in perpetuity to remind his fellow countryman of their ancestors. However, I hope that the majority of people remain to be the type that wants to spread history throughout the world. Those who would like to see pieces from ancient China in a glass display case in Juneau, Alaska. This is the only way that the history of man remains safe from the nihilist, the ideologue, and the patriot. In other words, globalization of our history is the only way that remembering our history remains safe from ourselves.