i came across a wonderful post by a friend with regard to museums, heritage and the question of repatriation here -
those interested should most certainly go through it. its one of the most careful and complex analysis of these issues i've read...
and here's my response to it; it would be on the blog as a comment to the post as well.
hey.. it really is wonderful to see this piece. it's brought together so many complex debates around repatriation, heritage and museumization that are of such contemporary relevance. if you'll permit, i have a few bones of contention to offer.
firstly, let me get this one little itch out of the way - to my mind, the British Museum [unlike many others of similar legacy] is singularly unique and notorious both with regard to international museum laws and acts, and in relation to this, its claims to retain many collections. this is unlike many other nation-states and their museums [national museums or otherwise] which especially in the case of the Elgin marbles have been greatly forthcoming in their support towards its repatriation. while you are right in that the de-contextualized and travelling histories of cultural objects such as the marbles do offer multiple meanings, histories and contexts, i wonder if it is possible at all to attain a 'complete history' of the marbles, regardless of their location. i would think that it is in this desire for 'complete'ness in the context of discourses of museumization and heritage that one often overlooks the fact that these discourses are intrinsically tied to the question of nation, in its constitution of a public. [let us not forget that the Louvre was a private collection thrown open to the public following the French Revolution in its attempt at 'making-bourgeois' of its public].
the discourse of heritage is very much part of the project of modernity, although it often is posited as contradictory. the question of cultural heritage repatriation arises, as you pointed out, in most post-colonial and post-imperial contexts precisely because these 'universal' museums emerged under contexts of imperialism and colonialism. and let us not forget also, that the discourse of modernity is very much nationalist; nationalist of the kind that claims universal validity. in fact, the claim for 'universality' has conventionally been the rubric within which colonialism, imperialism, and discourses such as orientalism functioned.
can one put aside 'particular' claims to heritage in favour of the condition of modern nation states? this then shifts the debate to one of 'better preservation', which, needless to state, is grossly flawed. [i refer here to your example of Egypt]. and it is not a matter of reversing a dark imperial or colonial past and their wrong doings, but of recognizing multiple and particular claims of heritage. [and yes, as much as I'm against 'nationalist' claims, these nation-states, in the context of the 'universal' claims made under imperialism and colonialism do become 'particular']. the travesty of heritage discourses is that the universal rubric of heritage tends to overlook the particular demands of heritage; in short, it claims itself to be the sole bearer of heritage, denying others a similar claim. and when the British Museum today claims universality of cultural heritage, it is doing so from a nation-state perspective, not some imperial or universal one.
if the question of museums and heritage is not seen within the paradigm of nation-states, and in the context of repatriation within postcolonial and postimperial conditions, it would be very easy to make a claim for universal heritage.
anyway, let me wrap up by sharing my experiences of when i visited the British Museum. it shattered me to the very core to see how it obstinately denied its imperial and colonial past under the shroud of universal cultural heritage. i'm no big fan of nationalist demands for repatriation. but i'm equally if not more sickened by the violence of denial of histories of imperialism and colonialism, of which the British Museum stands in glorious testimony to.
this is an issue that cannot be 'resolved' through accommodations or name-changing, or even repatriation; but how long can we deny the legitimacy of particular demands, especially if the 'particularity' of those positions emerged precisely through the setting up of a 'universal'.