Artifact ownership is an issue

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According to, last month, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology lent Turkey 24 artifacts from ancient Troy — indefinitely. This move by the museum was due to Turkey’s aggressive campaign to retrieve artifacts that originated in its region.

Both the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin have returned artifacts. Officials of the Pergamon claim they did so under the threat of Turkey blocking further archaeological projects.

Last year, Turkish officials told the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that if certain artifacts were not returned, all exchange of artifacts from Turkey would stop. Museum officials from all over the world were not happy with this declaration.

Artifacts are a very important part of any nation’s cultural consciousness. It is understandable that Turkey wants them back. However, the country’s officials might want to go about retrieving these treasures a little more gently. While blackmail has its merits, it is not known for smoothing international relations.

The dilemma of deciding where an artifact should be displayed may seem inconsequential to Americans, or even to people who live in an area with a history of political and ethnic stability. Stability — ethnic or otherwise — has been in short supply for much of the Anatolian Peninsula’s history.

Turkey claims it only wants to recover looted objects — objects that should rightfully be in their countries of origin, as some officials say. As Murat Suslu, director-general of cultural heritage and museums in Turkey, told The New York Times last week, “If you come to my house and you steal precious objects from me, do I not have a right to get them back?”

But, as the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation Hermann Parzinger also pointed out to The New York Times, “[Turkey] should be careful about making moral claims when their museums are full of looted treasures.”

Parzinger is right to point out this discrepancy in Turkey’s policy. Many museums have stolen artifacts, because stealing the treasures of a conquered nation was the norm until after World War II. Artifacts were consequently scattered all over the world; archaeologists, historians, and museum officials have had enormous trouble determining where artifacts belong.

The question of where artifacts should reside is a murky one, which is why the international community has a myriad of different protocols on how to deal with artifacts, ancient and otherwise. But Turkey’s campaign has the potential to upset this delicate balance that museum officials have worked for decades to maintain.