Sunday, 25 July 2010

Who really owns cultural treasures?

Artistic and archaeological treasures are scattered throughout the world, often quite far from their places of origin. Is there something wrong with that? Who really owns such cultural treasures as the Elgin Marbles (sculptures from the Athens Parthenon) or Vermeer's paintings (17th century Dutch master, whose paintings are scattered through W. Europe and the USA)? Post-colonial nations in particular are quick to argue that such works were stolen from them (as indeed so much else certainly was), that their continued place in museums in New York, Paris or London is a continuation of colonial attitudes, and that they must be returned to their country of origin. But how are such claims justified? There seem to be 3 main ways of staking a claim on such works: national identity, law, and the "cultural heritage of all mankind"

Friday, 23 July 2010

Four kinds of sustainability

'Sustainability' concerns the relationship between humans and their natural environment over time. But there are various ethical understandings of that relationship with quite different implications. Two popular definitions actually repudiate human interdependence with nature by either making human interests completely subservient to a sacred nature, or by making nature completely subservient to human interests. Gro Brundtland's famous definition points in the right direction by focussing on the goal of sustainably meeting humanitarian needs, but her picture of human interests seems too narrow and technocratic. What we need is a definition that is humanistic without necessarily being human-centred.