On The Newsstand: Who Owns History?


Do historical artifacts belong to humankind, or to the countries they come from? This question, along with a bunch of property-rights laws, is at the center of the current custody battle over historical treasures.

This week's Time magazine outlines the dispute, which entangles nations, museums, and archeologists. Source nations — think Italy, Greece, Egypt, China — consider products of their ancient civilizations as national property. But "universal museums" — think the Louvre, Met, British Museum — counter that the artifacts are the heritage of humanity.

Enter archaeologists. They criticize museums for facilitating a black market and want laws that discourage looting. Yet, many laws prevent archaeologists from bringing any artifacts from their digs home to their universities or museums.

Entire museums would be emptied if source countries retained rights to everything, so how far back should claims go? If pieces are located around the world, does that allow more people to experience history? How can we tell harmonizing stories of history that focus both on the artifacts' significance to a specific civilization and to humanity as a whole?

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