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Over the past few years, a quiet but fierce battle has raged in the corridors of cultural power. It regards the ethics of Western countries holding the antiquities of their former colonies, and both sides are stubborn. The Parthenon marbles should return to Greece, the Benin sculptures to their West African birthplace, and the Elliot Marbles to India, so claim detractors. Keeping these items – all, coincidentally, in the British Museum – is argued to be cultural colonialism.

On September 2nd 2018, the notoriously dilapidated National Museum of Brazil burned almost entirely to the ground. Most of its 20 million artefacts were lost, which the President called ‘incalculable’, and yet nothing was done when a decade ago the building was deemed a firetrap by inspectors. Indeed such lax approach to cultural history is not unique to Brazil, given that Cairo’s Egyptian Museum was looted during the Arab Spring, Syria’s antiquities have been decimated by its civil war, and in Mali most of the Timbuktu Manuscripts were lost during its insurgency of 2013. Looking further back to when many cultural items currently residing in Britain were first collected, the picture is even worse. Before Britain came to India, for example, there was no indigenous tradition of conserving antiquity. The Elliot Marbles were rescued from local vandals in the 1840s, and are today housed in a climate-controlled gallery in the British Museum, within a Japanese funded centre for the study of Buddhism. Back in India, their site of origin is neglected and in terminal decline.

In the modern political bubble much of our thoughts are spoken in a softer, moderated form. But the preservation of history is worthy of clear talk. If the British Museum and its fellow cultural behemoths didn’t throw their considerable wealth and expertise at preserving global history, it is not an exaggeration to say that much of our understanding of the past would lie in ashes. For the governments of nations such as India, facing charges of endemic corruption and mismanagement, pointing to their former rulers and crying “Theft!” is an easy way to build electoral support. But would these states really be able – even with the best of intentions – to preserve for the future that which helps us understand today? And would not the return of even some key collections set a precedent, and open a floodgate for antiquarian chaos? When 8.1 million tourists visited the Louvre in 2017, and 6.2 million went to the British Museum, where else could rightfully claim such physical reach and institutional power? What these campaigners really fail to appreciate is the role that great, global museums play in making history and understanding available to all in a world of near limitless mobility.

Instead of returning artefacts, Western cultural institutions should work with their governments to provide management, curatorial and archival expertise to struggling museums overseas. This would help countries to properly safeguard and display their existing stock, as well as helping us extend the reach of our soft power. Secondly, these same Western organisations should deploy teams to help digitise the collections of foreign museums. Not only does this provide insurance in case the objects are destroyed, but it would give more people an opportunity to see items online. If the UK government agreed to digitise its own collections in turn, then a virtual cultural exchange network could be achieved. Finally, Britain’s museums could agree to loan more of their stock once conditions for their safety and care are met. That way, the long term preservation of these items would be guaranteed by Western institutions holding the expertise and capacity, whilst people worldwide would have a chance to experience the awe of being present alongside our glorious antiquities.

Ultimately, history and culture are for us all to enjoy, but above all else their preservation is paramount.

Adam Kearns is a British Army officer and Bright Blue Member with a passion for the arts, history and culture. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.