Hard on the heels of his best-selling autobiography Rather His Own Man, one of Australia’s foremost public intellectuals turns his mind to the great contemporary question that divides the world of art and culture: the restitution of heritage treasures removed in earlier times from subjugated peoples who now want them back.
Taking his cue from Cicero, the great Roman barrister, Geoffrey Robertson argues that justice requires the return not only of the ‘Elgin’ Marbles to Greece, but of many looted antiquities on display in the museums of Britain, Europe and America. He argues that the Gweagal Shield – dropped when Cook shot at Aboriginals in Botany Bay in 1770 – should be returned to Australia from the British Museum. He wants the government to acquire the hull of HMS Endeavour recently located off Rhode Island. He has located Arthur Phillip’s tombstone for Yerramanne, the first Australian expatriate, in a South London churchyard, and he wants to bring it back. His call for truth-telling in museums and on monuments requires a reassessment of Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin, and an admission that our country’s first corporate criminals were the founders of South Australia, who deliberately breached their charter by stealing Aboriginal land without compensation.
Robertson’s judgement is uncompromising: cultural heritage belongs to the people of whose history it is part, unless its return would be attended by danger to the artwork itself. And since the movement for restitution of cultural property is based on human rights, governments which want it back must themselves show respect for the rights of the peoples on whose behalf they make the claim.