The other day, I came across an article in the LA Times about how the US used the return of a chalice that had been illegally removed from Iran to help open the door for negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The chalice had been brought into the US illegally and was seized by customs, where it was held until its recent return to Iran.
The article mentions a couple of times that there are questions about the chalice’s authenticity; in particular, Iranian hardliners opposed to the recently elected President Hassan Rouhani and his stance regarding the West claim that the chalice is a fake. The head of Iranian cultural heritage and tourism, Mohammad Ali Najafi, replied that, “We do not look a gift horse in the mouth. Even if it is fake, it is worthy.”
Now, of course the chalice’s authenticity is not particularly important in this context. Its real significance is the gesture, the return of a piece of cultural heritage not to a ruler, but to a nation. Repatriation of cultural heritage can be a touchy subject; just ask the British Museum about the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. Diplomatic concerns aside, however, the return of the chalice is much less controversial than the repatriation of cultural artifacts and art removed under imperialism. The chalice was kept under lock and key in storage, and the dealer who imported it intended to sell it rather than display it in a public museum. There was no significant national attachment to the object, unlike the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, which many consider to be an integral part of the British Museum’s collections.
It seems to me that the question of display is central to our emotional attachment to cultural heritage. When I lived outside of DC, I heard about visitor complaints when the Star-Spangled Banner was taken down for much-needed conservation. Similarly, several years ago the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art underwent a significant renovation that required various sections of the building to be closed off. I visited during a stage of the renovation when large parts of the galleries had been closed off and was startled to see the most popular paintings jammed into whatever space remained available so that visitors would not miss out on their chance to see Rubens’ Daniel in the Lions’ Den or Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life. I was personally relieved to see David’s Napoleon in His Study, a painting I am rather attached to, having seen it for years every time I visited the National Gallery and then coming across it unexpectedly at a wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.
In the case of art or antiques, seeing cultural heritage is how most people encounter it. Few of us have the resources to own a famous work of art, and I would argue that work people get to see and engage with is more culturally valuable than work hidden away in a private collection. In an age where visual media saturates culture, seeing something in real life is a unique experience. It’s so unique, in fact, that people will fight through amazing crowds just to take a crummy camera photo of the Mona Lisa so that they can show that they were really there and they really saw it. They could just as easily look at the painting and drop a Euro or two for a postcard reproduction, or spend nothing at all and look at it online. The value is showing that they saw it with their own eyes, and that experience sets the heritage object beyond financial value. When we think about repatriating heritage, we think about giving away not only the object itself but the experience of seeing it.
Giving the chalice back to Iran makes sense because it will hopefully allow the Iranian people the chance to enjoy this piece of heritage that was going unappreciated and unseen here. It becomes more complicated when the heritage in question has become a part of the culture where it currently resides.