For some things replicas are all that is available. And serve well. Very few
of us will ever get to look at, or even rarer handle, early hominid fossil.
Many Anthropology departments have a good collection of replicas.
On the other hand, for some things replicas just don't seem right, or as
useful. There is something visceral in actually seeing the cave paintings at
Alta Mira. I don't think I would get the same experience from the replicas in
One thing that many countries do not understand, or fully appreciate, is is the
marketing potential of museum collections. Very few people just decide to hop a
plane and fly to Greece to look at classical ruins. The pieces held by museums
act as a marketing tool. They wet your appetite for more. Remove all of the
really "neat" artifacts and ship them home and you will probably see fewer
tourists. Not only at the museum that would have to depend on only local
material, but also in the country that has repatriated collections.
There is also the conservation issue. Had Lord Elgin not brought the Parthenon
frieze to the BM, it would probably have been lost. Up until recently many
non-Northern European countries have been a bit careless with their cultural
heritage. Yes an awful lot of the good stuff has ended up in museums in the US
and Europe. But if it hadn't ended up there, where would it be? I suspect that
much would have been destroyed.
There is also the issue of safety. As an American, it was much more convenient
and less life threatening for me to look at Sumerian artifacts at the Univ.
Museum in Philadelphia. The Ishtar Gate is much more accessible in Berlin than
Babylon. It is rather unlikely that someone will machine gun a bus load of
tourists looking at the Egyptian temple at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New
York, as has happened on more than a few occasions over the last few years in
Egypt. There are places that I would love to go some day, if I had the money,
and if folks like Bin Laden would stop considering me an aiming point.
There are a lot more factors involved in this than the mere fact of cultural