A conference in London aims to represent London as a beacon of enlightenment in the world of restitution of cultural property. Many countries will be unconvinced by this argument however.
The Times 
May 4, 2010
London – a beacon of cultural resistution?
Plenty of people in Greece, Egypt, and Scotland might disagree but London, home of the Elgin marbles, the Rosetta Stone and the Lewis Chessmen, will today present itself as a beacon of enlightenment on the thorny subject of cultural restitution.
Delegates ranging from a lawyer with the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest to the Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures and the Director General of ICCROM (the International Organisation for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage) in Rome are attending a conference at the National Gallery this afternoon billed as Restitution – Where Now?
Julian Smith, a partner at Farrer & Co, the solicitor’s firm that has organised the conference, said that they had tried to put the broadest possible spectrum of views in one room. “This conference might be the dullest ever,” he said, “It might end in a fight. That’s what makes it interesting.” Certainly there are few more controversial or complex issues in the arts than what to do with cultural treasures taken from weak nations by stronger ones many years ago.
Worldwide the trend has been towards returning looted artefacts to their country of origin. In recent years the Americans have led the way with the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston all returning ancient artefacts to the countries they were taken from.
The Greeks have built a museum for the Parthenon Marbles that Lord Elgin spirited back to England. The Egyptians want the Rosetta Stone back from the British Museum and the bust of Nefertiti from the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The Iranian government has accused the British Museum of playing politics with the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2,500 year old Persian cuneiform text cited as the earliest declaration of human rights.
In the opposite corner are scholars and museum bosses like Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, who argue against a blanket drift towards restitution, in favour of a universal museum culture where institutions maintain diverse collections so that they can tell big stories.
“It’s only by comparing things from different places that you can understand them,” Mr MacGregor said yesterday.
“If you want to look at human achievement you’ve got to gather everything together. If you start breaking up these collections you end up with a series of disassociated narratives.” The proviso is that “you make them genuinely available to everybody. You have to put them on line, tour them and loan them.” His point of view is supported by Sir Norman Rosenthal, one of the speakers today. The former exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy (and son of Jewish refugees) argued last year that returning art stolen by Nazis to descendants of their original Jewish owners was often the wrong course of action.
“I believe history is history and that you can’t turn the clock back or make things good again through art,” he wrote. “Ever since the beginning of recorded history, because of its value, art has been looted and as a result, arbitrarily distributed and disseminated throughout the world.”
It is also true, however, that most of the great collections of world objects are in big cities in wealthier countries. And while relatively influential countries like Egypt can run high profile restitution campaigns, poorer states such as Mali in West Africa tend not to be able to exert so much pressure.
Professor Jack Lohman, director of the Museum of London and former UK chairman of ICOM (the International Organisation of Museums) said that the National Gallery event was a groundbreaking occasion.
“It’s about not sweeping this important international issue under the carpet, about having the courage to talk about it, because this is so emotional for so many people,” he said. “You might find the sort of conversations that we are having [for this conference] around global warming or climate change but they haven’t really entered the art world. I really feel it’s a new global conversation.” Professor Lohman, who is introducing the conference, added that London is the right place to host it precisely because the controversies around its museums have forced its curators to engage with the arguments around cultural ownership.
“Actually we might now be leaders in this field. These very difficult cases have allowed us to work with partners and innovate – for instance the way the Lewis chessmen [900 year old chess figures discovered in the Western Isles of Scotland and claimed by the administration in Edinburgh] are travelling quite a bit at the moment. There’s a very positive angle to what we have always understood was a horrific nightmare of a problem. Dialogue brings understanding. You only get the shouting between countries where there aren’t relationships and there are now more conversations taking place. There is movement. Conversation allows you to move objects.”
FIVE CONTROVERSIAL OBJECTS HELD IN BRITAIN
Parthenon Marbles (claimed by Greece, held in the British Museum) Lewis Chessmen (Scotland; British Museum) Benin Bronzes (Nigeria; British Museum) Rosetta Stone (Egypt; British Museum) Golden Crown of Emperor Tewodros (Ethiopia; Victoria and Albert Museum)
AND THREE ELSEWHERE
Priam’s Gold from Troy (Turkey; Pushkin Museum, Moscow) Joseon-period royal manuscripts (South Korea; Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris) Treasures excavated by Hiram Bingham III from Machu Picchu (Peru; Yale Peabody Museum)