January 15, 2005

Return of Maori Heads

Posted at 6:21 am in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

On the back of the agreement by the Perth (Scotland) museum to return two Maori heads in its collection, the Guardian has an interesting article comparing the differences & similarities between other restitution cases.

The Guardian

January 13, 2005
The artefacts of life
Perth Museum’s decision to return two tattooed Maori heads, known as toi moko, to Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, raises the age-old debate over the repatriation of artefacts from museums to their countries of origin.

The much simplified argument goes something like this: (Original owners) That is ours, you took it when you pillaged our country during your imperialist campaign and it means far more to us than it does to you. Give it back. (Museum) We recognise it was yours but we have it now and in the interests of people learning about global culture it’s better that it stays in an internationally renowned collection such as ours. We won’t give it back. Won’t, won’t, won’t.

The most famous of such arguments continues over the Parthenon Marbles, currently residing in the British Museum, which speaks most prolifically about the importance of their staying put, in the face of continued efforts by the Greek culture ministry to have them returned to Athens.

Greece is not the only country banging on the British Museum’s door. Other countries wanting the schoolyard bully to return their marbles include Egypt (the Rosetta Stone), China (23,000 sculptures and relics looted by Anglo-French armies from the Summer Palace in Beijing), Nigeria (the Benin Bronzes) and Ethiopia (the Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures).

Australia’s Dja Dja Wurrung people are also in the midst of a battle with the British Museum, who loaned two bark etchings and a ceremonial emu headdress to the Melbourne Museum earlier this year. The items were seized by an Aboriginal inspector under federal cultural heritage law and the British are demanding them back, presumably to place them back in storage where they had sat for the previous 150 years.

But to be fair, it is not just Britain holding out on repatriation requests. The Egyptians alone would like Germany to return a bust of Queen Nefertiti, the United States to return the statues of Hatshepsut, France to return the statue of Ramses II and the obelisk standing in the Place de la Concorde. And the argument that these items would be leaving world-class museums is weakened by the fact that their sister museum in Cairo houses more than 120,000 artefacts from the prehistoric to the Greco-Roman period.

Still, some countries are changing their tune. After a long campaign by Ethiopia, Italy, having agreed to its return, is now in the process of dismantling the Aksum Obelisk, taken 60 years ago on the orders of dictator Benito Mussolini.

The pained cries of curators and museum-goers worldwide at the prospect of diminishing collections are understandable. But is the retention of what Scottish ship’s surgeon David Ramsay described as “curiosities” when he took the toi moko in 1822 more important than indigenous people such as Maori regaining their cultural heritage?
Posted by Kirsten Broomhall at January 13, 2005 05:01 PM

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