February 13, 2008

The alarm of some institutions at growing numbers of restitution claims

Posted at 1:39 pm in Similar cases

The Boston Globe’s article on the restitution of artefacts, in particular the remarks of James Cuno have prompted a response from Kwame Opoku, where he points out some of the fallacies inherent in these arguments.


Written by Dr. Kwame Opoku
Tuesday, 12 February 2008

It is simply amazing how Eurocentric and selfish many of the arguments of the defenders of plunder and stealing of other people’s cultural property are. The opponents of restitution seem completely oblivious of the interests of countries trying to secure the return of their cultural objects that have been taken away by force or through dubious means.

At the risk of repeating some of the points I have already made elsewhere, I shall comment on a few points mentioned in the article in the Boston Globe, February 10, 2008 by Derek Bennett. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2008/02/10/finders_keepers/. It is often not easy to tell whether Bennett is presenting his own view point or simply reporting the views of others.

When the museums were receiving the various items now under their control, nobody ever set limits to their greed by saying “enough” but now that the owners of the artefacts are claiming them back, the museums cry out loudly “enough”. But how much has really been returned? In reality, apart from a few items from the US museums and universities, not much has been returned. The British Museum, the Louvre, Musée du Quai Branly, the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Pergamon Museum, Berlin, the Ethnology Museum, Vienna and a whole lot of museums in Europe and the United States have not indicated the slightest intention to return any of the thousands of stolen objects in their museums and their depots. So where is the ground at all for saying enough? Not a single African art object has been recently returned by any major museum. Italy, the lonely exception returned the obelisk stolen by Mussolini from Axum.

“Cuno, who is among the most vocal and prominent voices in the debate, argues that laws meant to keep antiquities in the countries where they’re found are wrongheaded and counterproductive. They limit the number of people who can see the objects, he says, while putting artworks at risk and driving collectors and dealers into the black market.” Is this statement to be taken seriously? Is it really being suggested that countries that enact laws and regulations to control and reduce plunder and stealing of cultural objects are mistaken and that these measures are “wrongheaded” and “counterproductive”? Who else can determine what is useful for protecting Italian cultural objects if not the Italian Parliament? Should they leave this to some museum directors across the Atlantic who can estimate what is productive? Art collectors being driven by laws “into the black market?” Other illegal activities could as well be said to be driven “into the black market” by the laws and therefore the relevant laws should also be abolished.

The regulatory laws on plunder and illegal sales are said to constitute “existential threat to great “encyclopaedic” museums like the MFA or Metropolitan Museum, places that provide a unique opportunity to see the full breadth and diversity of the world’s cultural history in one place.” We now hear of “encyclopaedic museums”. This sounds less imperialistic than the infamous “universal museums” but as the article shows they are the same type of museums with same kind of ambitions and characteristics. There is here only a semantic change which sounds less frightening and voracious. When the museums in New York, London, Paris and Berlin pretend to provide an opportunity for all to see the world’s culture at one place, they are thinking of westerners mainly. They are not thinking of Africans or others who have the greatest difficulties in obtaining visas to visit western countries. Are we not part of this world? A man living in Lagos, Bamako, Benin City and Yaounde surely will not agree that he can see at one place “the full breadth and diversity of the world’s cultural history in one place”. He definitely cannot go to the European embassies in his country requesting visa because he wants to see the African artefacts in Europe. The embassies will throw him out.

To cast the debate on restitution and control of plunder as “a battle between two very different philosophies, one that sees antiquities primarily as art, the other casting their value in terms of the historical information they provide” is to narrow unnecessarily the greater debate between those who believe one can hold on to the stolen arts of others, irrespective of their provenance and those who argue that stolen cultural objects should be returned to the places and peoples for whom they were originally intended. It is this larger discussion which has brought movement into the question of possession of stolen cultural artefacts and which will continue to unsettle many European and US American museum directors for a number of years.

Bennett states that “some prominent scholars are drawing a line in the sand, saying that objects belong where they are – that the movement is based on a false reading of history, and, if allowed to progress, could do serious damage to the world’s cultural inheritance.” I do not know exactly what history is being referred to here but it sounds strange to my ears that when a country claims what belongs to it, that country or its people are said to have false reading of history. It is possible that in some specific situations it may not be possible to determine precisely which people made which cultural artefacts but as far as African countries and indeed, most countries outside Europe, are concerned there have not been many doubts about the history of the stolen artefacts. No one ever doubted that the Benin bronzes were made by persons of Benin origin or that the Asante gold objects were made by Asantes for Asantes.

The history concerning the forcible seizures in colonial days is well-known. So where is the “false reading of history?”

What is this unspecified “damage to the world’s culture” which will occur if the movement for restitution gains strength? Who appointed the museums of New York, London, Paris and Berlin as guardians of the “world’s culture” with the right to keep the cultures of others? When these objects were being removed nobody saw any danger to the cultures of those countries. Now that they demand the return of their cultural objects, western museum directors see danger to the “world’s culture”. Are those countries not part of the “world’s culture”? Why should the repossession of their own cultural goods be a damage to “world’s culture” when the initial, often violent, removal was not? Would any museum director dare to tell the people of Ethiopia or Benin such a story?

“What’s at stake,” says James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, “is the world’s right to broad and general access to its ancient heritage.” Which world is the director of the Art Institute of Chicago writing about? It seems he is thinking of only the western world. I do not think he has the man from Kwadaso or Zaria in view. A claim is made for the worldto have a right to its ancient heritage but those living in the countries where these objects are found do not, it seems, in the eyes of the museum director, have any such rights. He should go and announce this to UNESCO and the United Nations General Assembly which have been passing resolution upon resolution urging the return of cultural objects to the countries of their origin.

“In many cases the nations asserting rights to artefacts have little in common, culturally, religiously, artistically, or even ethnically, with the civilizations buried beneath them. Modern Peru, for example, was built in the vacuum left by the systematic destruction of the Inca civilization, whose legacy the country now claims. “It is a stretch of the imagination,”

says Cuno, “to link modern Egypt to ancient Egypt, modern Greece to ancient Greece, modern Rome to ancient Rome, communist China to ancient China. Nonetheless, countries like Italy, Greece, Turkey, China, and many others have laws that make any antiquity found on their soil automatically the property of the state”.

What does one say in the face of such a blatant general statement? Can one seriously argue that “communist China” has nothing in common with “ancient China”? So where did Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai and the leadership of the Communist Party spring from? Do they not have anything in common with the history of China? Do they not share language, culture, ethnicity and art with ancient China? Can one understand modern China without the history of China?

Are the holding museums and their governments better related to these ancient civilizations? Do they have better connections with them than the modern governments of the claiming countries? Can the holding museums more legitimately represent the ancient civilizations? Those fighting to retain stolen or illegal objects in their museums can say whatever they like but I think there must be some limits.

“They limit the number of people who can see the objects…” The argument that by returning artefacts to their place of origin one limits the number of persons who can see them is often repeated but it is not solid. First of all, it is often assumed that because London or New York has a greater population than an African village more people will see an object in the western city than in an African village. But does this apply to an African city like Lagos with its millions? It is also assumed that the great number of visitors in western towns all go to museums. This is not true. If numbers were the decisive factor, we should send all cultural artefacts to China and India who have large populations that are actively involved in festival and other cultural activities. A more important point is that most of the time many of these museums have more objects than they can adequately display and most of the stolen items are often in cellars, quite often in the original packing, not yet opened! So how do many persons see these objects?

“In a 2006 essay in the New York Review of Books, the philosopher and Princeton professor Kwame Anthony Appiah argued that such laws have even destroyed antiquities. Soon after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, Appiah pointed out, it was a UNESCO treaty prohibiting the removal of antiquities from their country of origin that prevented concerned scholars from rescuing pre-Islamic artifacts before the Taliban, branding them idolatrous objects, destroyed them.” This is one of those statements that leave one breathless and really shattered, wondering if such pronouncements should be taken seriously at all. We are used to hearing that the UNESCO or the United Nations are not very efficient in specific circumstances where we would have liked them to intervene energetically to prevent an impending disaster. Those bodies work on the basis of principles which have largely been elaborated by western countries and adopted by the international organizations. When things do not go the way certain States want, they are blamed. But did anyone ever allege that a UNECSO Convention prevented any group of scholars from a course of action? Is it realized by all that a UNESCO Convention does not belong to UNESCO as such but is a tool for the signatory States of the Convention which are also responsible for its implementation and, in the final analysis, for its interpretation?

“The problem with these seemingly laudable efforts, according to Cuno, is that they’re not really about the artifacts, but about politics. The young governments of Greece and Turkey, he points out, used their antiquities, and the laws restricting their export, as a way of forging a national political identity. The Greek government’s dogged campaign to recover the Elgin Marbles is one example„

This is a very remarkable argument. When artefacts were removed under colonial or imperialist rule, nobody remarked it was political but now that independent governments are reclaiming these artefacts, those demands are considered to be political. It is said they are wanted for forging national identity. If there is any substance in this allegation at all, I would argue that it is the persistent and arrogant refusal of the holding countries that make some of the claimed objects appropriate as national causes. Often the refusal to return these cultural objects involves a direct or implied insult from the holding museum or country to the claiming country. How often have we heard that these objects are better looked after in the holding country than in the claiming country? Inefficiency and corruption are often imputed to the claimants. It is therefore not at all surprising that these claims become national causes for all, even for those who really do not care much about cultural objects. Are the nationalists only in the claiming countries and not in the holding countries? Are the Greek claimants for the Parthenon marbles more nationalistic than the British holders of the Elgin Marbles?

I hope, for the sake of those opposing restitution, that they will in future present better arguments than those presented so far and, in any case, better than those reported in the article in the Boston Globe.

Kwame Opoku. 12 February, 2008.

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