July 12, 2008

The British Museum and the Universal Museum

Posted at 6:59 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

I’m getting a sense of deja-vu here, having read another ridiculously sycophantic piece on the British Museum followed by a response by Dr Kwame Opoku who points out the various flaws glossed over by the first piece. Clearly the British Museum’s Public Relations department has been particularly successful in the last few weeks (to the extent of appearing too obvious?). I see no other reason to explain why there should be three such congratulatory articles about their institution in the press in a single week.

The Times

From The Times
July 10, 2008
Let’s all have tickets to the universal museum
It’s pointless trying to work out who owns ancient art objects. We need to share them around the world
Ben Macintyre

The visitors pouring through the doors of the British Museum represent the triumph of an idea born in the white intellectual heat of the Enlightenment – as valuable today as it was 250 years ago when the museum first opened, but now under attack, despite its fabulous success, as never before.

The British Museum is the greatest universal museum in the world. On my first visit there, as a teenager, I remember feeling physically overwhelmed by the sheer scale and variety of the artefacts, art and ideas on display: Mesopotamian relics, Roman statuary, pharaonic carvings, Viking burial treasures.

I wandered, blinking, from room to room. The museum was not trying to tell me something; it seemed to be offering to tell me everything.

That, of course, is why six million people visited the museum last year, from all over the world, free. We flock to the blockbuster exhibitions; but we also come to explore, to fall into unexpected conversations with distant, ancient, foreign peoples.

And that, of course, was exactly what the museum’s creators imagined when it was founded by Act of Parliament in 1753: a great cornucopia of different civilisations, an encyclopaedic storehouse of universal knowledge, displaying the great cultures side by side, with equal veneration, to enlighten not just an elite, but the world.

That simple, brilliant idea is now under assault from the concept of “cultural property”, part of a worldwide struggle over ownership of the past. In the past half-century, but gathering pace in recent years, so-called “source countries” have successfully begun to reclaim and repatriate artefacts from museums around the world.

The governments of Italy, Greece, Egypt, China, Cambodia and other geographical homes of ancient civilisations argue that antiquities in foreign museums are national property, vital components of national identity that should be returned “home” as a matter of moral urgency.

Zahi Hawass, of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, insists that objects from Ancient Egypt are “icons of our Egyptian identity [that] should be in the Motherland”. The Greek Government is even more blunt: “Whatever is Greek, wherever in the world, we want back.” Some of the great museums around the world have returned disputed items of questionable provenance. The pressure to surrender the Elgin Marbles grows ever more intense. Some 68 artefacts, including the magnificent 6th-century mixing vessel known as the Euphronios krater, have now been returned to Italy from American museums. Italy displayed the retrieved artefacts at a self-congratulatory exhibition entitled Nostoi, Greek for “homecomings”.

Yet the cultural property movement is complex and deeply flawed. Italy, as a state, is a comparatively modern creation, but the objects it claims date back up to 1,200 years. Who, for example, “owns” the Alexander Sarcophagus, created in the tradition of Greek sculpture, discovered in Lebanon in the 19th century and brought to Turkey when Lebanon was still part of the Ottoman Empire? Many of the demands for restitution are bound up with narrow nationalism and a political agenda, an attempt to lend historical credibility to modern states that did not exist when the objects were created. Some nations asserting cultural property rights are culturally, religiously and even ethnically distinct from the civilisations whose artefacts they now claim.

Ancient art objects have always travelled across borders, whether as trade goods or booty. Italy is vociferously demanding restitution, but has shown little inclination to return the bronze Horses of San Marco, brought to Venice in 1204 after being looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.

In a passionately argued new book, Who Owns Antiquity?, James Cuno, the former director of the Courtauld Institute who now heads Chicago’s Art Institute, answers his own question emphatically: “Antiquity cannot be owned.”

For Cuno, antiquities are not national symbols but elements of a shared global inheritance, best displayed in the encyclopedic museum imagined by our Enlightened forebears, “a museum dedicated to ideas, not ideologies, a museum of international, indeed universal aspirations”. To some, encyclopaedic museums such as the British Museum are mere treasure houses of imperial plunder. But in their inception such institutions set out to create public places where we might discover and understand other peoples, and thus find out about ourselves.

A shared heritage implies greater sharing, a new sort of philosophy in which individual museums do not merely gather, preserve and display artefacts from across the world, but borrow, lend and swap in a global exchange of objects and ideas. Putting the Terracotta Warriors on display in London demonstrates one kind of cultural exchange, but to display the Elgin Marbles in, say, Beijing, would be a sign that the concept of a pooled cultural legacy has superseded that of national cultural property.

The alternative is an increasingly restricted, homogenous museum culture in different countries, describing not a world of ideas without borders, but a limited story defined by nationalism and politics. If the great idea of the universal museum bows before the notion of cultural property, then the museum ceases to be a palace of countless rooms – each leading to the next, each offering a new glimpse of a shared patrimony – but a long and narrow cultural corridor.

For support, I call the world’s most famous archaeologist. “That,” says Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, on recovering an ancient cross, “belongs in a museum.” He does not insist: “That belongs in a museum in the place where it came from.”

Modern Ghana

By Dr. Kwame Opoku
Feature Article | Fri, 11 Jul 2008

Ben Macintyre’s article Let’s all have tickets to the universal museum, in Timesonline, July 10, 2008, is one of those articles appearing regularly in European newspapers and Western media generally, appearing to espouse an internationalism and a universalism that, at first sight would appeal to many persons. However, on reflection, one realizes that, perhaps without consciously desiring to do so, they propagate a very narrow vision of the world and are generally oblivious of the needs and feelings of other peoples and cultures in the world. They are conveying what their education and environment, intellectual and physical, enable them to comprehend and to appreciate.

Macintyre mentions that Egypt is requesting the return of objects taken away from Egypt by European States but does not explain how some of these objects reached Europe. He does not seem to understand that many persons in Egypt and elsewhere have deep resentments against Europe for the way their cultural objects were confiscated during the colonialist and imperialist age. The humiliation that colonial domination implied is a factor that seems quite incomprehensible to many Europeans. One of the visible demonstrations of power was the carrying away of the political, religious and cultural symbols of the defeated. Maybe it is difficult for Europeans to understand that these cultural symbols mean a lot more to the defeated and humiliated countries and that they were not intended to be kept in museums, “universal” or otherwise. These objects had functions in their cultures and their importance extends far beyond the glass cases of museums. The full exercise of sovereignty and independence requires the recovery of these objects which should have been returned to the African countries on the eve of independence. How can a State plan its cultural development when its best cultural objects are hijacked by foreign States? How would the Europeans feel if the major symbols of their culture were in the hands of African States who refused to return them?

Macintyre, following James Cuno, whom he cites later on, repeats the untenable argument that “Many of the demands for restitution are bound up with narrow nationalism and a political agenda, an attempt to lend historical credibility to modern states that did not exist when the objects were created. Some nations asserting cultural property rights are culturally, religiously and even ethnically distinct from the civilisations whose artefacts they now claim.”

It is remarkable that having stolen cultural artefacts from Egypt and other countries, when they request the return of the objects, they are told “you are guided by narrow nationalism and you have a political agenda that is why you want your cultural objects back.” What kind of world are we in that the illegitimate holder of property can without shame and embarrassment even refer to the motives of the owner for requesting restoration of the property? Is it really for those holding stolen cultural objects to examine the state of mind of those who demand their return? Are the British, French, Germans and Americans, “culturally, religiously and even ethnically” the same as the peoples of those civilisations the cultural objects of which they are holding on to? Is the British culture now the same as it was in 1200? Such questions are never asked with regard to those holding stolen objects but are asked with regard to those claiming their return. Those holding stolen objects set themselves up as judges and feel obliged to question the motives of the demanders. They cannot imagine that the demanders are simply asking for the return of their stolen property. The demanders must have an ideology but the retainers need not have one! But since when are questions of restitution of property predicated on the absence of ideology? For all the history of mankind, property owners have always fought back to regain stolen property without any such discussion. All of a sudden, in the beginning of the 21st Century, some clever persons are trying to confuse questions of the right of owners with the examination of their ideologies. Are nationalists the only once interested in claiming their cultural goods? What about communists, capitalists, socialists, liberals, fascists and conservatives?

When Britain, France, Germany and the United States were busy collecting, seizing and carrying away the cultural and religious objects of others, were they being internationalists? The colonialist and imperialist ideologies supported by some writers are the very factors that lead to nationalism. A look at our modern history will confirm that without nationalism, wide or narrow; there is no way of ending colonial and imperialist rule. Recent European history gives ample examples. So why are people worried at all by the idea that Africans who demand the return of stolen cultural objects may be motivated by nationalism? Are there any States in our modern world which are entirely devoid of nationalism? Take the USA, Great Britain, Germany and France. Are they not more nationalistic than Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt and Senegal?

Macintyre should stop presenting the European Enlightenment as a blessing for all mankind. He should look at the writings of the philosophers of the European Enlightenment, Hume, Hegel and Kant who clearly did not consider Africans and other peoples as being fully human. Kant wrote that the fact that a person was black was evidence that he was stupid. Is this enlightenment? One should examine the history of the museums, including the British Museum, to realise that the mantle of Enlightenment which they are trying to wear is extremely thin and would not stand serious examination. The museums have been used to bolster racist ideas of European supremacy and dubious theories of evolution which place the European at the top of the ladder. Is this what Macintyre and others are inviting us to admire and support?

It is remarkable that Macintyre could write about restitution in an English or British media without mentioning the case of Benin which is a classic case of imperialist aggression, plunder and incendiary frenzy. The British in 1897 invaded Benin, ransacked the Oba’s Palace taking away thousands of Benin cultural artefacts and in accordance with the tradition of British Punitive Expeditions, set Benin City on fire, after having executed the King’s advisers and sending the Oba into exile. Now when the people of Benin and Nigeria ask for the return of these objects, some have the audacity and impudence to say that they are nationalist with an ideology that is why they are making the request.
Macintyre does not for once mention Africa or the Africans, except the Egyptians. European and American museums have thousands of stolen African objects, the best of which are displayed with pride by the holders who are not always respectful of the dispossessed owners. Many Europeans are not even aware of the existence of African claims for restitution since their writers do not mention this fact. So the invitation to the “universal museum” does not extend to the African peoples. But even such an invitation would be very theoretical since the Europeans are not willing to grant visas to many Africans. No European State would grant a visa to an African solely for the purpose of visiting a “universal museum”. On the contrary, Europe has established an army which is intended to hold Africans back from entering Europe. Frontex is basically aimed at Africans illegally arriving by sea or land to Europe. Europeans may have crossed the seas to Africa in a spirit of adventure and later were honoured by their kings. Young Africans should not assume they can also, in a free world, in a spirit of adventure, try to discover Europe by sea. Such adventures are reserved for Europeans who can travel all over the world!

We can agree with Macintyre that “A shared heritage implies greater sharing, a new sort of philosophy in which individual museums do not merely gather, preserve and display artefacts from across the world, but borrow, lend and swap in a global exchange of objects and ideas. Putting the Terracotta Warriors on display in London demonstrates one kind of cultural exchange, but to display the Elgin Marbles in, say, Beijing, would be a sign that the concept of a pooled cultural legacy has superseded that of national cultural property.”

A new policy by which museums would share objects will certainly be welcome. But when you look at experience in this matter, it is clear that the Europeans are not yet ready to embrace such a change of policy. They are not ready to share their own cultural objects – Picasso, Rembrandt, Goya, Monet, and Turner – with Africans and Asians. They may be prepared to share with Africans some of their stolen African cultural objects but not European objects. It seems to be a fixed European idea that whatever exists in this world, they must have their share, gold, diamonds, oil, timber etc but they are not prepared to share with the rest of the world what exists in Europe. I am ready to share your lunch with you but do not expect to get some of my lunch.

The Germans have shown that they are not prepared to return or lend to the Egyptians the stolen bust of Nefertiti. The British have insulted Nigerians and Africans by refusing to lend the stolen Idia hip mask which is the symbol of FESTAC, the African festival. The Egyptians have once again asked the British Museum to lend the Rosetta Stone.We will have to wait and see whether there will be any change in British Museum policy on this matter.

If Europeans do not see how ridiculous it is to have to discuss with Africans the return of undoubtedly stolen African cultural objects now in European museums, they should stop all this talk about a shared heritage or heritage of mankind. A heritage of mankind in which one group hijacks the cultural icons of the other group by force and violence is not worth talking about. We are all better served by keeping dead silent on a shameful aspect of human history.

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