August 9, 2010

The politics of where artefacts belong

Posted at 9:33 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Many who are against the restitution of various artefacts to their countries of origin, argue that the countries today are completely different ones (in many cases with different names) to those from which the artefacts originated. To argue this though it to lose track of the geographical connection itself – artefacts are a product of a time & place. Even if the times have changed, the place is still where it always was.

Egypt Today

May 2010
Whose Heritage?
Repatriating ancient treasures seems like a noble cause, but history might end up the loser
By Michael Kaput

Forget bailouts. Part of the possible solution to Greece’s economic woes is 2,500 years old and sits in the British Museum.

It makes sense to Daniel Korski, who wrote a March 4 article, “Why we should give the Elgin Marbles back to Greece,” in the British magazine The Spectator. Korski was referring to the sculptures and friezes originally mounted on the Parthenon, which were removed from Ottoman-administered Greece by Lord Thomas Elgin from 1801 to 1812. Currently in the British Museum, the marbles have been a long-standing slight to Greek national pride. Finally returning them, suggests Korski, could give Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou the political capital he needs to sustain unpopular economic reforms in his bankrupt country.

The suggestion is not as crazy as you might think. Antiquities are an effective weapon in any country’s political arsenal. But the furor generated over who owns which antiquities is swiftly superseding the appreciation of their cultural and historical value.

No one knows the political power of antiquities better than Dr. Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). Egypt, by some accounts, is the repository of a full third of the world’s surviving antiquities. Add to that its long history of occupation and looting by colonial powers, and it is no wonder today’s battle to repatriate ancient artifacts is being led by Hawass, who for years has been challenging the status quo and stoking controversy in the world antiquities community with his demands for the return of high-profile artifacts from abroad.

On April 7 and 8, the SCA hosted the Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage in Cairo, bringing together 25 countries — among them Greece, Peru and Italy — to discuss how to work cohesively to repatriate pilfered artifacts, with Hawass suggesting that countries draw up wish-lists of artifacts to recover from foreign museums. At the end of the conference, Hawass told international media, “Some of us will make the life of those museums that have our artifacts miserable.”

The conference participants may also submit recommendations to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to amend current antiquities conventions to allow the countries greater flexibility in pursuing antiquities removed from their borders.

A week after the conference, the SCA signed an agreement with Switzerland that will see the return of all artifacts illegally taken from Egypt and found within Swiss borders. Switzerland has virtually no antiquities protection laws, which has made it a hotbed for global antiquities smuggling.

The conference and the Swiss accord are merely the latest in Hawass’ well-publicized campaign to return allegedly stolen antiquities to Egypt. In recent years, Hawass has lobbied for the return of several high-profile artifacts, including the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum and the bust of Nefertiti from Germany’s Neues Museum. Though the two pieces still remain in the West, Hawass scored a victory when the Louvre returned five fresco fragments after he threatened to break off all cooperation with the museum and suspend its archeological missions in Egypt until the pieces were returned.

Despite the sound bites, public shaming and media grandstanding, the question of who owns history isn’t as simple as Egypt’s Indiana Jones might have you think.

The war over antiquities is waged between modern nation states, which didn’t exist at the times the artifacts were created or removed. Many of the artifacts in question were taken across the borders of defunct political bodies, Ottoman-administered Egypt in the case of the Rosetta Stone, and Ottoman-administered Greece in the case of the Elgin Marbles. Though cases can be made for their return, it is logically and legally impossible to hold modern-day states accountable for the actions of past governments, regimes and empires.

What the now-existing states can do is enact laws protecting their cultural heritage — Egypt has recently strengthened its own laws against antiquities looters — and negotiate agreements with other existing political bodies. Though international frameworks exist for the protection of cultural heritage, such as those created by UNESCO, these agreements value national sovereignty above all. UNESCO has no authority to enact laws or force one country to return artifacts to another. This means countries holding antiquities originating elsewhere must voluntarily agree to their return to source countries, ideally through international agreements.

The key UNESCO convention on the issue — the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property — was enacted in 1970. But it has no legal weight, and applies only to antiquities removed from countries after 1970.

The lack of international legal tools that can be used to reclaim antiquities is part of the problem for source countries, leading to high-profile repatriation campaigns such as the one led by Hawass.

“I think [these countries] do that because they feel there is a void in this area in terms of international law or prevailing conventions that they can refer to,” says Tarek Shawki, director of UNESCO’s regional bureau for science in Arab states.

But even if laws are in place, the case for ownership isn’t always cut and dry. Exhibit A: the Rosetta Stone. The stone was first discovered by French occupation soldiers in 1799, when Egypt was under the nominal rule of the Ottomans. In 1801, after Napoleon’s defeat by the British, the stone was ceded to the victors. Since 1802, it has been displayed in the British Museum (with a brief break during the heavy bombing of London during the Second World War). It was decoded by British and French archaeologists and subsequently maintained by the British Museum.

It’s an all-too-common tale of colonial powers pilfering antiquities from source countries under occupation. But it’s an argument that sways the heart, not the head.

Not only does the stone’s complicated history make a legal case for returning it difficult, the British Museum has demurred on giving the stone back, citing practical concerns over the stone’s security in Egypt.

Such concerns can come off as “logical or hostile, depending on who’s listening,” says Shawki. Genuine concern over the well-being of priceless artifacts on the part of, in this case, European museums, can come off as patronizing and colonial. Conversely, Hawass’ rhetoric, though born of a passion for antiquities, can come off as nationalistic. Hawass told Al Jazeera in a July 2007 television interview about the Rosetta Stone: “We own that stone. The motherland should own this.”

Such talk is disturbing to those who see ancient artifacts as world heritage, not national symbols.

It is difficult to make the case that the artifacts of ancient Egypt were made by people bearing strong similarities to citizens of the modern-day Arab Republic of Egypt, just as it would be difficult for Greek PM Papindreou to say he has a tangible link to the lineage of Socrates. Though geography and cultural identity count for much personally, they are not consistent, logical or legal foundations for creating effective mechanisms to govern the return of antiquities.

These larger issues are precisely the ones people like James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, see as the overriding concern in the political debate over antiquities. Cuno’s book Who Owns Antiquity? and his subsequent lectures on the subject of antiquities argue for a global culture of antiquities exchange, in which scholars refuse to cave to the pressure of leaders and governments seeking to acquire antiquities for their own national promotion. “It is in the nature of our species to connect and exchange,” Cuno wrote in his book. “And the result is a common culture in which we all have a stake. It is not, and can never be, the property of one modern nation or another.”

Cuno argues that the laws drafted by nations to protect their antiquities are not only ineffective and drive pieces to the black market, away from the public eye and scholarship, but also that ancient antiquities are used to foster the nationalist identity of the state.

The arguments made by the SCA hinge on national ownership, but those arguments can be dangerous when used by any country seeking to place a national claim on human heritage. The modern state of Israel declared in February that Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, two West Bank sites considered holy to both Jews and Muslims, as Israeli national heritage sites. Clashes erupted after the announcement in what many viewed as a bid to claim Palestinian land under the guise of preserving cultural heritage.

On March 14, Hawass cancelled the SCA’s unveiling ceremony for Cairo’s Maimonides Synagogue, a recently restored nineteenth-century synagogue, citing displeasure with recent Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories. He was quoted in the independent Israeli daily Ha’aretz, as saying that he had given “the Zionist enemy a slap in the face.”

In a cultural, scientific and educational sense, name-calling and flag-waving degrade the ideals behind preserving humanity’s past. When artifacts are used as political footballs, history gets sidelined.

In the spat over Maimonides Synagogue, the irony was lost on all parties. The synagogue’s namesake was a famous thirteenth-century Jewish philosopher and physician who died in Cairo after serving as the court physician to a series of Muslim sultans, including Salah Al-Din. et

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