While many disagree with the concept of the Universal Museum , without an international legal framework in place, few challenges relating to pre-1970 acquisitions by such museums have yet been successful. The odd exceptions to this involve items such as Nazi loot, which are covered by different national laws in many countries.
Now, Turkey is putting pressure on the Met – not on recently acquired artefacts, but on items which left Turkey long before the 1970 cut off date . It will be interesting to see how much success they have with this – threats to withdraw cooperation have been criticised by the museums as blackmail – but it still represents a clear obstacle to the museums that must be negotiated around.
Turkey’s restitution dispute with the Met challenges the ‘universal museum’
Turkey is flexing its cultural, as well as its economic and military muscles. But objects of art outlive the ambitions of nation states
Sunday 7 October 2012 14.00 BST
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, like most institutions of its size in the US and Europe, has seen its fair share of lawsuits and controversies surrounding its collection. It returned nearly two dozen antiquities to Italy in 2006, as well as work acquired via Nazi looting.
But now the Met is facing a very different kind of restitution battle. The Turkish government is insisting it is the rightful owner of 18 objects from the collection of Norbert Schimmel, a Met trustee and one of the last century’s most astute collectors of Mediterranean antiquities.
Unlike the Italian claim, and unlike in the cases of Holocaust victims’ families, the proof here is scant to nonexistent. What’s more, both the US and Turkey are signatories to a Unesco convention stating that if a cultural object left the country in which it was produced before the year 1970, then it’s free to circulate. That cutoff date puts almost all the Met’s antiquities in the clear.
But Turkey doesn’t care, it now seems: it’s citing its own law, more than a century old, to insist that the artifacts belong to it.
You might be tempted to dismiss these claims as antique, gold-hilted saber-rattling. But the Turkish culture ministry can apply formidable pressure. It’s nearly impossible these days for a museum like the Met to mount an ambitious exhibition without the permission, and sometimes the aid, of national governments; and Turkey is now blocking loans to museums it says have what’s rightfully its.
This year’s Met mega-exhibition of Byzantine art had to make do without Turkish loans (though the Met’s curators coyly say they never wanted any). So did the British Museum’s spring show about the Hajj: while Turkish museums agreed to lend 35 objects to the BM, the culture ministry shut the lending down. Ankara is also playing hardball with the Louvre, the V&A, the Pergamon and pretty much every other encyclopedic museum in the west.
Museum officials are calling this blackmail. They may have a point but it’s one inflected with a deep irony. Rich people take poor people’s stuff – such is the arc of history. But guess who’s got the money now?
The Turkish economy has come down from the vertiginous heights of 2010 and 2011, when annual growth exceeded 8%, but the country remains one of the only economic winners of the past few years – Turkey is ready to play in the big time. It’s already at the top table of geopolitics (the G20) and defense (Nato). Its failure to get into the EU now looks like a blessing in disguise. Its retaliation against Syria this past week marks not only its military might, but also US and EU dependence on Turkey in a region changing too fast for western diplomats to handle. And now, naturally, Turkey wants to make their mark in the cultural sphere as well.
“Artifacts have souls and historical memories,” according to Ertugrul Gunay, Turkey’s pugnacious culture minister. “When they are repatriated to their countries, the balance of nature will be restored.”
That nationalistic statement puts Turkey in the vanguard of a troubling tendency, one seen everywhere from Israel to China: that the nation state has an infinite claim to a cultural heritage that may date back thousands of years before the state’s foundation. Gunay’s appeal to the “balance of nature” is telling. He conceives of the nation state as something organic, an unchanging territorial bond, rather than a relatively recent phenomenon in world history.
It’s worth recalling that the Turks, or at least their historical ancestors, were involved in the hottest cultural property dispute of them all. The tussle over the Elgin Marbles, in the British Museum, is usually seen as an Anglo-Greek affair. But of course, it was the Ottoman Empire that took Elgin’s money, and it’s Ottoman documents that, so say the Brits, prove the legality of Elgin’s “purchase” (more like bribe).
But that case only highlights that when it comes to cultural restitution, national boundaries are not very helpful guides. Cultures are not ahistorical and immutable. They change all the time. And they certainly don’t line up easily with the borders on our maps, to say nothing of the governments that delimit them.
I’m hardly against restitution when the case is clear. The Met and the Turks have actually been here before, under different circumstances, though America’s few remaining arts desks have failed to mention it. Back in 1993, the museum settled out of court with the Turkish government to return a collection of over 300 gold and silver objects, which the Turks convincingly demonstrated had been stolen. The artifacts, known collectively as the Lydian Hoard, are now exhibited in the western Turkish city of Usak. Their return to Turkey angered some of the die-hard defenders of the universal museum, and their case was bolstered by the revelation that fewer than a thousand people visited the treasures over five whole years.
The universal museum, a legacy of western imperialism, is always going to be disputed. In the case of the Lydian Hoard, though, the situation was plain: no appeal to Enlightenment values and educational imperatives could justify the purchase of clearly stolen objects. The Schimmel collection is a wholly different case. What’s at issue is not justice and fairness, but nationalism and power.
The small crimes of theft and looting, when they can be demonstrated, should be put right. But there’s no way to dismantle the whole museum, just as there’s no way to turn back the clock on imperialism and war.
Turkey should know this, of course. Tellingly, while the Turkish cultural authorities are keen to get their hands on the Met’s antiquities, they’re much less forthcoming about the collections in their own museums – good fractions of which come from Lebanon, Greece, the former Yugoslavia and other regions once controlled by the Ottoman Empire. If they’re not careful, the next collections in dispute might be their own.