July 27, 2008

UNESCO, Nok terracotta & The Met

Posted at 11:18 am in Similar cases

New York’s Metropolitan Museum has no record of Nigerian art prior to the Benin Bronzes. Met Director Philippe de Montebello suggests that this is a problem brought about by the 1970 UNESCO convention on Cultural Property.

Kwame Opoku however suggests that perhaps this approach is glossing over the realities of the situation.


Kwame Opoku, a tireless commentator on restitution issues (one of whose essays recently attracted a rejoinder on Afrikanet.info from Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello), responds to Michael Conforti Q&A About AAMD and Antiquities:

It is always interesting to hear from those whose work it is to keep records of the past achievements of mankind and society declaring that we must forget the past and look forward to the future. What they are saying is that there should be no archaeology of the acquisition practices of the past.

For the purposes of the new guidelines of the AAMD, it may be sufficient to accept 1970 as the cut-off date for applying more rigorous standards for acquisition. But should one accept that institutions established in the past may not be questioned simply because they are part of an intellectual history? There is a lot that is wrong with Western intellectual history. Must one leave things as they are?

The 1970 UNESCO Convention should not be interpreted as barring the recovery of unlawfully acquired cultural property before that date. That the Convention has no retroactive effect should not be interpreted to mean that it confers legitimacy or approval on acquisition practices before that date or before the effective application date for particular States.

Article 15 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which has been conveniently forgotten or overlooked by many commentators, provides as follows:

Nothing in this Convention shall prevent States Parties thereto from concluding special agreements among themselves or from continuing to implement agreements already concluded regarding the restitution of cultural property removed, whatever the reason, from its territory of origin, before the entry into force of this Convention for the States concerned.

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