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Virtual technologies as a solution for cultural property disputes

Kwame Opoku [1] has written an interesting response to Paul Mason’s recent article [2] suggesting that virtual reality and 3D printing could be a solution to the Parthenon Marbles problem.

Parthenon Marbles in British Museum [3]

Parthenon Marbles in British Museum

Kwame Opoku (by email)

Kwame Opoku
20 February 2015

There is no doubt that modern technology can contribute a great deal to arts and education generally in spreading knowledge about the cultures of the world. For example, a child in Nigeria can learn a lot about Africa if she has access to Internet, IPhone or IPad. She can learn about African History, the drinking habits of the English, German family relations, Ghanaian Music and Dance. She could also learn about Yoruba cosmology, costumes and sculpture. But it still remains to be established whether modern technology could help resolve thorny problems of restitution of cultural artefacts.

Paul Mason has in an article in the Guardian, ”Let’s end the row over the Parthenon marbles – with a new kind of museum” has suggested that technologies such as virtual reality and 3D printing could make the physical location of ancient artefacts less important:
“However, the rise of digital technology should allow us to imagine a new kind of museum altogether. The interactive audio guides and digital reconstructions found in some museums should be just the beginning. It is now possible to extend the museum into virtual space so that exhibits become alive, with their own context and complexity. Hard as it is when you are managing a business based on chunks of stone and gold, we should challenge museum curators to think of their primary material as information.”

Once we change our conceptions about what we can expect from museums and regard them as sources of information rather than as places where objects are physically present, a whole new way is opened to modern technology. We do not need to see physically the Parthenon Marbles but will see a virtual presentation of the sculptures:

With virtual-reality headsets and digital recreations, you could have it all. You could walk through the Parthenon as it was in 400BC, and as the mosque it became under the Turks, and as the ruin Elgin found. If we rethink the museum as “information plus things”, then the location of the things becomes negotiable and not so emotive.

Suggestions have been made from time to time that modern technology could help us to dispense with the need to return physical objects that have been stolen or transferred mainly, from non-Western countries to the West. There are also many examples of contested transfer of artefacts within the Western world such the Parthenon Marbles that were taken from Greece to Great Britain. But it seems to me that such ideas, however useful, do not take into account, the real nature and significance of the restitution issues we have been discussing over the years.

Demands for the return of cultural artefacts are not only demands for the physical return of the objects but also requests for recognition and acknowledgement of grave wrongs inflicted on peoples for refusing to accept imperialism. Restitution of artefacts could be the beginning of a healing process which is necessary for the wounds inflicted on peoples and their way of life. Many Westerners do not seem to understand the need for such healing. The hundreds of years of slavery, colonialism and racism do not seem to matter for them. However, these are factors that have shaped the history of the relations of the West with Africa, Asia, Australia, America and Oceania. To ignore these factors means only a partial history can be presented.

Some of the artefacts taken away have been desecrated by the very fact of being handled by persons outside the community that produced them. The tabots of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are desecrated by being viewed by persons other than the clergy of the Church and cannot be substituted by any modern inventions.

Some objects, like masks are required for cultural and religious performances. No amount of imagery could replace such objects. How do you dance with a virtual sword or mask in street processions in Nigeria? Some of the looted artefacts, such as the Nok sculptures, are evidence of our history and cannot be replaced by virtual images or replicas. ICOM has declared that such objects should never leave their countries of origin. Red Lists Database – ICOM [4]

The Ethiopian manuscripts which the venerable universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford and other British and Western institutions are holding are clearly evidence of Ethiopian history and are not replaceable. Edinburgh University refuses to return Ethiopian artefacts [5]

By virtue of the material used, certain objects cannot be replaced by any virtual images. The golden and silver crosses of the Ethiopian Church looted by the British in the notorious invasion of Magdala in 1868 cannot be replaced by anything else. Would anyone dare to suggest to the Asante, Ghana, that the solid gold head mask, golden swords and other valuables stolen by the British from King Karkari in 1874 can be replaced by virtual images?

Could anyone propose to the Egyptians to accept a virtual image of Nefertiti whilst the original bust of the African queen remains in the Neue Museum, Berlin, Germany? Would the Chinese be satisfied with virtual images of the precious treasures looted by the French and the British troops from the Summer Palace in Beijing?

The moral aspects of restitution must also be considered even though many Westerners have banned morality from discussions on restitution and seem to be only interested in the requirements of law, bearing in mind that most of the rules and regulations here have been, directly or indirectly, imposed by the West.

It has to be admitted finally that to deprive peoples of their cultural artefacts by dubious means or by the use of force cannot be accepted as a moral standard. But why do Westerners have difficulty in accepting that the commandment “Thou shall not steal” also applies to cultural objects?

Other aspects of restitution that cannot possibly be covered by virtual images are the financial aspects. Some may act as if they were unaware of the enormous transfer of wealth involved in the transfer of cultural artefacts to the West and the consequential losses to the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. When we think of the Kohinoor Diamond from India that now forms an integral part of the English Crown jewels, we realize that we are dealing with huge amounts. The solid golden Asante mask must be worth some millions due to its gold material in addition to its historical value. The Ethiopian gold and silver crosses and other artefacts will also have a significant monetary value. The 3500 Benin Bronzes the British stole and sold also represent great monetary value. Virtual versions of these objects will not release the looters from the obligation to make some monetary compensation. The benefits accruing to the holders of the artefacts over hundred years could be worked out by specialists.

Given the present attitude of many museum officials and Western intellectuals, mostly following false prophets from London and Chicago, it is not very likely that significant progress will be made soon in restitution disputes. These intellectuals who are occupied with the Western past, do not seem to understand that Africans are also occupied with their past. They seem to share the view of Hugh Trevor- Roper that we did not have any significant historical development in Africa before slavery and colonialism and that these two evils, according to many, were not as bad as Africans present them. There is no African history | The Toynbee convector [6]

These intellectuals spend considerable efforts in defending violent acts such as the notorious invasion of Benin by the British in 1897 but are not concerned with healing the inflicted historical wounds. Occasionally, individual Westerners, such as Dr. Mark Walker have understood the need for reconciliation and have made the correct symbolic act of returning artefacts to the owners.

But museums such as the British Museum, Ethnology Museum, Berlin and World Museum, Vienna, refuse to make even a symbolic act or consider any gesture of reconciliation.

Modern technology can undoubtedly help us in the area of arts and culture but the difficult questions of restitution of cultural artefacts, with the historical, religious, moral and spiritual significance attached to them, do not lend themselves easily to any substitution by modern technology, apart from the fact that most museums are not up to date with modern technology.

Lasting solutions must start with acknowledgement and condemnation of the violence used in acquiring many artefacts from Africa, Asia and Latin America. One can condemn present looting, plundering and destruction of cultural artefacts but this will not sound convincing when one is at the same time reluctant even to admit that such acts in the past are equally wrong. This is especially so when in the past as in the present the benefits of such acts end in the West. No amount of technological advancement will help to resolve the basic contradictions here.

Any illusions that technological development could enable us to dispense with the physical transfer of cherished national cultural treasures must surely be dispelled by the following declaration by the unforgettable former Greek Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri, at the Oxford Union:

“You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness.”