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Voluntary restitution of artefacts

Whilst some museums refuse to return (or even allow access to) artefacts despite extensive pressure put on them to do so, one institution has returned an artefact without even being asked. The reason for this action was that the museum felt that it was the right thing to do.

Modern Ghana [1]

5th July 2009
By Kwame Opoku, Dr.

Sometimes, certain acts occur which make us believe that there is still chance for humankind and that not all persons have allowed themselves to be swept by greed and thirst for power over others.

The report about the return by Seattle Art Museum (SAM) to Australian Aborigines of a ceremonial object, without being requested by the owners, may appear to many as a small matter in itself. However, when one takes into account the discussions on restitution of cultural objects to their rightful owners, this act acquires added significance.*

To be sure, there have been in recent times many returns of cultural artefacts to Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Italy and many other States. These returns have usually been preceded by long discussions and negotiations, sometimes lasting for years. For example, negotiations for the return of the Aksum obelisk which had been removed during the invasion of Ethiopia in 1938 by the Italians, took many years. There are still other objects the Italians have not yet returned.

The recent return to Italy of many looted objects by the American museums and universities required hard negotiations and threats of legal action. An American curator is still on trial in Italy for violating Italian laws regarding exportation of cultural artefacts.

We should also recall the enormous propaganda by Cuno, MacGregor and others that by holding onto looted cultural objects of others, looted during the colonial and imperialist ages, Western museums have a great service to humankind.(4)

Some even argue that owners of looted/stolen cultural artefacts have not requested their return and so they have no reason or obligation to return the objects. We have established elsewhere that there is no duty in International Law or Municipal Law for the owner of stolen/looted artefacts to make a request before the current holder can return the object.

Some museums, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, declare publicly their willingness to consider requests for return of looted objects. However, when formal demands are made they keep dead silence and do not feel obliged even to acknowledge the receipt of such requests.

The gesture of the Seattle Museum of Art to return a ceremonial artefact to the Australian Aborigines is therefore a significant step which cannot be praised too highly. The curator of the African Art Department, Pamela McClusky, should be praised for her decision that the sacred object which is used in religious ceremonies and can only be seen by initiated Australian Aboriginal males, should be returned even though there had not been a specific request. The museum which had owned the object since 1970 had never displayed it because its religious nature forbad such a display. We can compare such an upright action with the attitude of the British Museum towards the Ethiopian tabots the museum has been keeping.

The British Museum is holding onto tabots of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, even though the museum recognises the sacred nature of the objects and the requirement that only senior clergy of the Church may look at them. MacGregor, Director of the museum assures us that neither he nor senior museum officials, out of respect for the religious nature of the object, have set eyes upon them. Yet the director was not willing to return the objects to Ethiopia. He was contacting a senior clergy of the Ethiopian Church in London to hand over the objects to him. Can anybody explain the rationality of the conduct of the British Museum except a will to keep things in London?

The British Museum was prepared to follow instructions and prescriptions relating to the sacred nature of the tabots, the Director of the Museum visited Addis Ababa and was prepared to consider a loan, not to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, but to the Church in London. Clearly, there was a will to do everything except the right and simple thing: return the tabots to the rightful owners in Ethiopia.

Why keep African cultural objects for which the British have no practical or religious need and which cannot be shown to the public? Where then are the pretences to inform or educate the public about the cultures of the world?

We are often shocked to realize how little respect some believers or alleged believers have for the religious objects of others. How can the British who pride themselves of being Christians hold on to Ethiopian Orthodox Church symbols looted in 1868? Should respect for the religious rights of others not compel those with conscience to return the crosses and tabots to the Ethiopians? How can they justify depriving others of symbols they have created for their own religious practice? What prevents the British from making their own crosses if they feel there is a need for more such symbols? Cuno, MacGregor, Philippe de Montebello and those who insist on the right of the so-called universal museums to keep whatever they deem of high artistic value, must explain this position. They must explain to us why the aesthetic contemplation and pleasure of the British should take precedence over the religious and religious practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Some museum directors and officials write, talk and act as if morality were not part of Western culture. In discussions on restitution, morality has been, if not generally banned, restricted so severely that it has no effects on actions. Some museum directors do not seem prepared to recognize ethic principles, code of conduct and International Law. Indeed, some actively attack UNESCO conventions on cultural matters.

This absence of respect for morality and the cultures of others has led Western museums into having a number of problems with human remains. Respect for the culture of others and their moral principles would have helped Western museums to avoid difficulties in this area. They would have known from anthropologists and others that in many cultures and religions physical death is not the end of life; the individuals continue their lives in the hereafter and are accorded great respect. Nobody, except Western museum officials would consider showing the remains of human beings for general public viewing.

The action by the Seattle Museum of Art is, in my opinion, a significant step forward in the right direction: It should no longer be accepted that museum directors from leading Western museum can publicly proclaim that owing to the absence of a request for return, the museum directors will not consider restitution of cultural objects that are known to have been looted or stolen.

Such a position may be acceptable in the case of part-time and small scale dealers but clearly not a position we would expect from public officials in institutions that should enlighten the general public on culture. Those museums that have so far hidden behind an alleged absence of request should reflect upon the action by the Seattle Museum of Art and the light it throws on their own current position. In the long run, unprincipled positions based on illegitimate possession of the cultural objects of others can only damage cultural relations. Holding on to objects with which one has no spiritual or religious connection and refusing to return them to those who made them for their cultural needs can only disturb relations.

Kwame Opoku.

*. “Without being asked, Seattle Art Museum returns Australian Aboriginal ceremonial object”, http://www.artsjournal.com “Museum to return Aboriginal stone,” http://seattletimes.com

Arts Journal [2]

June 29, 2009
Without being asked, Seattle Art Museum returns Australian Aboriginal ceremonial object

It’s the art object you will never see, unless you are an initiated Australian Aboriginal male. Nor can it be photographed. The only thing can be noted is its location – no longer at the Seattle Art Museum.

Although SAM has owned the object since museum founder Richard Fuller purchased it in 1970, the museum says it has never been shown. (Fuller retired in 1973.) Not even Australian Aboriginal elders who are pressing the issue around the world knew of its existence.

SAM is not only returning the object, it volunteered to do so without being asked.

Why? Thanks to Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, who’ve been collecting in this field since the 1980s, SAM has a stake in the subject. It’s one of the only U.S. museums with a gallery devoted to Australian Aboriginal art. The real motivator, however, is SAM’s African art curator, Pamela McClusky. When I met her in the early 1980s, she had mounted an exhibit of traditional Ibo stools. Noticing what struck me as a lax security presence and the small size of the stools, I asked if she were concerned that one or two might be taken.

Not at all, she replied. The stools are spiritually protected. If anyone were foolish enough to steal one, he’d suffer before he came to his senses and brought it back.

A student of Robert Farris Thompson’s, McClusky is not your ordinary art curator. Like Thompson, she embraces the meaning first peoples give the objects that they create. She is far more likely to see the central Australian Aboriginal object in question as elders see it, rather than in purely aesthetic terms.

Once the object came to her attention, it was as good as gone.

The wording of the press release has her stamp on it:

Secret/sacred objects of the type being returned are typically used in religious ceremonies by central Australian Aboriginal men. They are considered to be physical manifestations of sacred ancestral beings and as such have great spiritual power.

Not thought to have great spiritual power. The assertion is that they do in fact possess such power.

The National Museum of Australia will store the object temporarily while consultations proceed regarding its final repatriation.