March 13, 2009

Should the culture be taken out of cultural property?

Posted at 5:29 pm in Similar cases

Kwame Opoku responds to this piece on Antiquities Watch.


Datum: 11.03.09 16:03
Kategorie: Kultur-Kunst
Von: Dr. Kwame Opoku
Mine is mine but yours is ours Comments on a suggestion to take culture out of cultural property

I enjoyed reading the article entitled “Yours, Mine, Ours: Taking the Culture out of Cultural Property” in Antiquities Watch (1) and I have sympathy for some of the views expressed there. It is an interesting article and offers food for thought. However, when I started to reflect on a few of the ideas expressed therein, many difficulties appeared.

The author refers to the increased interest in cultural property matters and the fact that “cultural property is drawing on an increasing range of cultures, nations, and sentiments involving both.” He poses the question whether this is “hurting the causes of restitution and cultural property protection? Are we, by politicizing art and antiquities, jeopardizing their protection, if not original meaning?”

I would have thought that the increased interest in cultural property issues by more States and cultures is a positive sign that cultural matters and human rights are being taken seriously. How can anybody imagine that the participation of more States in these matters could be “hurting the causes of restitution and cultural property protection” unless there is a basic underlying assumption that such issues are to be discussed only by European States and the USA?

To the question whether we are, “by politicizing art and antiquities, jeopardizing their protection, if not original meaning”, I would like to answer as follows. Nothing is more political than antiquities and cultural property protection. The histories of the acquisition of most of the antiquities that are often discussed and contested clearly demonstrate their political nature. Whether one considers the Parthenon Marbles, the Ethiopian crosses and the Aksum Obelisk, the bust of Nefertiti, the Benin Bronzes, the Rosetta Stone or the Chinese Bronzes, the initial looting/stealing was made possible only by a certain political constellation. Hence these cultural objects have been embedded in the political relations between the States concerned right from the beginning of their appearance in Europe. The history of the objects is an integral part of the asymmetric power relations between the States. Politicization did not begin with the recent Chinese claim for the return of the bronzes but with the looting in 1860 by the joint Anglo-French military invaders whom Victor Hugo described as robbers. (2) The roles of European armies, navies and air forces in the acquisition and transport of the various stolen artefacts from Africa, America, Asia and Oceania, many of them weighing several tons (Hammurabi’s Code, Rosetta stone, Obelisks, etc) have to be remembered.

The following statement of the author took me by surprise but also allowed me to look more closely at what cultural property involves: “I frequently wrestle with approaching art, antiquities, and other forms of tangible cultural property as anything more than property in the most basic sense. When defined as such, the resolution of disputes involving cultural property, as well as the continued protection of cultural heritage, is often easier and more likely to result in sustainable agreements between disputing parties. Certainly, there are more laws and conventions – both domestic and international – to draw upon when we remove the term ‘cultural’. We free the object in question of its almost inevitably complicated affiliations – national pride, cultural heritage, regional origin, religious meaning (and the list goes on….).”

It would certainly be pleasant if we could discuss cultural property objects as

no “more than property in the basic sense.” This would certainly free us from some of the acrimonious debates that we constantly read in books and on various websites. However, the question is whether we could discuss “cultural property” without the “culture” or “cultural” like any property as the author proposes in the article.

“Property” is a concept developed by lawyers in all legal systems to define the relationship of a person or persons, natural or juridical, to an object, movable or immovable, tangible or intangible. (3) The varieties of property are endless: individual property, collective property, communal property, State property, marital property, commercial property, and intellectual property. The rights and duties that one may have as regards a definite property will depend on the nature of the object involved. Thus marital property will differ from commercial property and intellectual property. Different legal systems have their own definitions and classifications of what constitute property in specific circumstances. There are no definitions valid for all legal systems at all times.

Many individual rights in real property, such as land, have been restricted in the course of history for the benefit of society, especially in town planning matters.

This short explanation of the concept of property shows that we cannot take culture out of cultural property and operate with a general concept of property.

The question will arise at every step, what property are we talking about?

Different kinds of properties have different principles, rules and law. If we took culture out of cultural property, would we work with the rules relating to commercial property or those relating to marital property? Supposing we could take culture out of cultural property, what will we do with all the laws and regulations relating to cultural matters? What will we do with the international conventions, such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention? What will happen to the provisions relating to cultural property in these conventions? Would we no longer hold conferences on cultural property?

The suggestion to take culture out of cultural property would be like a suggestion to take sex out of sexual relations. If we have problems of settling disputes of sexual relations, would we be helped by taking sex out of sexual relations and applying the rules relating to ordinary relations, whatever that may be? What makes sexual relations special is sex and what makes cultural property special is culture. To take culture out would be to deny the specific nature and functions of cultural property. Rules of property are developed in view of the nature of the material or object concerned. Most rules of property reflect the history and nature of the objects concerned and there are no rules that one can apply irrespective of the object concerned. We could not, for example, simply apply rules of the English common law of property to cultural property in Italy or in France.

“We free the object in question of its almost inevitably complicated affiliations – national pride, cultural heritage, regional origin, religious meaning (and the list goes on….).”

The above statement reflects a certain way of looking at cultural objects which is prevalent amongst Westerners but not shared by most of the world. It is also an approach that could free the West from most of its difficulties regarding stolen/looted objects from Africa, Asia and Oceania.

This approach is sometimes presented as an aesthetic approach. According to this approach there are certain qualities of craftsmanship and canons of beauty which can be applied to all cultural objects. Once these standards are met, one can appreciate a piece of art, irrespective of its origin and original functions. Thus objects originally used for religious ceremonies in Mali can be appreciated in Parisian museums and galleries without our having to bother about the religious and social contexts. This approach also encourages providing the museum visitor very little or no information about the objects. The visitor will simply be informed that this is an African object from the nineteenth century. Precise information about its mode of acquisition and functions would be left out or at least not given in abundance.

This approach is often presented as decontextualization. As the author states, “We free the object in question of its almost inevitably complicated affiliations – national pride, cultural heritage, regional origin, religious meaning (and the list goes on….).” The choice of vocabulary is remarkable. The function of the object, the reason why it was made in the first place, its origin and significance are now viewed as obstacles which must be put away since they presumably disturb the Western art lovers, at least those with any conscience left, from complete aesthetic appreciation and enjoyment.

I cannot help thinking that decontextualization is a way of avoiding to deal with the problems stolen/looted artefacts raise: Can anybody who supports restitution accept this? Will this not be giving in to the argument that the Benin bronzes do not belong to the people of Edo and thereby disregard the very role such objects play in their societies? For instance if the object is a means of recording and dating the history of a people, how can one seek to discard this information? Decontextualization appears in the case of African objects to be simply another name for deafricanization. Take away all this African mystification and let us all enjoy the excellent craftsmanship of African sculptors seems to be the principle here. Is the author suggesting that we ignore the religious and ritual significance of most African art objects, such as the Benin commemorative heads? Why then do we fight for restitution at all? Most African art objects have specific functions and an attempt to disregard their original functions, either out of ignorance or a deliberate attempt to play down their origins and their role in the societies that created them is not likely to be helpful to anyone. Is decontextualization a way of avoiding such issues as slavery, colonialism, racism, looting etc which most Europeans would rather forget than discuss?

I suspect that some of those who support decontexualization hope also that with this approach the question of provenance will, if not disappear, be reduced in importance. For if we are not interested in the functions of a particular object and society where it came from, we are not likely to ask too many questions about how it reached its present location.

As regards “national pride”, we should look at the policies of those who are on record as being prepared to turn the world upside down in the pursuit of national interests and pride. The last 200 years have shown what US Americans, British, French and Germans can do when riding the wave of nationalism. They also have the interesting record of stealing/looting cultural artefacts of others and investing them with so much national pride that one even forgets that they did not produce them and were not made for them. Think of the bust of Nefertiti. Some Germans even argue that she is more German then Egyptian! What about the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles?

I hope the supporters of the notion of decontextualization are conscious of their implications. Such a stance basically disrespects the artists and the societies that produced the artefacts and are not likely to be interested in the motivations of the artists and their intentions. Surely, such a general disrespect for the cultures of others should not be encouraged. How are the Western States going to make their contribution to the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World, 2001–2010 (General Assembly Resolution 63/113, 5 Dec. 2008) if their cultural representatives support such disrespect for other cultures?

The causes of the acrimonious nature of disputes of cultural property must therefore be sought elsewhere and not in culture itself. The balance of power among nations is a better key to the understanding of culture property disputes.

The real problem in this area is not culture but the selfish and arrogant attitude of the West. The domination of the former colonialist and imperialist powers has been reduced but they still wield considerable power and influence. Many of the representatives of the West still have attitudes and opinions that are very similar to those held in the heyday of imperialism. The racist undertones of many of the arguments in the cultural area are reminiscent of those of yesteryear. There is still a well-entrenched conviction that Europeans and the West have a god-given right and duty to guard and control the resources of this planet, including the cultural artefacts of others. The views purveyed by the ardent apostles of the “universal museum”, with varying nuances, are the cultural reflection of the exploitation of the mineral and other resources of Africa and other parts of the world by Western States. There are those who still argue that African cultural objects are better kept in Western museums than in Africa, not caring for the deprivation involved in such positions. They believe Ethiopian crosses, tabots and other treasures as well as historical documents are better kept in the British Museum. The violations of the economic, religious and cultural rights of the Ethiopians do not seem to matter to these European culture activists.

“People rightly argue that source nations are rarely lacking in comparable material and have not suffered considerable loss by having one or two pieces on display in foreign museums”.

Nobody has any objection to one or two pieces of a specific African culture being displayed in a European or American museum. Most of us want to have our cultures displayed elsewhere in the world. We support European and American museums using one or two African artefacts to explain African culture to their people just as we would like African museums to have one or two European or American cultural objects for the purpose of teaching our own peoples. But how many Westerners reflect on the fact that there are no European or American cultural objects in African museums? I have suggested that Europeans send a few artworks/artefacts to African museums but nobody has taken that up or commented on the issue. Obviously, the prejudices and superiority complexes of many Westerners prevent them from even contemplating such an eventuality. Even those who are shouting on rooftops everywhere that antiquities belong to all of us, to all humanity do not see this as an important issue. But are we Africans not part of humanity? Do we not need to learn about the cultures of others? Are we only acceptable as objects to be studied by others and not as subjects who study others?

But let us not waste time on one or two pieces. Take the Benin Bronzes, for example. The British Museum has, allegedly, 700 pieces, the Berlin Museum of Ethnology has admittedly 580 pieces, Field Museum, Chicago, has 400 pieces, Art Institute of Chicago has 20 and Ethnology Museum of Vienna has 167 pieces. (4) All these pieces were looted during the 1897 British invasion of Benin which not only involved the British killing of Benin nobles, innocent and children, deposition and humiliation of the King, Oba Ovonramwen but also the looting of the cultural objects in the Royal Palace and the burning of Benin City. The British sold later some of the stolen bronzes to other Europeans and Americans.

The Nigerians and the Benin Royal Family have asked for the return of some of the Benin Bronzes but so far there has been no success. Indeed, the request from the Royal Family in September 2008 addressed to the museums has so far not even been acknowledged. (5) Would they have treated a European royal family with such disdain and disrespect? Is there some residual racism in all this? Are members of a Royal Family not entitled, at least, to the minimum respect that should be accorded to the normal, ordinary person?

So who is really responsible for the acrimonious restitution debates? Those who refuse even to acknowledge demands for restitution or to return some of the stolen/looted objects or those who seek the return of the looted objects?

The present generation of Western Europeans and US Americans should not retreat to the comfortable position and illusion that colonialism and imperialism are over and that they have nothing to do with these two oppressive phenomena. The effects of colonialism are with us all around the museums and public places in European cities such as London, Paris, Berlin, Lisbon, Madrid, Amsterdam, Brussels etc. Stolen/looted objects abound in these places but the people there no longer ask questions about their origin. It is time that they asked how compatible the presence of hundreds of stolen objects in the cities is with the official public morality. They must recognize that their heritage also includes colonialist and imperialist acquisitions that have procured and still procure for them certain advantages which work to the detriment of many others. Their obligation is not to defend the horrors of the past but to ensure that they are not repeated. As far as possible, they should return stolen/looted objects which are not needed, no matter what some museum directors say. They should not sell looted/stolen cultural artefacts of others as the British Museum does. The museum even sold Benin Bronzes to the Nigerians. Nigerians thus paid ransom to the British for Benin Bronzes looted in 1897 by the British. (6) They should seek to accommodate the modest request of others, victims of the misdeeds of their forebears, who want the restitution of some of the objects. Above all, they should not follow those false prophets and dubious saints who preach that the best way to deal with stolen/looted artefacts is to declare that they belong to humanity and keep them in the former colonial capitals. Those are the preachers who say that “Mine is mine and yours is ours”. They eat their meals alone but demand a share in the meals of others. They do not believe that what belongs to all of us should be shared by all. They have so far not shown any willingness to share the looted objects. On the contrary, they have argued that the objects were legally acquired or that the materials used in producing the artefacts came from Europe. (7) They may even seek to cover the rapacious policies of the colonialist regimes by referring to the European Enlightenment. (8)

Genuine bridges should be built to reach the many victims of colonial oppression who would like to put this painful past behind but cannot do so without some gestures of acknowledgement and understanding from the inheritors of colonial spoliations. This is the real difficulty in disputes of cultural property that cannot be solved by taking culture out of cultural property. Europeans should be willing and ready to fulfil Victor Hugo’s wish that the French and the British, whom he described as robbers, will one day return to the Chinese the treasures they stole from the Gardens of Perfect Brightness.

If the museums and those in the culture area are unable to solve the issues of restitution, the politicians and governments will be forced to intervene since they can hardly stand by and observe the provocative and abrasive statements of Western museum directors add injury to the pains of others

and drive non-Westerners to greater levels of anger and frustration at their inability to recover their cultural artefacts. The museums that have not been able to adapt to a changed, non-colonial world will gradually assume the image of the last bastions of colonialism and imperialism. They will create enormous difficulties for all those who believe museums still have an important role to play in both national and international cultural relations. But can they play such a role with statements that reflect the vocabulary and diction of the heyday of imperialism?

1. http://antiquitieswatch

2. K. Opoku, “Is it not time to fulfil Victor Hugo’s Wish?” www.afrikanet

It is worth reading the letter dated 25 November 1861, from Victor Hugo to a Captain Butler, conveying his horror at the Anglo-British invasion in of the Garden of Perfect Brightness, Beijing, 1860:

“One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the Summer Palace was accomplished by the two victors acting jointly. Mixed up in all this is the name of Elgin, which inevitably calls to mind the Parthenon. What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace, more thoroughly and better, so that nothing of it should be left. All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewellery. What a great exploit what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits.

We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians. This is what civilization has done to barbarism.

Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England. But I protest, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity! the crimes of those who lead are not the fault of those who are led; Governments are sometimes bandits, peoples never.”

3. The rules we apply to everyday issues of property have been largely developed by lawyers. However, philosophers, anthropologists, religious thinkers, political theorists and others have made considerable contributions to our ideas about the concept of property. Pierre Proudhon’s idea that “Property is theft”, influenced socialist as well as Marxist thought.

4. Most museums refuse to give exact figures on the stolen/looted objects they hold and are not willing to contribute to public education by publishing or making available information on the artefacts. See K. Opoku, “Ten Essential Points on the Continued Detention of the Benin Bronzes by European and American Museums”,

5. K. Opoku, “Formal Demand for the Return of Benin Bronzes” www.modernghana

6. Martin Bailey, “British Museum Sold Benin Bronzes”,

BBCNews, “Benin bronzes sold to Nigeria”

Dalya Alberg, “British Museum sold Benin Bronzes for £75 each”

David Gill, “Some Thoughts on the Benin Bronzes”,


K. Opoku “Is the Stealing of Cultural Objects of Others a Specific Cultural Heritage of Europe or is it a Universal Heritage?”

7. K. Opoku, “When will everybody finally accept that the British Museum is s British Institution? Comments on a Lecture by Neil MacGregor”,

8. K. Opoku, “Cuno Reiterates his views on Ownership and Location of Antiquities”,

9. See “YSL and Chinese Antiquities; Buyer Revealed”.;

“Not Paying for the Bronzes”, illicit-cultural-property.blogspot

Mark McDonald and Carol Vogel, “Twist in Sale of Relics Has China Winking”

“Are we entering the era of guerrilla activism in cultural heritage?”

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