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The Bizot Group & the Universal Museum

It is a few years now since the Declaration of Universal Museums [1]. Whilst many have declared that the concept (as portrayed at the time) is dead in the water, this powerful group of institutions still have the potential to manipulate popular opinion & to over-rule the more democratic backbones of the museum community such as ICOM.

Guardian News (Nigeria) [2]

Fatwa of Cairo gathering on looted artefacts
By Tajudeen Sowole

COLLECTIVE attempt made last month – perhaps for the first time – by countries demanding for restitution of disputed cultural objects is though laudable. However, it is an uphill task and capable of rattling existing conventions on the issue.

The two-day conference tagged International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage and held in Cairo, Egypt came eight years after keepers of these artefacts gathered under the name, Bizot Group and declared a concept of universal museum. The ownership of such works, Bizot argued in France, should not be confined to geographical boundaries.

During the Cairo event organized by the country’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the Secretary General of the host, Dr. Zahi Hawass urged participants to brace up for a near impossible mission. He said: “We need to co-operate, we need a unification between our countries. Every country is fighting alone; every country suffered alone, especially Egypt”.

As he declared that, “we will battle together,” he also sounded a note of warning that “maybe we will not succeed in a lifetime, but we have to open the subject.”

Sources said about 25 countries were represented at the event. Some of these countries are Nigeria, Greece, Bolivia, Italy, China, India, Peru, Libya, Syria and Mexico.

Even though it is not yet known if there was another declaration of the Bizot Group after the inaugural gathering, the last meeting in Chicago, last year, showed that the group is growing in numerical strength. From 20 members in 2002 – currently under the leadership of its chairman, British Museum President, Neil MecGregor – about 60, sources said, attended the Chicago event.

With a clique such as Bizot, made up of directors of some of the strongest museums of the world, it’s just a matter of time before International Council of Museums (ICOM) is rendered irrelevant. Named after its founder Irene Bizot – former head of Reunion des Musees Nationaux, France’s – the group had stated: “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: We should, however, recognize that objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era. The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones.”

However, Hawass and his new group hinged the hope of success of their mission on possible review of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on cultural and religious objects.

Even though the documents, comprehensively prevents and protects illegal movements of cultural and other related objects, it has no retroactive value; not binding on issues that are pre-ratification of the convention. It therefore, covertly, protects the Bizot Group and other keepers of these disputed objects.

In fact Bizot concurred with UNESCO when it emphasised: “Over time, objects so acquired-whether by purchase, gift, or partage have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them. Today, we are especially sensitive to the subject of a work’s original context, but we should not lose sight of the fact that museums too provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source.”

This position was taken when Greece demanded for the Parthenon Marble, currently housed in British Museum.

In Cairo, each participant country, sources explained, presented a wish list of artefacts for restitution. For Nigeria, works on this list are: Benin bronzes, including the ivory hip mask of Queen-Mother Idia, currently in the British Museum, U.K., Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Germany and other Western museums. The country also added the famous Ife head, Ori Olokun (even though its current keepers are not known).

Aside the UNESCO, a world governing body such as ICOM is also indifferent to retrospective issues on illegal acquisition by members. In fact, the body builds its ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, 2006 on existing international conventions; an apparent silence on objects illegally acquired before ratifications of these coventions.

While Hawass’s group is after an outright return of the objects to their countries of origin, someone has what could be described as interim measures. During the lecture section of Peju Layiwola’s art exhibition Benin 1897.com: Art and the Restitution Question, the guest speaker, Prof. Folarin Shyllon, preferred a bilateral benefit of these objects. In his paper, Towards a Strategy for Curbing Illicit Trafficking and the Return of Cultural Property – which dwelled on the richness of Nigeria’s antiquities as well as past and recent developments by other African countries on restitution issue – he made some recommendations.

Shyllon stated: “Nigeria should commence bilateral negotiations with the governments of the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany.” This he explained, should involve discussion for the “establishment of a branch of the British Museum in Nigeria so that the Benin Bronzes can be viewed on Nigerian soil.” Similarly, Germany should be engaged to have a branch of their museum in Nigeria, Shyllon said.

And just in case the gathering in Egypt could lead to something positive in future, preparation of individual countries would determine the level of success or even failure. Some countries, according to information from that event, are not actually prepared for restitution. Nigeria appeared to be one of such countries. The Director General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Mallam Yusuf Abdallah, who represented Nigeria at the conference said the gathering urged members to take adequate inventory of artefacts stolen from each country and where they are located. On his return, Abdallah lamented that in the case of Nigeria, it was difficult to know the number of objects taken out of the country. More importantly, keepers of most lost works of Nigerian origin are also unknown.

Also when it comes to protecting the objects back home, either from illegal excavation or acquisition from museums, the NCMM keeps coming under criticism for not doing enough. Before the Egypt event, Abdallah argued that, “not a single loss has been recorded from the national collections of the NCMM in the last ten years.” Noting that, indeed there are “unauthorized excavations and movement of ancient works of arts at various discreet and private locations within the country,” the NCMM, he explained, finds it “very difficult to ascertain because these objects don’t pass through the commission’s legitimate official channels.” And as those involved in illicit excavating appear to be evading several security measures, including NCMM, awareness, he assured, is ongoing, particularly at the borders and overseas.

In the last one year, Egypt’s, SCA, under the leadership of Hawass has recorded quite some success in return of its stolen artifacts. It is hoped that, as the initiator of this historic gathering, Egypt will bring her recent success bear on this laudable attempt.