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The British Museum & restitution claims

Kenya is organising an exhibition of artefacts from Kenya & neighbouring countries. The British Museum is lending them a large number of items temporarily to display in the exhibition, which they seem to feel is a very positive move – in many ways it is, as it shows greater co-operation with other museums. On the other hand it raises again the question of why these countries should have to go pleading to the British Museum for the loan of objects whenever they want an exhibition in their own country. The British Museum thinks that this is the best way of doing things (well they would wouldn’t they) but it seems to me tat however much the British Museum co=operates in this way, the other institutions abroad are still at the mercy of the British Museum for the eventual decision for what artefacts they will have or not.
Neil MacGregor (director of the British Museum) hopes that by sharing artefacts, the disputes about ownership will be less acute. “What is the real question: ownership or use of objects?” he asks. The fact is though, that the British Museum, as the owner & user of the objects will always have the upper hand in these situations.
The situation is getting more positive in a lot of cases, but other points in the article just highlight the problems with the attitude of the British Museum.

Financial Times [1]

British Museum blazes a trail to the exhibition rooms of Africa
By Frederick Studemann
Published: May 24 2005 03:00 | Last updated: May 24 2005 03:00

When Kiprop Lagat, a senior curator at the National Museum of Kenya, was seeking artefacts for an exhibition exploring the relationship between his country and its immediate neighbours, his search took him thousands of kilometres away from east Africa to central London.

There, in the ordered neoclassical confines of the British Museum, he spent a year searching through the 12,000 objects in its Africa collection.

Eventually, he selected 150 that will make the journey to Nairobi for next year’s exhibition – including a fibre circumcision mask and a clay painted headdress.

The choice of the British Museum was hardly surprising. One of the legacies of Britain’s imperial past is that the 253-year-old museum has one of the biggest collections of African artefacts outside the continent.

But Mr Lagat’s project is seen as a pioneering endeavour that is being closely watched by other institutions.

For the British Museum, the loan marks a deliberate attempt by a big owner of African artefacts to rethink its relationship with Africa at a time when the continent’s developmental needs have moved up the international agenda.

Rethinking the approach to Africa was first considered when the African collection was returned to the museum’s main building in Bloomsbury in 1998, after decades in the Museum of Mankind.

Now the debate is being watched by other institutions with big African holdings, such as Belgium’s Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Brussels.

The Nairobi initiative also offers the potential for other African countries to join the international exhibit loan circuit – from which they are largely excluded.

The British Museum believes it can set an international precedent by going much further than occasional loans of individual objects and opening its collection for more extensive use.

Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, argues that it is showing the way for the world’s other big “encyclopaedic” collections in London, Berlin, Paris, New York and St Petersburg.

“Only the encyclopaedic collections of Europe and America can provide that wider context, the evidence of links and influences that shape and explain why a country is the way it is,” he says.

This goes beyond providing regional contexts as with the Nairobi exhibition. In China, the British Museum is working with counterparts in Beijing and Shanghai to provide contemporary western context for large-scale local exhibitions.

Under Mr MacGregor’s model, collections such as those of the Metropolitan in New York, or the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, would make their items and expertise globally available. The great museums of the world would become museums for the world.

For Mr MacGregor this ambition marks a return to the universalist ambitions of the British Museum’s 18th-century founding fathers. “Previous assumptions that objects had to be held in one place no longer hold, given technological developments,” he says. “We can [now] serve the public in Africa and elsewhere.”

He hopes it will become a two-way process, with British Museum benefiting from the expert input of partners.

Adopting the role of global lender has other benefits. Not least, it offers an answer to controversies surrounding the ownership by western museums of artefacts from other countries.

Mr MacGregor hopes that by sharing artefacts, the disputes about ownership will be less acute. “What is the real question: ownership or use of objects?” he asks.

Curators such as Mr Lagat and Claude Ardouin, a colleague from Mali also working with the British Museum, agree. “The time of big claims has passed. It was more in the 1970s,” says Mr Ardouin.

Others see it differently. Famously, the Greek government has claimed ownership of the Elgin Marbles, parts of the Parthenon frieze it wants returned from London to the Acropolis in Athens.

Last year, the return of aboriginal etched barks lent by the British Museum to Museum Victoria in Melbourne was blocked after ownership was contested under local heritage protection law. Museum Victoria successfully challenged the claim. Other museums in Europe have had disputed pictures seized while on loan.

Mr MacGregor says the British Museum will lend only when it has contractual guarantees that works will be returned.

There are other risks, however. Belgium lent artefacts to Mobutu Sese-Seko, then ruler of Zaire. When he was overthrown in 1997, the collection disappeared into the international art market, says John Mack, an Africa expert.

Mr MacGregor says: “If we are going to share the culture of the world, we need a legal framework that enables this to happen.”