April 3, 2008

The British Museum’s avoidance of dealing with restitution claims

Posted at 1:06 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The British Museum does not just ignore restitution claims, but in many cases, they refuse to even enter into any sort of negotiations in the first place.

Kwame Opoku (by email)


It is becoming increasingly clear that many of the European museum directors are not very convinced of the soundness of the arguments they present in favour of the retention of stolen African cultural objects by their museums. We have shown the illegality, illegitimacy and immorality of the continued holding of thousands of African cultural objects which the museums are unable to display for lack of space. We have also demonstrated their denial of the cultural and human rights of many Africans by the persistent refusal even to discuss the issue of restitution of stolen cultural object and also that the refusal to return these items constitutes a violation of several United Nations and UNESCO resolutions. (KOpoku, NEFERTITI, IDIA AND OTHER AFRICAN ICONS IN EUROPEAN MUSEUMS: THE THIN EDGE OF EUROPEAN MORALITY http://www.afrikanet.info)

If any further proof were required as evidence of the disgraceful and untenable behaviour of the holders of stolen items, the article below would be more than sufficient. It describes how the Director of the British Museum, the leader of those museums resisting any attempts to return stolen cultural objects, ran away from a group of Africans who sought to discuss the issue with him; he ran away for very good reasons: he would have had no intelligent and acceptable explanation for the refusal to repatriate. The recent UNESCO International Conference, The Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin, 17- March 2008, Athens, has emphasized the importance of the cultural heritage of a people as an indispensable element for their self-definition as a people and community, serving as a link between the present, the past and the future and urged museums to start dialogues on the return of important cultural property to the country and community of origin.

The British will of course not be impressed by conclusions and suggestions from a UNESCO conference at Athens, Greece since they do not appear to have much respect for international organizations and definitely do not want to return the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. The completion of the new magnificent museum at the Acropolis will not move them. They are keeping the Benin Bronzes, the Rosetta stone, Ethiopian historical documents and religious objects and other stolen items that fill the British Museum and other museums in Great Britain. It seems when their interests are involved, law and morality have no place in their considerations.

How long will the British, the French, the Germans, the Americans, the Portuguese and other Europeans hold on to the stolen cultural property of others? I sometimes have the impression that they do not read the publications of the ethnologists and other social scientists. They would by now have understood and appreciated the importance of these cultural objects in the societies of origin. They would have realized how much these objects are linked to the history, religion language and culture of the societies concerned. The British, the Germans , the French and the Portuguese are thus depriving the societies concerned of essential elements for their culture and development by keeping cultural objects which are not necessary for European or American self-definition but are kept merely for aesthetic contemplation. By holding on to these stolen items, the British and their allies are contributing to violations of human rights and the disrespect of law as well as disregarding the right of self-determination and the independence of the peoples. They are, of course, sustaining and nurturing thereby the market for plundered archaeological items. The rampant stealing of cultural objects ,even in churches, cannot be halted if venerable institutions such as the British Museum, London, the Louvre, Paris, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Ethnology Museum, Berlin and other similar institutions do not denounce cultural pilferage and renounce any “rights” to stolen items and return them. One cannot cultivate thievery and immorality in higher public institutions and expect to produce honesty and high morality in private life. One cannot have a very high private or public morality in a society where museum directors praise robbers for their bravery and condemn States for attempts to control illicit trade in archaeological objects. (K. Opoku, “A blank cheque to plunder Nok terra cotta? http://www.afrikanet.info/index).

Kwame Opoku, 1 April 2008

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