April 3, 2008

The viability of legality in the museums of the West

Posted at 1:02 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Continual stories of perceived wrongdoing by museums mean that our respect for them as institutions of learning & imparting of knowledge is diminished. The problem is that many of the museums seem intent to pursue the current line until the bitter end, that what they are doing is ethical.


Written by Dr. Kwame Opoku
Wednesday, 02 April 2008

We are reading almost on a daily basis some comment or reply by a European or an American museum director in defence of the holding of stolen cultural objects or objects illegally exported from other countries and now in their museums. However, these defences seem so patently weak or unconvincing that one wonders how people in such positions can argue as they do. Britain, France, United States, Germany and the other European countries have produced some of the best thinkers of our age. Moreover, these countries still possess some of the finest universities that exist.

Many of us have spent a major part of our lives studying European thinkers and attending European and American universities. We therefore feel embarrassed and depressed when we read what is coming from directors of important cultural institutions such as the British Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. How can those institutions be defended with such weak and unworthy arguments? A good example of such a defence is reported in an article published in USA TODAY on 1 April, 2008 Greece to Britain: Hand over artwork

Evidently and as expected, the recent UNESCO International Conference on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin, Athens,17-18 March, 2008 has strengthened the position of Greece in its fight with Britain to recover the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles by emphasizing the importance of cultural heritage as an essential element in the self-definition of a people and a community and by urging holding museums to initiate dialogue on the return of cultural property to its country or community of origin. The conclusions of the Conference in many ways put an end to the spurious arguments of the so-called universal museums of which the British Museum appears to be the spear-head, closely aided by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.

In the article cited, an official of the British Museum, spokeswoman Hannah Boulton is reported as saying that the Marbles would not be going to Athens because they fit into the British Museum’s goal of displaying mankind’s shared cultural heritage and that “They should remain part of the collection”. This is the usual line of argument of the so-called “universal museums”. In short, what is being argued is that since the British Museum has a large collection of items from all over the world, mostly looted, or stolen objects, nothing should be taken from the collection which displays the cultures of mankind. But who appointed the British Museum, London, the Louvre, Paris, the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York as guardians of the cultures of mankind? Was the use of force also authorized by whoever appointed them? Are those from whom they forcibly or through stealth took these objects not part of mankind? Are the peoples of Greece, Nigeria, Ghana) Ethiopia and Egypt not part of mankind? And why could they not keep their own cultural property in their countries? The universal museum concept is simply a modern version of imperialism employed by those who have not realized that the days of unbridled imperialism are over; their thinking is still dominated by nineteenth century ideas of the might of their countries and the unquestioned dominance of the world.

The recent trend of museums returning cultural property to their countries of origin, either voluntarily or under pressure, has made some museum directors extremely nervous and agitated. James Cuno, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, is reported as saying “No one owns antiquities” and that “Its better to believe that they belong to all of us”. Countries that invoke cultural property laws, according to Cuno, do so for political reasons and not for conservation purposes or with the intention of sharing with the rest of the world. It is really remarkable that persons from countries where great emphasis is put on private ownership of property suddenly wish to do away with the concept of ownership or property all together when it serves their purposes. They declare what is obviously not theirs as belonging to all or to nobody! Cuno and co speak and act as if the world did not have laws such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. They talk and write as if the world had no legal systems to control their excessive greed. Their museums have more objects than they can manage to house but they are still lamenting the good old days of empire that allowed them to take from other countries whatever they wanted.

When Cuno and Hannah Boulton speak of acting on behalf of mankind, they are thinking of only of the Europeans and Americans. They definitely do not include Africans and Asians except where it is necessary to deprive them of their cultural property.

Cuno goes so far as to deny present day Egyptians as legitimate heirs of ancient Egyptian civilization. He should explain this to Zaha Hawass, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt. He could also explain to the Egyptian archaeologist, the most famous Egyptologist the great advantages of the so-called “partage” system which before the Second World War enabled Europeans and Americans to take whatever they wanted from Egypt since they financed many of the archaeological excavations in Africa and elsewhere. It was under this system that the German archaeologist, Borchardt could stealthily take Nefertiti’s bust out of Egypt in 1913. Ever since then the Germans have refused to return it.

Greek governments since World War II have questioned the ownership of the Marbles and demanded their return. The museum has steadfastly refused. “Our position hasn’t changed,” Boulton says. Displaying the Marbles with the Rosetta stone, plus Egyptian, Roman and other works from around the world, helps “tell a much broader story” of man’s cultural development than if they were shown at the Acropolis with other Greek artifacts, she says.

What Boulton is saying here is that the Parthenon Marbles should be left in the British Museum which can show them along with the Rosetta stone, Roman and other cultural objects which have also been stolen from other parts of the world!

A really strange argument when one considers that the Egyptians are fighting to recover the Rosetta stone. The argument resembles the argument of a thief who has stolen a Mercedez, a Peugeot and a Toyota. When the Mercedez owner

requests the return of his vehicle, the thief argues that it would be better if he kept the Mercedez because he has already a Peugeot and a Toyota and can thus show the variety of vehicles available on the market better than the owner who has only Mercedez vehicles in his house. The legality or otherwise of his possession does not appear to be relevant to him. Similarly, Cuno and Boulton do not seem to be worried by the illegality of possession or control. They talk about cultural property as if there were no laws governing their possession. This is not surprising since Cuno praises robbers of archaeological objects and damns States for trying to regulate excavations on their territories.

The attempt to present a disparate collection of cultural objects from different sites, different countries and different periods as if they formed an organic whole is, to say the least, less than ingenuous. Will Boulton tell the Greeks they cannot have the Parthenon Marbles because of the Rosetta Stone and tell the Egyptians they cannot have the Rosetta Stone because of the Parthenon Marbles?

Do these museum officials have no use for legality or are they totally outside the realm of legal concepts? It may well be that the time has come for all to seek legal redress for unlawful and illegitimate dispossession. Several years have now passed since Independence and many countries have not recovered cultural objects stolen during colonial days. Greece has been trying for ages to recover the Parthenon Marbles without success and has been served mostly with imperialist arguments dressed in universalist phrases. Nigeria has not recovered the famous Benin bronzes now kept in the British Museum and in the Ethnology Museum, Berlin since 1897, following the British invasion of Benin City. Egypt has been fighting since 1923 to recover the bust of Nefertiti, now kept in Berlin. Ethiopia has many hundreds of precious documents and other objects in British institutions. Perhaps a period of intensive legal claims and procedures might remind the museum directors and their supporters that a civilised world can only be built on legality and the respect for the rights of others, including their cultural rights which are now disregarded by many European and American museum directors.

Kwame Opoku, 2 April,2008.

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