April 25, 2006

Why stolen treasures should be returned

Posted at 12:46 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Writing in the Guardian, Philip Hensher starts off his article on restitution cases positively, saying that it seems likely that in the end the Elgin Marbles will be returned to Greece. From that point however he drops into focusing on the specific case of a museum in Sudan which eh saw whilst on holiday, complaining about the way in which the pieces were presented there. He then continues to add that no one is currently requesting the return of any artefacts to Sudan, making the whole of this section o the article relatively worthless.
He seems to feel that the Elgin Marbles only gained much of their prestige through being in London – as though (if this is the case) the Greeks should actually be thanking Elgin for publicising their culture. All this of course ignores that fact that these ideas are presented as some sort of unanimous decision for what is best, yet in all of the various arguments of this type which are presented, one party was never consulted nor agreed on what was happening.

The Guardian

Honour amongst thieves
Our museums may be full of stolen treasures, but as long as they’re cared for, why give them back?

Philip Hensher
Monday April 24, 2006
The Guardian

These days, we are less and less comfortable about having the monuments of other countries in our museums. When we go to the British Museum, or drive alongside the Thames and notice Cleopatra’s Needle, the immediate response is not what it used to be. Fifty years ago, we might have thought: “How wonderful to live in a country with all these wonderful treasures.” Now, we are just as likely to speculate as to who stole them, and how long it is going to be before they are handed back.

For some, this is uncontroversial. In many cases, such things were not come by honestly; sometimes they were stolen, or seized by force, or bought in dubious circumstances. They were not ours in the first place, never have been truly ours, and the time is fast approaching when we are probably going to have to give them back.

National sentiment often runs high in these matters. I remember once going round a temple in Egypt with some Italian friends, and the Egyptian guide remarked of a sarcophagus that its pair had long ago been “stolen” and was now “nel Sir John Soane Museo a Londra”, giving me a very accusing glare. The Greek campaign to have the Parthenon marbles – previously the Elgin marbles – returned to be housed in a handsome new museum in Athens seems quite likely to succeed in the end. No one could doubt that they would be looked after very well.

Other countries have admitted the principle. Italy recently sent back to Addis Ababa, with apologies, a monumental column seized by Mussolini on one of his imperial adventures. It seems unlikely that museums here will be able to resist this trend much longer, and can look forward to a series of both serious and frivolous applications.

I would like to put the case for the other side. In many instances, national treasures are better off outside their countries of origin – better cared for, receiving more attention, and more accessible. Last week, I was on holiday in Sudan. The territories now lying within Sudan form a minor but fascinating part of the ancient Egyptian story, and I wanted to see what treasures were still there. Of course, it was difficult. Until recently, to visit historical sites outside Khartoum, you had to go to various ministries, asking civil servants to stamp your letter of request to see the pyramids at Meroe or the temples of Naqa. It is only in the past month or so that you have been able to just turn up and pay the price of admission.

Even in Khartoum there are problems. When I visited the National Museum, the employee at the till tried to refuse me entry as she didn’t have 400 dinars change from a 500-dinar note, letting me in only after a long argument. There are some extraordinary Christian frescoes, but I have no idea what they are or where they are from. There is hardly any labelling, and the guards prowling about are mostly interested in extracting “baksheesh” from you, or selling you 30-year-old Christian evangelical pamphlets.

Downstairs, there is an interesting-looking room of early Kushite artefacts – but I couldn’t tell you much about them. There were five guards sitting outside, arguing noisily, and three or four well-dressed people inside; the guards refused me entry, for no obvious reason. In the gardens are three reconstructed temples, covered with juvenile carved graffiti, and with birds making nests in the crevices. All over Khartoum, vast and fanciful villas and hotels are shooting up but, frankly, nobody much cares about its museums. The staff of the National Museum would openly prefer it if nobody visited at all.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, several sets of European archaeologists pilfered the pyramids and temples of Sudan. The consequences were not entirely happy: one Italian archeologist had the fortune to discover a burial chamber near the top of one of the Meroe pyramids, and went on to decapitate all the others, nearly 100 of them, like boiled eggs in the desert – with no result.

But many important treasures, such as a hoard of Kushite gold jewellery, ended up in Berlin and London. There, they are well lit, beautifully labelled, carefully looked after, and accessible to whoever is interested. It is not easy to get into Sudan, and such objects act as small, precious ambassadors for an unfamiliar country. If you object that, in Berlin and London, such things are not easily accessible to the Sudanese, it is fairly clear that they wouldn’t be accessible in Khartoum either.

Sudan is an extreme case; as far as I know, nobody is yet talking about sending anything back there. But was it not a mistake for the Italians to return that wonderful Ethiopian column? Very few people ever make it to Addis Ababa; the world comes to Rome. Ethiopia is rich in antiquities, and ought to be able to spare this one.

It may be, too, that Lord Elgin acquired the Parthenon marbles in dubious circumstances. But even the marbles, for most of their modern history, gained authority and lustre from the fact that they were on show not in a provincial capital such as Athens, but a world city: London. It is one of the paradoxes of culture that museums confer as much as acknowledge beauty. Strangely, one of the reasons people visit Athens – and will, in the end, visit Khartoum – is that a significant part of those cities’ treasures is not there, but in London or Berlin. One ought to recognise that fact before too hastily handing anything over.

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1 Comment »

  1. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    11.14.07 at 6:54 pm

    It is always astonishing for me to read what many Westerners write when it comes to defending the illegal possession of the cultural objects of other countries. Seldom do they seem to realize the half-truths,the immorality and the logical consequences of their statements. Philip Hensher’s comments are surely in this group.
    He states”In many instances, national treasures are better off outside their countries of origin – better cared for, receiving more attention, and more accessible.” He gives as example,Sudan where he experienced difficulties in seeing certain objects. But he did not mention a specific object which was badly looked after in Sudan but got better treatment in London. Difficulties in getting to Sudan,the museums officials not having the right change for entrance fees do not establish that the objects are not being looked after properly.
    More seriously,to advance an argument based on better care by a thief is no answer to an owner who is requesting the return of a stolen item.Or are we going to accept that States can steal and keep the cultural objects of others if it can be proved tha the stealing State can take better care of the items?
    Hensher declares,in connection with the return of the obelisk by the Italians to Ethiopia :”But was it not a mistake for the Italians to return that wonderful Ethiopian column? Very few people ever make it to Addis Ababa; the world comes to Rome. Ethiopia is rich in antiquities, and ought to be able to spare this one.” What kind of world are we in that someone can seriously question the return of a stolen item to its owner as a mistake? What conception of property or ownership is at work here? If this kind of thinking were to be accepted,the weaker nations will be robbed of every little art work they have. Hensher states that Ethiopia is rich in antiquities and ougth to be able to spare this obelisk. What about the Italians,the British,the French,the Germans,the Austrians and all those hoarding illegally art works belonging to other nations,are they also not so rich as to be able to spare some of the se objects? What kind of logis is at work here? Is
    stealing from the rich a justification for stealing? Here of course,it is the rich countries that are stealing from the poor. Should they not be ashamerd of such a situation? is there no morality left when it comes to art objects? Hensher seems to ignore completely the significane and symbolism of cutural objects and the historical contexts in which they were removed from their original places.These objects became in the course of history,a symbol of national identity and resistance. If we recall that it was the fascist leader Benito
    Mussolini who ordered the removal of the I60 tonnes obelisk from Axum,in his invasion of Ethiopia and in his failed attempt to colonize that Kingdom,it becomes clear that the obelisk is not only heavy in weight but heavy in symbolism. So how can the Ethiopians spare this object?
    Who told Hensher that very few people ever go to Addis Ababa? Maybe very few Europeans ever go there but surely,many Ethiopians and other Africans go often to the Ethiopiancapital which is also the seat of the African Union. This presumably will not impress Hensher who does not seem to think much of the Africans and the African world.
    If the number of visitors to a city were to be the determining creitiron for the location of cultural objects,we should probably send all the Goyas,Picassos,Warhols,Klints
    and all the other art works in Western Europe
    to Beijing and New Delhi, for there are more peoples there than in London.
    We should try to restore morality and logic in discussing the restitution of stolen cultural objects and not allow ourselves to be blinded by narrowly perceived national interest which run contrary to all the precepts of the rule of law,human rights and democracy.
    Kwame opoku,14 november,2007.

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