Did Egyptians Never Ask For The Restitution Of Nefertiti?Universal Museum Enthusiast Wrestles With Veracity And Reality
Right side of Nefertiti, Egypt, now in Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany.
“The restitution of those cultural objects which our museums and collections, directly or indirectly, possess thanks to the colonial system and are now being demanded, must also not be postponed with cheap arguments and tricks.”
Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause. (1)
One of the enduring characteristics of the supporters of the so-called universal museum seems to be a determination not to be deflected from their position by any amount of information or knowledge that seems unfavourable to the adopted position. They remind us of the statement ‘Don’t confuse me with facts’. They adamantly refuse to acknowledge that the owners of looted artefacts or artefacts acquired under dubious circumstances, want their objects back. They cannot admit for one moment that the owners of the artefacts in Western museums are also interested in those objects. In the face of demands for the return of the looted Benin Bronzes, we are told no one has asked for them even if a Nigerian minister has gone to Berlin for that purpose. That the Oba of Benin sent his brother to speak before the British Parliament is conveniently ignored. An example of this attitude is demonstrated by Herman Parzinger, President of. German Foundation for Culture, Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz , that controls the Museums in Berlin and the projected Humboldt Forum.
In his book, Abenteurer Archäologie, Eine Reise durch die Menscheitsgeschichte (Archaeology Adventure, Journey through History of Mankind, 2016), Hermann Parzinger makes the claim that Egypt has never officially requested the return of the Bust of Nefertiti that is in the Neues Museum in Berlin:
‘‘Because of the special importance of the bust, the circumstances of the division of the fund is now and again discussed and representatives of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority occasionally demand the restitution of the bust of Nefertiti. The fact is the division of the fund was done in accordance with the then prevailing legal rules and therefore the Egyptian Government has never officially requested the return of the bust.” (2)
This astonishing statement from Parzinger must be viewed again the background of disputes and discussions concerning the Egyptian Queen in Berlin that are as famous as those regarding the Parthenon Marbles in London. We have in the past written on several aspects of the question of restitution regarding the restitution of the bust of Nefertiti. (3)
The impression that Parzinger is trying to create is that the Egyptians have not seriously contested the presence of Nefertiti in Berlin and have not really insisted formally on her restitution. This is contrary to the bulk of evidence that is easily available.
When the Secretary- General of the Egyptian Supreme Authority on Antiquities makes a demand on behalf of his government for the restitution of Nefertiti most people will regard this request as formal enough. But the last time that the dynamic Zahi Hawass , then Secretary-General made such a request to Hermann Parzinger, President of the Preußischer Stiftung that holds the bust, the Germans said such a request had to come from a minister even though Hawass was the head of the office that controlled antiquities in Egypt. Hawass subsequently became a minister and repeated the request but the Germans said such a request had to come from the cabinet or the President: They seemed to be arguing that the President of Egypt must sign such a request. The Germans thus reached the height of absurdity in this matter and were not ashamed of such a baseless argument. (4) Parzinger is reported to have said that even if the Egyptians made a formal demand, it would make no difference. So, what is the point in saying they have not made such a demand? (5)
Egypt at the time of the find of Nefertiti on 6 December 1912 was still
dominated by the British who wielded political control and the French who controlled administration of antiquities. The committee that made the decision to leave the bust to the Germans was composed of Europeans and presided over by a Frenchman. Professor Ludwig Borchardt , the German archaeologist who ‘discovered’ Nefertiti was also a member of the committee.
Long before Zahi Hawass became head of antiquities in Egypt, the Egyptians
had been making claims for the return of Nefertiti. Borchardt had allegedly played a trick on the other members of the committee that divided the fund at Amarna. He had apparently covered the find with a layer of grime so that the other members of the committee who made the evaluation of the find did not properly see the whole lot and thus the importance of the find was not obvious to them. It was decided to leave the socle on which the bust stood in Egypt and let Borchardt have the bust. When he brought the bust to Germany in 1913, there was some hesitation in showing it to the public for fear of Egyptian reaction. Nefertiti was kept secret for ten years. In 1923, the bust was shown in a book by Borchardt, ‘Porträts der Konigin Nofretete’ and after the publication, the Egyptians demanded the return of the Queen but the Germans refused. Hermann Schlögl writes that the French members of the committee that decided the division of the find at Armana were angry when they discovered the trick by Borchardt and requested the immediate return of the bust to Cairo.
Parzinger writes that James Simon as financer of the expedition in Armana acquired Nefertiti and other objects found there. What Parzinger omits to add is that James Simon himself pleaded for the return of the bust of the Egyptian Queen to Egypt and that German officials were agreeable to this and a date had even been set for the transfer until the notorious Adolf Hitler, with his own fantasies of Nefertiti as the centre-piece of a projected gigantic German museum, stepped in and said emphatically ‘Nein’. Dietrich Wildung , a former director of the Agyptische Museum confirms this in his book, Die vielen Gesichter der Nofretete. (7) Subsequent German actions thus followed the wishes of the dictator rather than those of the rich Jewish benefactor Incidentally, the Berlin Museums did not seem to be in a hurry to honour adequately Simon whom Parzinger describes as a great benefactor of the museums in Berlin. Was there a difficulty because he was Jewish? In any case, Simon’s grandson, Hans Karl Westphal, did not seem to have obtained the implementation of assurances made to the benefactor as regards the donations he had made to the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz.
If Egypt never made an official request for the return of the bust of Nefertiti, as Parzinger alleges, he must explain to us all the various visits of German officials to Egypt to discuss Nefertiti and the various meetings and statements by the German Foreign Ministry and Ministry for Culture denying the restitution of the famous bust. He must also explain why Adolf Hitler had to say’ Nein’ to the return of Nefertiti to Cairo. As the documentation shows, everybody seems to have been aware of meetings and discussion between German and Egyptian officials. (8)
James Simon (1851-1932) financed excavation that found Nefertiti.
Parzinger declares that those who claim restitution of an object acquired legally some hundred years ago, do not recognize the real problem today and refers to current illegal diggings. (9) This is a familiar ploy by the supporters of the so-called universal museum. They tell Africans not to spend efforts and time on artefacts which were transferred hundred years ago, from Africa to the British Museum, the Museums in Berlin and Paris. Our answer is as follows.
We are all equally concerned by the looting of artefacts and illegal diggings that are still taking place in Africa and would like to stop them. But this should not prevent us from claiming at the same time objects that have been looted or transferred under dubious circumstance in the past. The one does not exclude the other, especially when you consider that ancient illegal transfers ended in Western States where contemporary looted objects also end. Perhaps if the West would set a good example in the first case by returning some artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes, this might discourage some of the present looters who would be thus informed that Western institutions are not interested in looted objects and would return them to Africa and punish the illegal dealers.
The advice not to concern ourselves too much with artefacts acquired illegally in the past always sounds a bit strange coming from those whose duty is to research the past and from countries that attach great importance to antique objects. We used to think that a major difference between lawyers and archaeologists was that whereas the lawyers tended to think in terms of statutes of limitations of short periods, three, six or ten years, the archaeologists tended to think in terms of thousands and millions of years. What are hundred years in the life of Egyptian and African peoples?
How can we forget artefacts looted in the past or acquired under dubious circumstances, seeing that the best African artefacts are already in Western States? Does Parzinger realize that artefacts such as the bust of Nefertiti become a constituent element in the creation of a national identity?
Parzinger has not convinced us that his approach to the question of restitution of Nefertiti was based on a scholarly approach especially since he wrongly asserts, contrary to all evidence that the Egyptians have not officially asked for the return of the bust of the Egyptian Queen. Has he not found it necessary to do the archaeology of restitution as he must know that there are several layers of solid information on the issues. But is the President of the Prussian Foundation really interested in such issues, apart from defending the German position to the point of denying the reality of the existence of contrary positions?
Denial of the existence of demands for restitution is probably the weakest of all the weak arguments of the supporters of the universal museum. It is also the most insulting. The denial is very easy to demolish since those deprived of their artefacts are constantly clamouring for their return. Usually, such requests start as soon as the deprived people have recovered from the shock of the deprivation or the shock of the attack as in the case of Benin or the end of colonial domination. Demands for restitution are the most human reaction to acts of deprivation.
Presentation of the bust of Nefertiti shortly after its discovery.
Left to right-Hermann Ranke, Paul Karge, Mohammed Senussi.
Denials of the existence of such demands add insults to injuries by implying that the deprived, not being as cultured as the holders, have not even bothered to ask for the return of their own cultural artefacts. They thus almost deny their humanity since the most natural reaction would be to request return of the objects. Such denials also, reflect the arrogance of the victorious or powerful who tell the weak or defeated: ‘You can shout as much as you want but we will not even hear you. You are wasting your time’.’
Those who deny the existence of requests for restitution act as if the United Nations and UNESCO did not exist: they ignore what the international organizations and international conferences have demanded over the years. They have been requested to return artefacts acquired in the colonial period, looted or acquired under dubious circumstances. ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, puts on the holder States an obligation to take initiative for discussions on returns. (10)
Such denials have the great advantage that one does not have to deal with the substance of the requests since in principle they have not been made. Any groups within Western States that may suggest it is time to return the contested artefacts would be silenced with the indication that the original owners themselves have not even bothered to ask for them.
Such a denial has has been seriously stated in the case of the bust of Nefertiti and the Benin Bronzes. Such is the state of affairs between the powerful and the weak States in our contemporary world.
Considering the extraordinary excessive amount of excellent Egyptian artefacts that Germany has taken from Egypt over the decades, Germans should be ashamed to be seen disputing with Egyptians over an Egyptian artefact, however beautiful and important it may be. It is true though that many Westerners have banned morality and justice from issues of restitution. Greed seems to be the creed here. (11)
“On the other hand, even after giving away the colourful bust of Nefertiti, the Berlin Museum would still be far superior to all other collections, including that in Cairo, as regards the number and artistic value of the artworks from the Amarna period. And among our stock are many pieces that are of higher artistic rank than the elegant bust of the colourful queen”.
James Simon, 28 June 1930 (12)
Kwame Opoku, 25 December, 2016.
1. “Die Rückgabe jener Kulturschätze, die unsere Museen und Sammlungen direkt oder indirekt dem Kolonialsystemverdanken und die jetzt zurückverlangt werden, sollte ebenfalls nicht mit billigen Argumenten und Tricks hinausgezögert werden“.
Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause, p.185, C.Bertelsmann, München, 1984. It is interesting that Paczensky and Ganslmayr entitled their book in 1984, ‘Nefertiti wants to go home’ but Parzinger tells us in 2016 that the Egyptians have not officially requested her return. Will nobody welcome her in Cairo should she return as she must one day? See also Cultur Cooperation e.V. – Nefertiti travels www.culturcooperation.de/e01b_nofretete.php
Nefertiti Bust – Wikipedia
2. Herman Parzinger, Abenteuer Archäologie, Eine Reise durch die Menschheitsgeschichte, Verlag C. H. Beck, Munich, 2016.p.115
‘Aufgrund der besonderen Bedeutung der Büste wurden die Umstande der Fundteilung immer wieder thematisiert und Vertreter der ägyptischen Altertümerverwaltung fordern gelegentlich der Rückgabe der Nofretete. Fakt ist, dass die Fundteilung den damals gültigen rechtlichen Regelungen folgte, auch deshalb hat die ägyptische Regierung die Büste nie offiziell zurückgefordert.’
3. K. Opoku , Nefertiti in absurdity: How often must Egyptians …
K. Opoku, Nefertiti, Ideate and other African Icons Revisited …
K. Opoku – Hawass Requests Return of Nefertiti …
Kwame Opoku – Nefertiti, Idia and other African Icons in …
www.afrikanet.info › Home › African Art
German foundation refuses to return Nefertiti bust | Reuters
4. K. Opoku, Nefertiti in Dispute again German: Refusal to envisage her return to Egypt. https://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/…/nefertiti-stays-i
5. In a special issue of National Geographic devoted to a Nofretete exhibition in Berlin, ‘Im Lichte von Amarna’, (7 Dezember 2012 to 13 April 2013 in Neuen Museum/Ägyptischen Museum), we read in a text by Christian Schule at p.72, as follows: ”Seit 1924 hat es immer wieder Rückgabefoderungen des ägyptischen Antikendienstes und des Ägyptischen Museums in Kairo gegeben. Vor allem Zahi Hawass, von 2002 an Direktor der Obersten Antikenverwaltung, hat sie bis zum Sturz der Mubarak-Regierung regelmassig erneuert. Der Adressat: Hermann Parzinger, Präsident der Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, zu der das Ägyptische Museum gehört. Zweimal habe Hawass ihm persönlich eine kurze Mail geschrieben, sagt Parzinger, die restliche Forderung seien öffentlichkeitswirksam über die Presse gestellt worden. ‘Das ist für uns kein Thema Es gab bis zum heutigen Tage nie eine offizielle Rückforderung der ägyptischen Regierung, und selbst wenn es gäbe, wurde das nichts an der Tatsache ändern, dass es damals eine rechtmassige Fundteilung war.”
An article in the National of 7.12.2012 stated:
However, speculation persists that the Germans cheated their Egyptian counterparts to get hold of Nefertiti, the prize of the dig.
”The archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt, who headed the excavation, tried to divert attention from the significance of Nefertiti’s bust during a meeting in January 1913 to divide up the spoils of the exhibition between Egypt and Germany on a 50-50 basis. That, at least, is what the secretary of the German Oriental Society (DOG), Bruno Güterbock, claimed.
In a recently unearthed document, Guterbock, who was at the meeting, wrote that Borchardt had presented Gustave Lefebvre, Egypt’s French inspector of antiquities, with an unflattering photo of the bust and had lied about the material it was made of. He claimed it was made from gypsum, whereas he knew that Nefertiti’s core was made of stone. Güterbock mentioned his misgivings about “cheating on the material” to Borchardt, who dismissed the criticism, saying he could always claim later that he had been mistaken.
Spiegel magazine reported this week that Borchardt had later admitted showing Lefebvre a photo taken from an angle “so that one can’t see the full beauty of the bust, but it will suffice to refute later talk by third parties that anything was kept secret”.
Nefertiti exhibition at Berlin’s Neues Museum stirs a 100 …
See also a Spiegel article on the question of deception by Borchardt. Re-Examining Nefertiti’s Likeness and Life – ABC News
Interesting information can also be found in Büste der Nofretete – Wikipedia
6. We find in the very official catalogue of the exhibition Im Licht von Amarna-100 Jahre Fund der Nofretete , held at the Ägyptische Museum und Papyrussamlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin 7 Dec 2012 -13 April 2013 in remembrance of James Simon and Ludwig Borchardt, we readapt page 423:
‘Die Ruckgabeauseinandersetzungen und die Faszination um Nofretete von 1924 bis Heute.
Mit ihrer ersten öffentlichen Präsentation im Neuen Museum begannen auch die Rückbeförderungen zunächst von französischer und anschließend von ägyptischer Seite.
Im Jahr1858 hatte der Franzose Auguste Mariette den ‚’Services des Antiquités d’Egypte gegründet und das erste Museum für alt ägyptische Denkmaler in Kairo eigerichtet. Damit lagen die Aufsicht über die Grabungen, die Erteilung von Grabungslizenzen und die Fundteilung in Französischer Hand. (bis1952), während die politische Vormachtstellung in Ägypten seit 1882 Großbritannien innehatte.
Pierre Lacau war der entscheidende Protagonist der ersten Phase der Rückgabefoderung. Er war von 1914 bis 1936 Direktor der Altertümerverwaltung in Kairo und überwachte in dieser Funktion alle archäologischen Grabungen und Forschungen in Ägypten. Aufgrund der Gesetzlichen festgelegten Fundteilung konnte Lacau nur aus moralischen Grunden die Restitution der Büste verlangen, und er versuchte auf verschiedenen Wegen, die Ruckgaben zu erreichten. So erteilte er beispielsweise dem Berliner Museum Grabungsverbot in Ägypten, was jedoch nur zum Teil durchgesetzt wurde.
Der deutsch-französische Konflikt um die Rückgabe der Büste mundete in dem offiziellen Austauschangebot von französischer Seite. Die Büste der Nofretete
Sollte gegen zwei bemerkenswerte und einzigarte Objekte aus dem Kairener Museum getauscht werden: eine Statue des Ranofer aus dem Alten Reich und eine Schreiberfigur des Amenophis ,Sohn des Hapu ,aus dem Neuen Reich. Trotz dieses Angebotes und langer Verhandlungen verblieb die Büste in Berlin. Heinrich Schäfer, der den Austausch bewilligen wollte, scheiterte im Sommer 1930 an der Berliner Presse, die sich in einer Kampagne gegen den Tausch der Büste engagierte. Zahlreiche Berichte erschienen täglich in den Printmedien, so z.B. auch in deutschen Satirezeitungen wie dem Kladderradatsch, wo die Rückbeförderung der Nofretete in Karikaturen thematisiert wurde.
Im Herbst 1933 nahm der preußische Ministerpräsident Hermann Goring mit der ägyptischen Regierung unter King Fuad I. erneu Verhandlungen über eine Rückgabe der Büste auf, die jedoch vom Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler am 1933 abgelehnt wurde.
Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues: Nefertiti in the news …
Hermann A. Schlögl, Nofretete Die Wahrheit über die schöne Königin, C. K. Beck, 2012, pp.15-16.
Carola Wedel writes in her book, Nofretete und das Geheimnis von Amarna Verlag Philipp von Zabern, Mainz, 2005, p.26:
‘It was not until 1924 that Nefertiti was displayed for the first time in an exhibition in the Neun Museum Berlin. The demands by Egypt for restitution started from this date.’
‘Erst 1924 war Nofretete dann zum ersten Mal in einer Ausstellung im Neun Museum Berlin ausgestellt. Die Rückbeförderungen aus Ägypten haben mit diesem Datum begonnen’
Bénédicte Savoy provides in her excellent book, Nofretete – Eine deutsch-französische Affäre, (Bohlau Verlag, Köln, Weimar, Wien, 2011) confirmation of the demands for restitution within the context of Franco-German rivalry.
One can only agree with the author that the restitution of Nefertiti is a case for which France, German and Britain, and the USA, must accept a common historical responsibility towards the Egyptian State. The Nefertiti affair demonstrates the necessity of a discussion on the position of Western museums with regard to the archaeological treasuries which in the 19th and early 20th centuries found their way into their collections. (p.13)
Bénédicte Savoy also throws doubt on the alleged trick by Borchardt and places the whole issue in the context of Franco-German rivalries exacerbated by personal ambitions of the administrators of antiquities in Egypt. This would corroborate suspicions of imperialist collaboration and tolerance of plunder of Egyptian national treasures by Europeans.
G.F.L. Stanglmeier, Der Fall Nofretete-Die Wahrheit über die Königin vom Nil.
Herbig Verlag, 2012 p.18, under the heading Zahi Hawass-Jager der (geklauten?) Büste writes:
‚” In schöner Unregelmäßigkeit forderte seitdem die jeweilige ägyptische Regierung: Nofretete soll nach Hause. Besonders der heftig umstrittene Ex-Antikendirektor und ehemalige Minister für ägyptische Altertümer, Zahi Hawass, sorgte bei diesem Thema wiederkehrend für unfreundliche Schlagzeilen in den Medien. Fast im Zwei-Jahres-Rhythmus meldete er sich offiziell bei zuständigen, aber auch bei nicht zuständigen deutschen Politik-Instanzen und brachte die ‘Painted Queen’ ins Gespräche.’
7. Dietrich Wildung, Die vielen Gesichter der Nofretete, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2013, p. 59 writes: ‘Drei Jahre später, nun unter nationalsozialistischem Regime lebt der Plan des Tauschgeschäftes noch einmal auf. 1933 soll zum Jahrestag der Thronbesteigung von König Fuad die Rückkehr der Nofretete in Kairo offiziell verkündet werden. Im allerletzen Augenblick entscheidet der Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler, dass die ‘bunte Königin’ in Berlin bleibt.’
An article in Elginism contains the following on Hitler’s infatuation with Nefertiti: ( Is Nefertiti now more German than Egyptian? – Elginism
‘But Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had other plans. Through the ambassador to Egypt, Eberhard von Stohrer, Hitler informed the Egyptian government that he was an ardent fan of Nefertiti:
“I know this famous bust,” the fuehrer wrote. “I have viewed it and marvelled at it many times. Nefertiti continually delights me. The bust is a unique masterpiece, an ornament, a true treasure!”
Hitler said Nefertiti had a place in his dreams of rebuilding Berlin and renaming it Germania.
“Do you know what Im going to do one day? I’m going to build a new Egyptian museum in Berlin,” Hitler went on.
“I dream of it. Inside I will build a chamber, crowned by a large dome. In the middle, this wonder, Nefertiti, will be enthroned. I will never relinquish the head of the Queen.”
While he did not mention it at the time, Hitler envisioned more for the museum. There was to be an even larger hall of honour, with a bust of Nefertiti.’
See also Adolph Hitler’s Strange Interest in Nefertiti (NOFRETETE)
The infatuation of Hitler with Nefertiti shows the opportunistic and exploitative sides of racism and oppression. Hitler, the Nazi racist, was not disturbed or inhibited from infatuation with an African woman brought from Egypt by a Jewish archaeologist in an excavation financed by a Jewis benefactor. Similar opportunism and exploitation prevail regarding the art and other property looted from victims of Nazism. If a law proclaims restitution, it takes more than half-a century to implement and in the meanwhile what happens to the enormous wealth seized and the victims of Nazism?
Racism under the apartheid system in South Africa (now quickly and conveniently forgotten by some) did not prevent the exploitation of African resources by the Afrikaner regime and its supporters. There was also no inhibition in using Africans as cooks, gardeners and babycarers
Racism in the United States has similarly not inhibited the exploiters from using African-American resources and personnel to look after their children and cook for the masters.
8. Egyptology News: Cool response from Berlin to Egypt’s official Nefertiti …
‘Nefertiti Stays in Berlin!’ Germany Confirms Once More – The …
Egyptian and German Officials to Meet About Nefertiti Bust – The New …
More on the dispute over Nefertiti bust – Elginism
Dispute with Egypt over Nefertiti bust reignites – The Local
Berlin Now: The City After the Wall
Illicit Cultural Property: Egypt Makes Claim to Nefertiti
Judy Dempsey, Egypt Demands Return of Nefertiti Statue , The New York Times, October 19, 2009.
A 3,500-Year-Old Queen Causes a Rift Between Germany and Egypt …
9. Para. 6.2 Return of Cultural Property
Museums should be prepared to initiate dialogues for the return of cultural property to a country or people of origin. This should be undertaken in an impartial manner, based on scientific, professional and humanitarian principles as well as applicable local, national and international legislation, in preference to action at a governmental or political level.
Para. 6.3 Restitution of Cultural Property
When a country or people of origin seeks the restitution of an object or specimen that can be demonstrated to have been exported or otherwise transferred in violation of the principles of international and national conventions, and shown to be part of that country’s or people’s cultural or natural heritage, the museum concerned should, if legally free to do so, take prompt and responsible steps to co-operate in its return.
Para. 6.4 Cultural Objects From an Occupied Country
Museums should abstain from purchasing or acquiring cultural objects from an occupied territory and respect fully all laws and conventions that regulate the import, export and transfer of cultural or natural materials.
10. Parzinger should really read writers such as Kurt G. Siehr on the question of legality of acquisition- ‘The Beautiful one has come-to return’, in John Henry Merryman, Imperialism, Art and Restitution, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp.114-134.
11.. Some of the German museums with large collections of Egyptian artefacts are listed below. We did not find any Egyptian museums with collections of German artefacts. The Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin alone has some 100,000 pieces. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki
Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin, http://www.smb.spk-berllin
Kestner Museum, Hannover
Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim
Ägyptisches Museum, Leipzig
Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst, München
Museum Schloss Tübingen
We leave out the many collections of Egyptian artefacts in European and American museums. See list of museums with Egyptian artefacts http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/er/museum.html
12. “Andrerseits bliebe das Berliner Museum auch nach Abgabe der farbigen Nofretete – Büste an Fülle und künstlerischem Wert der Kunstwerke aus der Amarnazeit allen übrigen Sammlungen, einschließlich Kairo, überlegen. Und unter unserm Bestande gibt es so manches Stück, das künstlerisch von höherem Range ist als die elegante farbige Büste der Königin. ”
Open Letter from James Simon to the German Minister of Science, Art and Education, 28 June, 1930. Reproduced in, Gert von Paczensky and HerbertGanslymayr, Nofretete will nach Hause: Europa – Schatzhaus der „Dritten Welt “, C. Bertelsmann, 1984 pp. 304-30. length of time. The “most famous Berlin lady” is a LLL the public and the subject of an unresolved dispute. The Egyptian side has protested, threatened, offered other significant cultural assets in exchange and made their most important cultural assets available for exhibitions in Germany. But nothing has been achieved: For the last 95 years Berlin, has been insisting that the ownership is legally perfectly clear and pointing out that ‘Nefertiti’ has long become an integral part of our cultural identity which we are not prepared to.
Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. The contents of this article are of sole responsibility of the author(s). Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article.” © Kwame Opoku, Dr..
admin December 27th, 2016
Unfounded Arguments Against Restitution Of Stolen Benin Artefacts
“There was a dim grandeur about it all , and also
these seemed to a fate. Here was this head center
of iniqiuty, spared by us from its suitable end of
burning for the sake of holding the new seat of
justice where barbarism had held away, given into
our hands with the brand of Blood soaked into
every corner and …….. fire only could purge it, and
here on our lassa day we were to see its legitimate fate
overtake it.”…….. (1)
R. H. Bacon, the Punitive Expedition’s Intelligence Officer wrote on the burning of the Benin Royal Palace.
After several articles in which we have answered practically all the usual arguments against the restitution of looted Benin Bronzes or looted artefacts, we are constantly surprised by statements of supporters of retention of looted artefacts which repeat arguments they must know are hardly tenable and have already been answered. (2) An example of this tendency is the recent article by Tiffany Jenkins, in the Daily Mail Online, 10 March 201, entitled
‘Bloody Truth about the ‘colonialist’ cockerel Cambridge students want to send back to Africa. It’s made from melted-down money AFRICANS earned by selling slaves’. (3)
The tendentious title of the article is revealing of the intentions of the writer. Even before we read the article we are informed that Africans earned money selling slaves and with this money which was melted down, they made sculptures such as the Benin cockerel now in dispute. The designation is ‘Africans’ and not the’ Edo’ who made the famous Benin sculptures. The generalization in the title is not accidental.
We are also informed, without any evidence that Benin society was, ‘a brutal but sophisticated culture’. When we are then informed that a trade delegation which was going to see the Oba was attacked and killed, then the picture of the people Benin as perfidious and blood-thirsty is complete.
We know from experience going to most recent times that once the British decide to attack a foreign State head of State, they paint him in the most lurid colours. We remember the attack on Irak where Saddam Hussein was said to be in a position to produce a nuclear device in thirty minutes. The demonization of foreign enemies does not date from yesterday. The British Museum has published material where it is unambiguously admitted that the initial problems in Benin were due to the British deputy- Consul in the area. (Annex l)
The cockerel was one of the artefacts looted by the British Army in their notorious ‘Benin Punitive Expedition’ of 1897. The British sold many of the artefacts to Germans and other Europeans and kept a large portion themselves. One of the participants in the infamous invasion bequeathed the cockerel to Jesus College, Cambridge which has now decided, after protests by students’ to remove the artefact from the front of Jesus College and will probably return it to Nigeria as the students demanded.
Tiffany Jenkins who is obviously against the removal and probable return of the artefact to Nigeria has tried to put up an argument for retaining looted artefacts in Britain. She argues primarily that the Benin bronzes were made from manillas that were’brought to Benin by Europeans traders, which were traded for slaves and then melted down’ and used in making the sculptures such as the cockerel. According to Jenkins,’
‘The sculpture that these noisy Cambridge students want to see returned to Nigeria was created from proceeds of slavery. Arguments for the return of cultural treasures are today made through the prism of a modern nations’ ”identity”.
The argument Jenkins is making here is a bold but a patently false one. One does not have to be an economic historian to realize that the Kingdom of Benin did not make its wealth solely from the slave trade which benefited mainly Britain and other European powers. The conflict or trade conflict, as some prefer,
between Benin and Britain was due to the unwillingness of the Kingdom of Benin to submit to British rule and allow Britain to control trade in the area. But trade in the area covered more that slave trade. (5)
Members of the nefarious Punitive Expedition of 1897 posing proudly with their looted Benin artefacts
Even assuming that all Benin’s wealth derived from slavery, can one argue that every object manufactured or produced in Benin came from slavery? But even if slavery were accepted as the only source of wealth in Benin, could one argue that the manilas which Jenkins herself stated were bought by the Edo, be considered as illegitimate as some sort of ‘blood money’ and thereby justifying the looting/stealing of whatever was produced in Benin?
The argument based on derivation of metal from manillas clearly fails when we remember that many of the Benin artefacts looted by the British were not made of metal but of ivory or some other non-metal material such as wood. Unless Jenkins turns to the ban on the trade in ivory tasks but this would be a present- day perspective that would be inconvenient from the author’s basic argument. Incidentally, the argument for keeping looted African and other non-European artefacts in Western museums is itself a very modern argument. Until fairly recent years most Africans were not aware of where their looted artefacts were and the question of their return or not did not seem to have been given much serious attention.
Jenkins should be careful. If we apply her argument to Britain we could argue that Britain derived all her wealth from slavery and colonization and therefore all objects made in Britain, ignoring British industry, agriculture and manufacture, may be looted/stolen because they derived from slavery and colonization. Surely, this would be going too far. She should abandon this way of thinking which stretches ideas as far as possible to cover whatever view she shares even if the result is patently absurd.
Jenkins states that ‘arguments for return of cultural treasures are today made through the prism of a modern nation’s ‘identity’.But what about arguments for retention of cultural artefacts of others? Are they not also made through the prism of the identity of the retention States? How does she come to the conclusion that ‘The artworks were a force for good, however they were acquired. That’s why the Benin Bronzes-and all other marvellous treasures we can study and appreciate at close quarters-belong here, in Britain.’
This racist and ultra-nationalistic conclusion surely can only be acceptable to those who view Britain through a certain prism of Britain’s identity.
Jenkins, like many supporters of retention of artefacts of others, is very quick to argue that repatriating artefacts ‘would be allowing modern-day sensibilities to rewrite history ‘ Seriously, does anybody believe that returning one Benin bronze to Benin is to rewrite history? Sure, after years of the museums refusing to return any object, an individual like Dr. Mark Walker, who returned two Benin Bronzes, may be said to be making history as the first person to do so after a long period of refusal. But is he really re-writing history? Is history so simple? The history between Benin and Britain is surely more complicated than one return and it is Jenkins and her supporters who should be told that ‘it is always more complicated than that.’
As regards ‘allowing modern –day sensibilities’ to affect our thoughts, Jenkins does not seem to be aware that even condemning slavery involves modern-day sensibilities. As persons of the 21st Century, we have no other sensibilities than those of our times. We cannot use standards of bygone days to judge matters that affect us today, such as the Western museums holding on to African and Asian cultural artefacts that we all know have been looted or stolen. Jenkins and others will want us to use colonialist, imperialist and racist standards that accepted that looting and keeping African artefacts and other resources was acceptable.
This explains why anytime the issue of restitution comes up, Westerners argue that we are referring to past events or trying to rewrite history. We are not. We are complaining about the present imbalance where Western States and their museums have more African artefacts that African museums and States. We are not concerned with apportioning blame and accusing the colonialists and imperialist of wrong-doing even if this is incidental. We are asking their present-day successors to return some of the looted artefacts so that we can continue our own cultural development without interruption or interference. It is the retentionists who look to the past whilst we look at the present. We can only deal with them with our present-day sensibilities and not the standards of the past. We say clearly and loudly, return Nefertiti, Queen-mother Idia and all the African kings, queens and servants in exile in your museums, palaces, institutes and other places. We are not interested in apportioning blame among your predecessors. We just want our things back.
Pair of leopard figures, now in the Royal Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, London, UK. The commanders of the British Punitive Expedition force to Benin in 1897 sent a pair of leopards to the British Queen soon after the looting and burning of Benin City. See Nigel Barley, The Art of Benin, p.112.
It is in this connection, noteworthy that Jenkins and the supporters of retention do not refer to the United Nations, UNESCO and ICOM. They act and write as if these international bodies did not exist: they ignore the almost yearly resolutions of these bodies calling on holders of looted artefacts to return them to their countries of origin. It is frightening to see educated persons openly defy laws and regulations they themselves have contributed in passing. The position of the ‘noisy Cambridge students’ is that of the international organizations set up mainly by Western States and in which they still remain members. There is a large movement in Africa for the restitution of African artefacts. Our Eurocentric writer is obviously not interested in African views
It is not only Nigeria that has been asking now for some decades for the return of these artefacts. The Oba of Benin has been asking for the return of the looted artefacts but such requests have falling on deaf ears with sensibilities of the past. (6) Countries such Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya have been asking for the return of their artefacts looted/stolen by the British.
No African writers on the question are mentioned thus leaving the reader the impression that only Westerners care for the artefacts. For Jenkins, many of the African writers who have dealt with restitution of the Benin Bronzes, such as Prof Ekpo Eyo, Prof. Folarin Syhllon, Prof. Peju Layiwola and Dr. Kwame Opoku may as well never have existed. Probably, in her Eurocentric perspective,
she cannot imagine how African intellectuals could also be possibly interested in the looted Benin artefacts safely kept in the museums in London for Western scholars to study.
Leaving out African writers and international institutions is not by accident. The author of the article appears to be following the usual Western tendency to confine discussions to Western sources and leave out all others whose writings do not support the imperialistic epistemology or might suggest there are others ways of looking at these problems other than the affirmation of the dominant Western view and its devastating consequences and implications for Africa.
Prof.Yash Tandon dealt with this problem in his recent article entitled The Rhodes controversy: a storm in a tea cup?‘http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/ He shows clearly that such omissions are not due to simple ignorance but to institutional and structural backwardness as well as to epistemical shortcomings. He concludes, inter alia that
Racism is structurally embedded in the system of education in the social sciences at Oxford. It is part of the imperial ideology that is deeply rooted in the system and psyche of the British ruling classes. This imperial/racial ideology has taken institutional manifestation at the university, especially in the social sciences. The dominant mainstream academics working on Africa have no real understanding of the African reality. They have very serious epistemic limitations that do not allow them to look beyond their noses. This extends, consciously and unconsciously, to a blanket disrespect and disregard for
African writers on Africa’.
The limitations we have been pointing out are therefore not personal or accidental but part of a whole system
Some of the statements of Tiffany Jenkins are simply astonishing and are likely to mislead the uninformed:
‘Equally, the Benin Bronzes were created as far back as the 13th century, long before the modern state of Nigeria existed.
So the idea that they ‘belong’ to the people of Nigeria is deeply flawed. No matter where we are from – no matter what ethnicity we are – we can see and admire the Benin Bronzes. We do not have to be from Nigeria to do so.
The truth is that objects of art are a misguided target for those truly concerned about social justice. The fact that there is a sculpture of a cockerel in a university dining room is hardly the most pressing problem facing us today.’
Plaque of Oba Ozolua with warrior attendants, Benin, Nigeria, World Museum, Vienna
To argue, as Jenkins does, that because the Benin Bronzes were created in the 13th century, long before the birth of the State of Nigeria and therefore could not belong to Nigeria, is a favourite way of thinking of some Europeans. Jenkins even writes that the idea that ‘they belong to the people of Nigeria is deeply flawed’. This is a way of thinking which at first sight may appear convincing but on a short reflection we realize how wrong it is. The essence of the argument is that-these things were made before you were born and therefore cannot possibly belong to you. Does this make sense? Most of the valuable things that States and individuals inherit have, by the nature of things, been made before they were born. Think of the enormous wealthy artistic resources of many Western State and their institutions that have been accumulating since early periods, mostly before the modern concept of State was born. Has anyone ever suggested that Western States and museums have no right to hold or own objects that were made before they were created? Jenkins like some Western writers uses a different logic when it comes to discussing non- Western people. The world was not created yesterday and the achievements of our predecessors would be in danger if the thought displayed by Jenkins governed the world. Anyone could collect Stonehenge which was made before the modern State of Britain was born.
Jenkins declares that ‘No matter what ethnicity we are-we can see and admire the Benin bronze. We do not have to be from Nigeria to do so’.
Nobody ever suggested that we have to come from Nigeria or be of a specific ethnicity to be able to admire the Benin Bronzes. Jenkins attributes directly or indirectly to those demanding restitution arguments that they have never made. Another favourite delaying tactic of those with no convincing argument.
Again Jenkins states that ‘The truth is that objects of art are a misguided target for those truly concerned about social justice. The fact that there is a cockerel in a university dining room is hardly the most pressing problem facing us today.‘
Jenkins is suggesting that the students are wasting time and should be busy with more urgent issues. This is very interesting. Who is wasting time? The students who, with youthful exuberance, have agitated successfully for the return of a looted African artefact or the writer who devotes a whole article to the students ‘time wasting’ activity? Jenkins reveals here her Eurocentric view point and contempt for Africans and their problems. If one applied her logic to other cultural activities, nothing would be achieved in the cultural area. The world would always have more urgent matters than a single cultural artefact.
Jenkins’ statement that ‘these students want to return the cockerel as a kind of therapy for the ‘sins’ of British imperialism’ This is definite proof that Jenkins, like many of our Western contemporaries, has no idea about the horrors and demoralizing effects of the oppressive system of imperialism or is deliberately playing the ignorant one, and mocking the victims of British imperialism in Africa and elsewhere.
It becomes obvious from most of her irrelevant declarations that Jenkins does not seem to understand or appreciate that the Oba of Benin and his people want back their artefacts that were looted by Europeans. She does seem to be aware that the people of Benin, the Edo, still exist. She thinks the looted artefacts are at their right places in London museums and cannot understand that Nigerians want to have them back in Benin City, Lagos or Abuja. She cannot understand that those requesting the return of their artefacts are doing so because they want the objects per se back; they are not fighting for any social justice or trying to correct colonialism or rewrite history. They just want their things back.
Jenkins has some very strange conceptions:
‘The problem with these campaigns is that in becoming obsessed with colonialism, campaigners lose sight of the original meanings and purposes of the artworks, viewing them only as objects of apology.
But instead of repatriating artefacts, we need to appreciate them in the institutions which care for them – our great museums. For it is here that their true value can be understood.’
Students campaigning for the removal of Cecil Rhodes statute in Oxford are advised by Jenkins that ‘Repatriating artefacts, or pulling down statues such as that of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford – the subject of another vocal campaign – to make amends for colonisation is a poor substitute for reshaping the modern world. These students want to censor and rewrite history rather than do what young idealists should try to do – change the future’.
Jenkins does not seem to realize that if the students can achieve repatriation of many artefacts or the removal of offensive colonialist and imperialist symbols they would have changed the world a little and that the campaign for repatriation is not aimed at rewriting history but to change the present imbalance and thereby prepare a better future. But how does one change the future?
Jenkins cannot understand that the campaign for repatriation is aimed at returning artefacts that have been looted or stolen and not mainly about colonialism though this is incidental:
‘The problem with these campaigns is that in becoming obsessed with colonialism, campaigners lose sight of the original meanings and purposes of the artworks, viewing them only as objects of apology’.
Jenkins must explain to us why a student who thinks the Benin artefacts that were looted in the invasion of Benin in 1897 should be returned should be concerned with the ‘original meanings and purposes of the artworks’. Is an understanding of artworks a primary condition for supporting their repatriation? Some of us have supported the restitution of many looted artefacts without ever being a position to explain fully the artworks themselves. It seems sufficient for most of us to know the circumstances of the looting/removal of cultural objects in order to be for their repatriation. The students need not understand Greek history and mythology in order to decide whether to be in favour of the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles or not. The majority of British people have always been in favour of returning these artefacts to Athens but I doubt whether they are all well versed in Ancient Greek mythology or archaeology. It is enough that they have a strong sense of what is just.
The irrelevancies of Jenkins may irritate many readers. For example her statement that ‘It has now emerged that one of the key figures in the campaign is an old boy of an exclusive GP17, 000-a year school.’ What has this to do with the justice or injustice of returning looted artefacts? What will she make out of the fact that many of the supporters of restitution went to very expensive universities in the world? We are of course, not interested in the school or university where the author studied.
Queen-Mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, looted in 1897 and now in transferred captivity in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.
The Eurocentric statements found in the article are astonishing for our age and time:
‘It is here in Bloomsbury, that millions of visitors every year come to understand what these magnificent marble sculptures have meant to humans across time and around the world’
This selfish, arrogant, racist and self-serving statement is again reinforced:
‘The artworks were a force for good, however they were acquired.(Our emphasis) That’s why the Benin bronzes and all the other marvelous treasures we can study and appreciate at close quarters belong here in Britain.’
It would be difficult to find a more egocentric, Eurocentric and contemptuous statement in recent discussions on restitution and looting. Only those unaware of the criminal experiments on humans in Namibia under the cruel German colonial, the Nazi experiments by Dr. Eugen Fischer and similar attacks could praise acquisition of knowledge no matter the method used. Jenkins does not realize that many lives were lost in the Western acquisition of artefacts in Ethiopia, China, Benin and elsewhere during imperialistic wars.
Consciously or not, by stating that the artworks were a force for good, however they were acquired, the writer has touched also upon the great divide in the discussions on restitution.
There is on the one hand, a large group of scholars, especially archaeologists and restitutionists, who take the view that we should not deal at all with artefacts that have been acquired illegally, with violence and force or in a manner, morally objectionable. There are on the other hand, another group of persons, usually antiquities’ dealers and museum directors who take the view that no matter how an artefact was obtained, so long as it yields knowledge and information, we should accept it.
James Cuno, a well-known retentionist and high-priest of the universal museum supporters, previously Director of the Art Institute of Chicago and now President of the J. Paul Getty Foundation, has opposed any restrictions on the illegal exportation of artefacts. Indeed, until fairly recently, most major Western museums freely acquired artefacts without any proper documentation. James Cuno raised in his book, Whose Culture? the question ‘Can it then be said that the Laocoon is in any way meaningless without our knowing the archaeological circumstances of its finding? Of course not. And yet many archaeological critics of museums would argue precisely this with regard to unexcavated and undocumented antiquities today…And they would discourage museums from acquiring it and other ‘orphaned ‘objects similarly found alienated from their points of origin. (7)
The major museums stated in their notorious self-serving Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museums(1982) that artefacts that were in their museums, however acquired, had become part of their acquisitions which they hold on behalf of mankind. (8). Shortly thereafter many leading American museums and universities were obliged to return looted artefacts to Italy. Most of these institutions have opposed UNESCO and United Nations attempts to control illegal trading in antiquities, especially, the UNESCO Convention on the Illicit Trafficking in the Exportation and importation of Cultural Property. (1970) These museums do not generally accept ICOM bans on the importation of such items as NOK sculptures from Nigeria. Among this group are still persons who do not really accept recent UN Security ban on importation of artefacts from Syria and Iraq following massive destruction of cultural objects in the area. Some believe that by accepting illegal objects from those areas, they are saving them from destruction. (9) Through their illegal acquisitions, the Western museums had acquired such a bad reputation that James Cuno wrote: ”It is the purpose of this book to challenge the perception of museums as rapacious acquisitors of ill-gotten goods and to argue instead that our public museums build their antiquities collections responsibly and for the public’s benefit”. (10)
On the other hand, Lord Renfrew, a leading Cambridge archaeologist and prominent member of the group that opposes acquisition of unprovenanced artefacts by museums wrote in his book, Loot, Legitimacy, and Ownership, that’ ‘All the major and ancient museums of the world have in earlier centuries obtained large parts of their collections by means that would today be considered dubious…It is the aim of this book to invite museum curators to concede that they betray their trust as serious students of the past when they acquire unprovenanced antiquities or permit them to be displayed in their galleries’. (11)
. Renfrew states on the same page:
‘‘I find it strange also that the collection of unprovenanced antiquities by wealthy private individuals is still widely considered a socially acceptable undertaking, and that reputable scholars are willing to contribute to the published catalogues when such assemblages, replete with looted antiquities, are given public exhibition by public institutions, although I myself must plead guilty to having done so in the past. These institutions should know better than to allow such dubious artefacts to darken their doors’. (12)
Discussions on the acquisition of knowledge from looted artefacts or artefacts generally, do not pose the question, knowledge for whom? It is surely useful for colonialists and others to acquire more knowledge about natives and their societies that would enable more efficient exploitation of resources. But what about the victims of unmitigated European aggression such as the people of Benin? Are they impressed by the argument based on knowledge acquired through the destruction of their rich and flourishing Kingdom by the British in 1897? Since 1897 no compensation has been paid for the massive destruction of Benin City, the properties of the inhabitants, the loss of lives of the children, women and men that lived in that city. Instead, successors of the looters mock us with baseless arguments when we demand the return of some of the looted artefacts, with or without compensation, for illegal and illegitimate detention for over a century. In many ways, the successors appear to be worse than the original looters. This impression is reinforced by reading the article on the ‘noisy Cambridge students.’
Head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Weltmuseumwien Vienna, Austria The African Section of the Worldmuseum has been closed since 2000 but may open in 2017.
The comments of Tiffany Jenkins on the unforgettable Melina Mercouri are perhaps better left uncommented but since many persons who should know better have made similar statements, it may not be amiss if we comment briefly on this point. Jenkins states as follows:
‘Arguments for the return of cultural treasures are today made through the prism of a modern nation’s ‘identity’.
‘For example, Melina Mercouri, Greek minister of culture in the Eighties, and a prominent advocate for the return of the Elgin Marbles, argued that the Parthenon and its sculptures belong exclusively to the Greek people: ‘We are asking only for something unique, something matchless, and something specific to our identity.’
But the idea of a continued and unique ‘Greekness’, which ties together the ancient past and the people of the present, ignores centuries of invasions, changing borders, and the mixing of peoples. Ancient Greece was a series of city states. Athenians – not Greeks – built the Parthenon’.
What Melina Mercouri, the former Culture Minister of Greece said at the Oxford Union, was that the Parthenon Marbles represented for the Greeks a symbol of excellence, their aspirations and the essence of Greekness:
‘You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness”.
The Greek Minister did not in any way try to present a view that there was a Greekness that was not influenced by any other culture nor that the Greek peoples were in anyway devoid of any mixing with others. The racist notions of unique blood or the insinuations thereof have been introduced by those opposing restitution. References to ‘uniqueness’ was in reference to the beauty of the Parthenon Marbles.
This baseless argument can be found in the writings of James Cuno who tried to deny that present-day Egyptians were in anyway related to ancient Egyptians by asking whether they eat the same food, have the same religion or dress the same way. Could we reasonably ask whether present-day Britons drink the same beer as Anglo-Saxons and conclude from the answer a right or lack of right to control Stonhenge or artefacts found in Britain? That such irrelevancies have no bearing on the right of present-day Governments to control artefacts in their territories may be difficult for some to understand but this right of States is enshrined in the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 The denial of some blood connections between present-day governments and ancient cultures has been used to deny the right of the Government of Nigeria to control Nok artefacts, to demand the return of Benin Bronzes, some even forgetting that the Oba of Benin and his people. Edo, still exist. Strangely enough, these writers do not realize that their arguments could be easily applied to Britain, France and other European States to deny their rights to artefacts under their control. All States have undergone a mixture of peoples, religions and cultures. None of those demanding the restitution of looted, stolen or removed artefacts has ever made an argument based on blood continuity or purity. The argument is usually insinuated by those opposed to restitution without providing any evidence that a restitution demand has been based on this factor. The dishonesty here is simply amazing.
As for the statement that the Parthenon Marbles were built by Athenians and not Greeks we can see what mentality is behind the thinking of the writer. It is similar to the thought of a former director of the British Museum who declared that the Parthenon Marbles were not even Greek. Such persons will deny that the Benin Bronzes are African when it suits them even though they themselves have in the same text castigated Africans who sold slaves and used the manillas obtained in making the Benin Bronzes. They will have it both ways.
The criticism of Melina Mercouri’s definition of ‘Greekness’ is based on a much deeper thought and determination, admittedly not stated. It is the deep-seated desire of the imperialist mind to control the narrative of the history of others and to prevent any attempts of self-definition, self-determination, which will escape his or her the control and oversight.
We have had a former director of the British Museum telling us that Greek culture can only be understood in the British Museum and that the Parthenon Marbles in London have a different history from those in Athens. This same specialist has arrogated to himself the duty to inform other peoples, such as the Russians, about Greek culture and even determined which Greek sculpture can best explain that culture and appointed them ‘Ambassadors of Greek culture’ whilst refusing vehemently to return the sculptures to Athens. He has also mentioned a duty to make it possible for Chinese and Africans to view the Parthenon Marbles. (13)
It is the same imperialist spirit that animates the officials of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts who, when accused of receiving stolen/looted Benin Bronzes, insisted they had a duty to tell the history of Benin. They did not seem to envisage the possibility that the people of Benin might want to tell their own history with the objects that have been stolen and donated to the American museum. (14)
The imperialist museology based on the so-called universal museums, seems to be still the main background ideology of many Western museums and scholars and those influenced by them. They join us in criticising, where necessary, the unlawful and brutal methods used to acquire cultural artefacts from Africa and Asia. But once we request them to return some of these looted artefacts, there ends all communality. They castigate colonialism and imperialism but are unwilling to part with any of the objects brought to Europe by killing thousands of Africans and Asians. They regard the notorious invasion of Benin in 1897 as regrettable and unfortunate but return a Benin Bronze to Benin? That appears to be too much to ask.
Jenkins, like many Westerners, does not seem to understand or appreciate what it means to live in a country or continent where all the important cultural icons are abroad in another country or continent. Readers will be aware that the best of African art masterpieces are already abroad in the Western countries where we are not really wanted and where we have to go through unbelievable procedures to procure a visit. As many as 80 questions have to be answered on the internet followed by a personal interview before a leading European State would grant an African scholar a visa for two weeks. Many African personalities, including intellectuals, jurists, international civil servants and international judges have to undergo embarrassing procedures, including submitting statement of bank-account, to determine whether they can cover their expenses in the two weeks stay in a world metropolis. Recent terror acts have provided convenient covers for purely racists demands directed only to Africans and Asians.
How would European intellectuals feel if any time they wanted to see a Rembrandt painting they had to go to Kumasi? How would Europeans feel if they could only write a doctoral thesis on European art by travelling to Enugu? How would they react if the best of the Dutch masters were all in Saltpond or in Lagos?
Jenkins should speak to some of the African and Asian scholars and intellectuals who manage to secure visa for the Western world to change her dangerous Eurocentric views.
Since the Independence of Nigeria and many other African countries in 1960 there has not been a single noticeable restitution of cultural artefacts from Western States and museums to any African States with the possible exception of Egypt when Zahi Hawass was in charge of Egyptian artefacts. We have suggested that there is no shame in admitting that an aggressive State with superior might and violence that travelled thousands of kilometres from Europe to Africa and stole your cultural artefacts has refused to return any. What appears strange though is the effort to create an illusion that there has been successful restitution when you cannot name even one artefact that has been restituted. (15) Whole nations should not be treated this way.
Normally when a method or an approach has not yielded any success, a reasonable person with self-respect would try another approach. African cultural institutions and authorities do not seem to accept the need for change under such circumstances and allow themselves to be easily deceived with promises of digitalization and other assistance instead of the return of the precious national physical objects. Would African authorities learn from the successful Cambridge students? Or will they continue with their unsuccessful policy of quiet diplomacy? There will be a need for many explanations and so long as there is no serious effort to recover our looted artefacts, we may have to put up with statements such as those we have beenexamining. If African intellectuals and officials do not challenge such obvious self-serving approaches, they would have to tell their peoples what they discuss with their Western counterparts. Is it all dining and dancing?
Is it possible that every new generation of Western scholars feels obliged to deny undeniable facts of violence and treachery in the Afro-Western relationship? It is difficult to challenge the view expressed by Rupert Richard Arrowsmith in his book, Modernism and the Museum
‘After the missionaries, Ethnographers appeared, relying on scientific necessity as a justification for what was, even as late as the 1930s, very often little more than barefaced theft. Michel Leiris who took part in the anthropologist Marcel Griaule’s Dakar-Djibouti expedition in 1931, has left a frank account of the acquisition techniques employed…
The methods used in collecting the majority of the so-called ethnographical exhibits at institutions such as the British Museum meant that almost no information about their function, context or even culture of origin was available to curators; for this reason exhibits were usually tagged with faulty information or just displayed unlabelled. Not many people would have noticed this, for the galleries were so infrequently visited that it was 1910 before the museum even published a guidebook to them.’(16)
In the end, many of the arguments presented against restitution of looted/stolen artefacts are based on Western racism, a form of racism that after centuries of practice, becomes most natural to many Westerners, like the air they breathe that they do not recognize it. I can only thus explain the nonsense written or said by people who have received excellent university education. Could any person turn to those who lost their property and offer any of the arguments we have examined?
But behind the economic advantages of holding stolen property, is the sheer determination not to let power over others go. A British academic, Jonathan Harris has written in his book The New Art History – A critical Introduction:’ The question of the meaning of the ‘Benin bronzes’ or ‘Elgin Marbles’ in London – 1900 or 2000 – is inseparable from the issue of British attitudes towards Africa and the Orient as sites, once for direct military and political colonisation, and now for their post-imperial economic exploitation and indirect manipulation. To return them would imply the belief, on the part of the British authorities, that the peoples of those parts of the world were now capable of competently looking after artefacts that were removed ostensibly on the grounds that the local inhabitants were unfit, because of the ‘degeneration’ of their societies, to act as their curators. Their return would also imply admission of their illegal possession by the British. Both implications remain largely unthinkable because post-imperial racism continues to be a highly significant aspect of British foreign policy. Though British society may be relatively ‘multicultural now, its ruling elite, like that of the US, is still predominantly white, middle-class and male.’ (17)
Kwame Tua Opoku.
Head of Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Bristol Museum, Bristol, United Kingdom.
1. R. H. Bacon, Benin: City of Blood (pp. 107-108) cited by the great Ekpo Eyo, “Benin; The Sack that was”, http://www.edo-nation.net/eyo.htm
3. Benin Bronze cockerel is made from melted-down money AFRICANS earned by selling slaveshttp://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3485000/Bloody-truth-colonialist-cockerel-Cambridge-students-want-sent-Africa-s-melted-money-AFRICANS-earned-selling-slaves.html#ixzz42oUZ3ONg
4. K. Opoku,’The Man who returned his Grandfathers Looted Benin Bronzes’, http://www.museum-security.org/2015/03/the-man-of-conscience-who-returned-his-grandfathers-looted-benin-bronzes/
‘The history of this unwelcome visit which proved fatal should be clarified. Captain Philips had requested a visit to the Oba who replied he could not receive him because he would be involved in sacred ceremonies during which time no foreigners were permitted to see the Oba. Philips and his group were equally warned by chiefs who were well disposed to the British to refrain from the journey. Despite all warnings, Philip and his group proceeded with the visit as planned. Philips and his group with some 120-200 personnel disguised as carriers but having arms in their boxes, had as undeclared objective: to depose Oba Ovonramvem who was considered by the Acting Consul- General Philips as the main obstacle to Britain gaining control over trade in that part of Nigeria. Instead of the surprise attack the British group intended to launch, they were themselves surprised by an ambush on their way. Readers must ask themselves since when can one visit another person who says clearly that the tine proposed is inconvenient? Since when does one visit a monarch who states he is not prepared to receive such a visit?
The attack on Philips and his group provided a welcome pretext for invasion which the British had been weighing for a long time, including discussing the possible sale of Benin artworks to defray the costs of the intended campaign. British troops were sent to Benin on what they called Punitive Expedition. Benin City was captured and burnt. The Oba sent into exile in Calabar, in Nigeria. The destruction in Benin must have been awful’.
5. Barbara Plankensteiner (ed) Benin-Kings and Rituals-Court Arts from Nigeria, 2007, Snoeck, Ghent.
6. K. Opoku, ‘Formal Demand for the Return of Benin Bronzes: Will Western Museums now Return some of the Looted/Stolen ” http://www.modernghana.com
In response to a declaration by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum of their willingness to consider demands for the return of the Benin objects, the Benin Royal Family sent out a formal request dated 9 September, 2008, for the return of the cultural artefacts. In that letter Edun Agharese Akenzua, brother of the present Oba, Erediauwa, both great-grandsons of the famous king, Oba Ovonramwen, whose resistance to British hegemonial interferences led to conflict and eventual invasion, looting and burning of Benin City by the British army, recounted the history of the invasion of 1897 and explained the significance of the artefacts as records of Benin history. Thus looting those artefacts is also a deprivation of the records of Benin history. Up to today, neither the Field Museum nor the Art Institute of Chicago has had the decency to acknowledge receipt of the letter. This is presumably in order to be able to continue arguing that there has been no request for restitution, a favourable argument of Western museums.
7 James Cuno, Whose Culture? Princeton University Press, 2009, Princeton, p.13
8. K. Opoku, ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: Singular Failure of an Arrogant Imperialist Project’. www.modernghana.com/news/441891/1/declaration-on-the-importance…
10. Colin Renfrew, Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership, Duckworth, 2000, London p.10.
11. Renfrew, Loot p.10
12. Melina Mercouri’s speech to the Oxford Union, June 1986,
13. K. Opoku,’ British Museum Director Defends Once More Retention of Parthenon Marbles’,http:www.modernghana.com/news/580881/1/
A History of the World with 100 Looted Objects of Others: Global Intoxication?
14.Will Boston Museum of Fine Arts Return Looted Benin Bronzes?
15. K. Opoku, ‘What we understand by ‘restitution,’ mondernghana.com
16. Rupert Richard Arrowsmith, Modernism and the Museum–Asian, African and Pacific Art of the London Avant-Garde, Oxford University Press, 2011, p183 Those seriously interested in the relations between Africa and Europe, should read L’Afrique Fantome, by Michel Leiris, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1934.
17. Jonathan Harris, The New Art Histor– A critical Introduction, Routledge, London, 2001, p.275.
PUNITIVE EXPEDITION OF 1897
Under the heading Brititsh Punitive Expedition 1897,we read as follows:
This episode has to be seen in the context of the spread of British control over
the whole of what is now Nigeria at the start of the colonial period –the kingdom
of Benin was just one the teragets.The initial problem arose out of the decision
by a British consulPhillips to visit the Oba with a small armed group,against the
advice of the British Governor,otherNigerian chiefs,and repeated
warnings,threats and pleas by the Oba himself. Phillips persisted and he and his
group were killed. A punitive expedition was then sent,which arrested and
deposed the Oba and put an end to five centuries of the kingdom’s,with the
British Army looting and destroying the capital city’-p.8
The Wealth of Africa-Thekingdom of Benin p. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum 08/2010
Kingdom Of Benin_TeachersNotes
Once it is accepted that the initial disaster at Benin was caused by the ‘trade
delegation’, it becomes difficult to justify the subsequent reaction of the punitive
expedition, the refusal to pay compensation for the massive destruction of a
flourishing civilization or to return the looted artefacts. The basic justification
for ‘punitive action’ disappears and subsequent actions based on the premise
appear to be without any justification at all.
However several writers have operated on the initial line of perfidious Benin
attack on an innocent trade delegation visiting the Oba to talk about trade:
See Kwame Opoku, ‘Compromise on the Restitution of Benin Bronzes? Comments’,
Nigel Barley writes in, The Art of Benin, (British Museum Press, 2010, p. 15,)
“An unarmed diplomatic mission went to urge the Oba to comply and was attacked by chiefs acting without royal authority”. It is remarkable that the writer mentions that they were unarmed. Is a diplomatic mission supposed to be armed? There is no mention that the Oba had told this “diplomatic mission” that he could not receive them at the time proposed for the visit and that they should postpone the visit. Is this how diplomacy is conducted by entering the territory of a monarch who says he cannot receive the mission?
Paula Girshick Ben-Amos writes in, The Art of Benin, (British Museum Press, 1995, p. 58):
”The British viewed Benin as the main obstacle to their expansion into the agricultural interior and when in 1897, an envoy to Oba Ovonramwen was ambushed and killed, the British sent out a Punitive Expedition against the kingdom”. Here the military force of some 250 is reduced to an envoy.
Neil MacGregor, in “The whole world in our hands’ makes this statement in dealing with the British invasion of Benin:www.theguardian.com/profile/neilmacgregor
“A British delegation, travelling to Benin at a sacred season of the year when such visits were forbidden, was killed, though not on the orders of the Oba himself. In retaliation, the British mounted a punitive expedition against Benin.http://arts.guardian.co.uk/;
Ekpo Eyo describes the Pre-emptive Strike Force and its back ground as follows: CONSUL PHILLIP ILL – FATED EXPEDITION.
“The event that was to lead to the overthrow of the Oba began when an acting consul-General was appointed for the area in 1896. He was a young naval Officer, called Captain Phillips. With this appointment events moved rather quickly. Soon after his arrival, Consul Phillips began to advise the “Benin River Chiefs” not to comply with Oba Overanwen’s demand for additional tribute to the Oba of Benin for partially opening up the hinterland markets. Phillips followed up his advice to the Benin River chiefs with a letter dated November 1846 to Oba Overanwen proposing a visit to Benin City. The stated purpose of the visit was “to try and persuade the king to let white men come up to the City whenever they wanted to” (Boisrangon p. 58) Such a letter could have done nothing less than increase the fear of the Bini. The king was “to allow whitemen to come up to the City whenever they wanted to”. The visit was planned for early January 1897. In reply, the Oba requested that the visit be delayed for two months, to enable him to get through the IGUE ritual during which time his body is scared and not allowed to come in contact with foreign elements. Igue ritual is the highest ritual among the Edo and is performed not only for the well- being of the king but of his entire subjects and the land. But Phillips showed no sympathy. He replied the king that he was in a hurry and could not wait because he has so much work to do elsewhere in the Protectorate. Defiantly, the expedition set out as it proposed in January, 1897 and when it arrived at UGHOTON, three royal Emmissaries met it with a request that it should tarry for two days so that they could “send up and let the King know in time for him to make his preparation for receiving us” (Boisrangon, p.84). Again Phillips regretted that he could not wait because he has so much work to do and that he would start early the next morning. And, on the next morning, he set out for Benin City. By the afternoon of that day, January 4, 1897 the inevitable happened: Seven out of nine white members of the Expedition including Phillips himself were ambushed and killed. The only white survivors were Boisragon and Locke. The story of this ill-fated Expedition is set out in Boisragon’s book: The Benin Massacre” http://www.dawodu.net
See Alain Boisragon, The Benin Massacre, Methuen &Co, 36 Essex Street, W. C, London 1897. See also, Richard Gott, The Looting of Benin, http://www.arm.arc.co.uk
The Case of Benin
Memorandum submitted by Prince Edun Akenzua
I am Edun Akenzua Enogie (Duke) of Obazuwa-Iko, brother of His Majesty, Omo, n’Oba n’Edo, Oba (King) Erediauwa of Benin, great grandson of His Majesty Omo n’Oba n’Edo, Oba Ovonramwen, in whose reign the cultural property was removed in 1897. I am also the Chairman of the Benin Centenary Committee established in 1996 to commemorate 100 years of Britain’s invasion of Benin, the action which led to the removal of the cultural property.
“On 26 March 1892 the Deputy Commissioner and Vice-Consul, Benin District of the Oil River Protectorate, Captain H L Gallwey, manoeuvred Oba Ovonramwen and his chiefs into agreeing to terms of a treaty with the British Government. That treaty, in all its implications, marked the beginning of the end of the independence of Benin not only on account of its theoretical claims, which bordered on the fictitious, but also in providing the British with the pretext, if not the legal basis, for subsequently holding the Oba accountable for his future actions.”
The text quoted above was taken from the paper presented at the Benin Centenary Lectures by Professor P A Igbafe of the Department of History, University of Benin on 17 February 1997.
Four years later in 1896 the British Acting Consul in the Niger-Delta, Captain James R Philip wrote a letter to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Salisbury, requesting approval for his proposal to invade Benin and depose its King. As a post-script to the letter, Captain Philip wrote: “I would add that I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory would be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool.”
These two extracts sum up succinctly the intention of the British, or, at least, of Captain Philip, to take over Benin and its natural and cultural wealth for the British.
British troops invaded Benin on 10 February1897. After a fierce battle, they captured the city, on February 18. Three days later, on 21 February precisely, they torched the city and burnt down practically every house. Pitching their tent on the Palace grounds, the soldiers gathered all the bronzes, ivory-works, carved tusks and oak chests that escaped the fire. Thus, some 3,000 pieces of cultural artwork were taken away from Benin. The bulk of it was taken from the burnt down Palace.
NUMBER OF ITEMS REMOVED
It is not possible for us to say exactly how many items were removed. They were not catalogued at inception. We are informed that the soldiers who looted the palace did the cataloguing. It is from their accounts and those of some European and American sources that we have come to know that the British carried away more than 3,000 pieces of Benin cultural property. They are now scattered in museums and galleries all over the world, especially in London, Scotland, Europe and the United States. A good number of them are in private hands.
WHAT THE WORKS MEAN TO THE PEOPLE OF BENIN
The works have been referred to as primitive art, or simply, artifacts of African origin. But Benin did not produce their works only for aesthetics or for galleries and museums. At the time Europeans were keeping their records in long-hand and in hieroglyphics, the people of Benin cast theirs in bronze, carved on ivory or wood. The Obas commissioned them when an important event took place which they wished to record. Some of them of course, were ornamental to adorn altars and places of worship. But many of them were actually reference points, the library or the archive. To illustrate this, one may cite an event which took place during the coronation of Oba Erediauwa in 1979. There was an argument as to where to place an item of the coronation paraphernalia. Fortunately a bronze-cast of a past Oba wearing the same regalia had escaped the eyes of the soldiers and so it is still with us. Reference was made to it and the matter was resolved. Taking away those items is taking away our records, or our Soul.
In view of the fore-going, the following reliefs are sought on behalf of the Oba and people of Benin who have been impoverished, materially and psychologically, by the wanton looting of their historically and cultural property.
(i) The official record of the property removed from the Palace of Benin in 1897 be made available to the owner, the Oba of Benin.
(ii) All the cultural property belonging to the Oba of Benin illegally taken away by the British in 1897, should be returned to the rightful owner, the Oba of Benin.
(iii) As an alternative, to (ii) above, the British should pay monetary compensation, based on the current market value, to the rightful owner, the Oba of Benin.
(iv) Britain, being the principal looters of the Benin Palace, should take full responsibility for retrieving the cultural property or the monetary compensation from all those to whom the British sold them.
LIST OF HOLDERS OF BENIN ARTEFACTS
Almost every Western museum has some Benin objects. Here is a short list of some of the places where the Benin Bronzes are to be found and their numbers. Various catalogues of exhibitions on Benin art or African art also list the private collections of the Benin Bronzes. Many museums refuse to inform the public about the number of Benin artefacts they have and do not display permanently the Benin artefacts in their possession since they do not have enough space. A museum such as World Museum, Vienna, formerly Volkerkundemuseum, has closed since 16 years the African section where the Benin artefacts were, apparently due to renovation works which are not likely to be finished before 2017.
Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Boston, – Museum of Fine Arts 28.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400
Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Glasgow _ Kelvingrove and St, Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life 22
Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London – British Museum 900.
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.
Paris-Musee du Quai Branly, unknown number.
Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.
Vienna –World Museum, formerly Museum für Völkerkunde 167.
EXTRACTS FROM AFRIQUE FANTÔME, MICHEL LEIRIS
Editions Gallimard, 1934. Translations from French are by K. Opoku.
We reproduce below texts from the diary of Michel Leiris, the Secretary to the notorious French Dakar-Djibouti Expedition,1931-33, that travelled from Dakar to Djibouti, armed with authorization from the Government to take whatever objects it thought might be useful in understanding the colonies, its and customs. The mission was under the leadership of the well-known French ethnologist, Marcel Griaule. The incredible methods of intimidation, extortion and direct theft could find equivalents under French, German and Portuguese colonial rule.
It is interesting to note that Afrique Fantome has so far not been translated into English even though it is one of the few records where participants in ethnological expeditions provide us with direct information about their methods of acquisition of cultural artefacts
28 August 1931
“After the journey. Dinner at Sido (128km). Raid, as in the other village, of all that we can find by way of dance costumes, utensils, children’s toys, etc.” (Ibid. p.96)
“On the left, hanging from the ceiling in the midst of a crowd of calabashes, an indefinable packet covered with feathers of different birds and in which Griaule feels that there is a mask.
Irritated by the equivocations of the people our decision is quickly made: Griaule takes two flutes and slips them into his boots, we place the other things in place and we leave.” (Ibid. p.103)
“Griaule decrees then and through Mamadou Vad, informs the chief that since they are obviously mocking us, they must, as reprisals deliver to us a Kono (an initiation altart) in exchange for 10 francs, on pain of the police, said to be hiding in our vehicle, coming to take the chief and the important persons of the village to San where they will have to explain themselves to the Administration. What a terrible blackmail!
With a theatral gesture, I gave the chicken to the chief and as Makan has arrived with the canvas sheet, Griaule and I ordered the men to bring us the “Kono”). With everybody refusing, we went there ourselves, enveloped the holy object in the canvas sheet and went out like thieves whilst the panic-stricken chief fled and at some distance, drove his wife and children to their home with a baton. We crossed the village, which had become completely deserted, in a deadly silence, we reached our vehicles…
The ten francs are given to the chief and we leave in a hurry, in the midst of general astonishment and crowned with the aura of particularly powerful and daring demons or rascals.”(Ibid. pp.103-104)
“Before leaving Dyabougou, visit to the village and the taking of the second “Kono”, which Griaule had spotted by entering into the reserved hut surreptitiously. This time it is Lutten and myself who have the responsibility for the operation. My heart beats very strongly for since the scandal of yesterday, I realize with more clarity the enormity of what we are committing.” (Ibid. p.105)
“In the next village, I recognised a hut for a “Kono” with a door in ruins, I point it out to Griaule and the action is decided. As in the previous case, Mamadou Vad announces suddenly to the village chief whom we have brought before the hut in question, that the commander of the mission has given us the order to seize the Kono and that we are ready to pay an indemnity of 20 francs. This time, I alone take care of the operation and penetrate into the sacred small place, with the hunting knife of Lutten in my hand in order to cut the links to the mask. When I realise that two men – in no way at all menacing, have entered behind me, I realise with an astonishment which after a very short time turns into disgust, that one feels all the same very sure of one’s self when one is a white man and has a knife in his hand.” (Ibid. p.105)
“Towards the evening, the French teacher informed us that the mosque was the work of a European, the former administrator. In order to implement his plans, he destroyed the old mosque. The natives were so disgusted by the new building that they had to be punished with imprisonment before they would agree to sweep the building.” (Ibid. p.115)
“Departure to the Habés. From the first village visited problems. The Habés
are nice peoples who stand firm on their feet and do not seem to be ready to let others disturb them. Attempts to buy a few locks, even a purchase, they will protest and denounce a completed bargain; in a gesture of anger, Griaule breaks a “waamba” (a music instrument for the circumcised) which he had paid for and let it be said that he curses the village.” (Ibid. p.120)
“Yesterday, we were refused with shock several statuettes which were used to cause rainfall, as well as a statuette with raised arms, found in a sanctuary.
Taking away these objects would have been like taking away the life of the country, said a young man who, even though had been in the army, had remained faithful to his customs, almost crying at the thought of the disasters that our impious gesture would have provoked, and opposing our evil design with all his strength, had alerted the old men. Feeling like pirates: saying good-bye this morning to these affectionate old men, happy that we had spared them a disaster, we kept an eye on the huge green umbrella which was normally used to protect us but was today carefully bound. There was a strange bulge looking like the beak of a pelican: it contained the famous statuette with raised arms which I had myself stolen at the foot of the earth mound which served as its altar. I first hid it in my shirt… and then I put it in the umbrella… pretending to urinate in order to divert attention.
This evening, at Touyogou, where we are camping at a public place, my chest is full of earth: my shirt served again as a hiding place for a kind of double edged blade, as we left the cave of masks of this village.” (Ibid. p.156)
“In addition, the abductions continue and the information. Sanctuaries and holes in which one throws old masks are systematically explored.” (Ibid. p.157)
“Our friends, Apama and Ambara brought us secretly costumes of fibres for masques which we had asked them. They requested us, above all, to hide them well. Today, I am preparing with them cards on these objects. Apama and Ambara are very attentive to the slightest noise. A child who wanted to enter was scolded. No doubt; our methods have set an example and the two nice boys went to take the costumes of fibres in the cave of masks where they were hidden. The influence of the European…” (Ibid. pp.157-158)
“In another cave, we were authorised to take one of these objects (objects destined for causing lightning to fall on the heads of thieves). But when we put our hands on it, the people turned away from us, for fear of seeing us terribly punished for our sacrilege… To the right of the cave, in a small sanctuary, a beautiful wooden sculpture. We did not look at it too much in order not to draw too much attention; but it was agreed that this night, Schaeffner and I, we were going to seize it.” (Ibid. p159)
Queen-Mother Idia, Benin,Nigeria, now in captivity in British Museum ,London ,United Kingdom. The symbol of Pan-African culture the British Museum refuses to return to Nigeria,even on a’loan’.
Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. The contents of this article are of sole responsibility of the author(s). Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article.” © Kwame Opoku, Dr..
admin March 31st, 2016
“It is our prayer that the people and the government of Austria will show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country.”
The Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba Erediauwa. (1)
After the publication of my article entitled “Looted /stolen cultural articles declared shared heritage” (2) a friend sent me from Germany a magazine with the title, “Ein Berliner Schloss fur die Welt”, (A Berlin Palace for the World), issued by the Humboldt-Forum. (3) Apart from the very misleading title, creating the impression that the future museum had been built specifically for the world and not for Germany, as evident from all available information. The publication follows the style of the British Museum which argues that the British Museum is not a British museum but a museum for the world. (4) The magazine contains many tendentious statements and articles that assume, apparently, that the German public cannot distinguish between facts and fiction.
Under the heading, Humboldt Lab Dahlem, we are informed that the African and Asian artefacts in the museums in Dahlem (a suburb of Berlin) will not only travel to the middle of the city to the Humboldt-Forum but will also be transformed in the process (“sie verwandeln sich dabei auch”) for the narratives concerning them will be different. How are the objects when they arrive in the museum (and why not other objects?) How has the viewing perspective on these objects changed and what do they still have to tell us? After these questions the author declares:
“Objects have no meaning in themselves. They always play another role-for
human beings. And whoever begins to think over this changing process, will not
be able to finish with the questions posed thereby”. (5)
What the author is telling us is that objects such as the African sculptures in the
Ethnologisches Museum have no fixed meaning since meaning or importance
depends on their location and viewer. The Benin cultural artefacts, for example,
would be transformed in the process of their transfer from Dahlem to Berlin
Mitte, a journey of a few kilometres. What an extraordinary statement. Most of
us will agree that the symbolism and the meaning attached to a particular object
may differ from society to society and that what may be seen as a sign of good
luck in one culture may not have the same significance in another context. In
other words, the function and meaning of an object may vary from culture to
culture. To extend this fact to imply the transformation of objects from a short
journey in Berlin, within the same city, is a view that cannot be easily
accepted without further evidence.
Do the Benin artefacts cease to possess the meaning and importance they had in Benin through the travel to the Humboldt-Forum via London and Dahlem? This seems to be a very easy transformation. Did this also occur when the objects were transported from Africa to Europe? If so, why do museums still attach African labels to these objects and assign their origins to Africa?
The author may be reflecting here the spurious theory of shifting values that the
organizers of the 2007 exhibition, Benin: Kings and Rituals-Court Arts from
Nigeria (6) tried to advance as justification for holding on to the looted
Read full text at: http://www.museum-security.org/WILL HUMBOLDT.doc
admin October 12th, 2015
Dr. James Cuno has given an interesting interview to Scott Simon which is not only about recent massive destructions of large monuments and built cultural structures in the Middle East but seizes this deplorable situation to present one of his pet arguments: the need to distribute cultural artefacts around the world and not to keep them all at the places where they were produced. Cuno himself admits that a distribution of artefacts at several places would not have prevented any of the recent destructions of large cultural monuments and sites. So why do we have this interview? We can only assume that the intention was to give Dr. Cuno another opportunity to present his theory of distributing artefacts around the world as a means of their protection from destruction. As we have often stated, this idea of not accumulating many artefacts in one place would apply more directly to Western museums that have deliberately assembled artefacts of others over the past centuries.
Cuno’s idea is once again not more elaborated here than in his previous article in the American journal, Foreign Affairs. The learned scholar is, to be sure, not thinking of museums like the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum as candidates for spreading artefacts around the world. He is not contemplating the distribution of Western masterworks around the world, presumably they need no protection. He is thinking only about artefacts in Africa, Asia and Latin America. He leaves it understood by his western readers that these objects from those areas would come to Western museums. Who contribute to the troubles in those areas is, of course, not an issue for the learned scholar. Under what conditions those distributed objects would eventually be returned is, of course, not his concern. Indeed, Dr. Cuno suggests the repeal of an American law passed after the Iraqi invasion that required returning recently looted Iraqi artefacts found in the United States of America. Cuno states that, unlike the British Museum, a museum in America could not keep an artefact it knows to have been illegally exported from Iraq.
admin September 8th, 2015
“The restitution of those cultural objects which our museums and collections, directly or indirectly, possess thanks to the colonial system and are now being demanded, must also not be postponed with cheap arguments and tricks.”
Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause
We must admit that the supporters of Western domination in the cultural area are very active and are never tired of inventing conceptions and slogans that will protect their illegal holding of looted / stolen cultural artefacts of others. Their capacity for inventing hegemonic constructs that may even impress some of the deprived peoples should not be underestimated.
Hardly is one theory destroyed, another one rises or an old one is revived or modified. The “universal museum”, at least as a mechanism for defending Western holding of looted artefacts, is now considered dead. But in its place appears a revived theory of “shared heritage” advanced to serve the same purpose as all previous inventions: justify the continued wrongful detention of the cultural artefacts of others.
admin August 21st, 2015
For a long time, successive German governments have sought to avoid taking responsibility for the genocide of the Herero and Nama of South-West Africa, now Namibia, in 1904-1908. We have in previous articles examined the various untenable arguments that were advanced by German governments to reject this historic cruelty and responsibility.
The attempt to deny historical evidence of German genocide was bound to fail in so far as all the elements of German responsibility have been fully documented in German official papers and writings of German scholars. The extermination order of the German General in South West Africa, General von Lothar should have been sufficient evidence of the declared intention to exterminate Herero and Nama:
‘I, the great general of the German troops, send this letter to the Herero people. The Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and stolen, they have cut off the ears and other parts of the bodies of wounded soldiers, and now out of cowardice they no longer wish to fight. I say to the people: anyone who hands over one of the chiefs to one of our stations as prisoner shall receive 1,000 marks and whoever delivers Samuel Maharero will receive 5,000 marks. The Herero people must however leave the land. If the people refuse to do so, I shall force them with the Great Rohr [cannon]. Any Herero found within the German borders, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I no longer receive women or children. I will drive them back to their people or order them to be shot. These are my words to the Herero people.
Vernichtungsbefehl (Extermination Order) by the German commander, General Lothar von Trotha.
Do read full text via:
admin August 2nd, 2015
PRICE OF KOTA SOLD IN PARIS IS INTERESTING BUT WHAT ABOUT LOSS TO CREATORS AND ORIGINAL USERS?
The kota sold by Christies for Euro 5.5m in Paris on 23 June 2015
The Art Newspaper informs us that a kota has fetched a very high price in Paris:
“A 66cm-tall wooden sculpture has become the most expensive work of African art sold at Christie’s France, fetching €5.5m in Paris today, 23 June. This price tag makes it the third most valuable work of African art ever auctioned; the record stands at $12m for a rare Senufo female statue, which sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2014” (1)
We learnt also from The Art Newspaper that the kota figure comes from the collection of the late William Rubin, a former director at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) There is also a reference to what the paper describes as “somewhat glamorous provenance”, the object having been previously possessed by cosmetics tycoon, Helen Rubinstein and a collector of modern art, David Lloyd.
I looked in vain in the newspaper for any reference to the people or the persons who made the artefact and from which country it originally came. There was not a word on how that object travelled from Africa to the U.S.A.
admin July 13th, 2015
BRITISH MUSEUM “GUARDS” LOOTED SYRIAN OBJECT?
“We are holding an object we know was illegally removed from Syria and one day it will go back.” Neil MacGregor. BBC.
“Museums, libraries and archives must take precautions to ensure that they acquire, or borrow, only ethically acceptable items and reject items that might have been looted or illegally exported. To ensure they do this, they need to exercise due diligence.
Museums should acquire or borrow items only if they are certain they have not been illegally excavated or illegally exported since 1970.”
Combating Illicit Trade, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, October 2005.
We were, to put it very mildly, surprised to read in the mass media several articles stating that the British Museum was “guarding” a looted Syrian artefact until peace returns to that country. The Times wrote: “The British Museum is holding a precious object illegally removed from Syria in the hope of returning it when the country is stable, Neil MacGregor, the outgoing director has disclosed.”
The director also added that the British Museum has been trying to protect antiquities looted from conflict areas. He is also reported to have called on the British Government to explain why it has not signed the Hague Convention on protection of artefacts in cases of armed conflict. (1)
No one would deny that the venerable British Museum has vast experience in dealing with looted objects. After all, the museum has more looted objects than any other museum in the world. Among its reported 9 million objects are a considerable number of looted objects from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania.
Some might think therefore that the museum in Bloomsbury has “impeccable credentials” for dealing with such objects. We noted in the reports that nobody raised the question whether it is right that a museum that is under permanent criticism for holding looted objects of others or objects acquired under dubious circumstances now presents itself as “guardian” of looted artefacts.
The British Museum’s “guarding” of looted antiquity lends itself superbly to interesting analogies and comparisons in various sectors of life- farm life, hunting practice, banking experience, animal life and everyday life.
Most readers will be familiar with how this museum “guards” the Benin Bronzes: it refuses to return them but sells them.
The handling of the Parthenon Marbles which the British Museum always claims to be holding for the benefit of humanity needs no elaboration here but a recall of the disputed recent loan of the Ilissos statue to Russia and the refusal to have UNESCO mediation of its dispute with Greece throw light on the singular and arrogant character of this particular “guardian.”
From the reports on this peculiar guardianship of a looted Syrian artefact, it appears the museum is not willing to state the following:
How does the holding of the looted Syrian artefact by the British Museum comply with the guidelines issued by British Government in 2005, Combating Illicit Trade which the Chairman of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, Mark Wood, welcomed as follows?
“I very much welcome these guidelines? They mark a significant step in the steady progress museums, libraries and archives have been making to ensure that as collections develop and diversify, it is on the basis of the highest ethical standards. It is no longer acceptable for our public institutions to collect or borrow material which comes from an unethical source. This document gives the clear guidance which all institutions will welcome and want to implement.”(2)
If a museum or for that matter any person, knows that an object, whether artefact or not, has been looted or illegally exported, it would be my view that the matter should be reported to the police and in any case one should refuse to handle or deal with the object, however precious it may be.
That the object is precious or of an extreme importance to the history of a particular country should not be allowed to prevail. Lord Renfrew and all those who have studied the illegal traffic in antiquities have said that the trade is driven by the desire of the museums and other institution to acquire artefacts. If those dealing in illicit traffic thought there would be no market for the items they would be less inclined to go to all the trouble in looting or illegally exporting the objects. (3)
Laws and regulations must be respected, both in spirit and word. When some years ago, this author raised the issue whether legitimacy and legality were still viable concepts for western museum directors. not many were happy but they kept quiet. Philippe de Montebello however responded in his way by an attack. (4)
But the issue still remains whether museums should or should not abide by normal morality and legality. Recent acts of the British Museum and reports on the looted Syrian artefact show that many believe the institution does not have to abide by normal standards. None of the reports raises the issue whether the conduct of the museum is correct.
Is this new role of the museum to be confined to the British Museum or extended to others? Can other museums in the West replicate the latest exploit of the famous museum? If this becomes the practice of most museums, we can be sure that most of artefacts from conflict areas will soon be under “guardianship” of museums in the West and we can hardly distinguish between legitimate acquisition and illegal acquisition.
Kwame Opoku, 7 June 2015.
admin June 8th, 2015
DEFENCE OF “UNIVERSAL MUSEUMS” THROUH OMISSIONS AND IRRELEVANCIES‘
“In this era of resurgent nationalist violence, encyclopedic museums are more important than ever.”’Dr. James Cuno
There is a remarkable presentation in the Financial Times of 22 May, 2015 in the defence of the so-called “universal museum” or encyclopedic museum” by one of its main proponents, Dr. James Cuno. The article entitled “Time to celebrate our differences” accumulates a number of misleading impressions and insinuations that may impress the uninformed but I doubt if any of those who have followed the discussions on the “universal museum” will fail to notice the attempts by the writer to answer criticisms without stating clearly the objections of his opponents. Time to celebrate our differences – FT.com – Financial Times
To say that immigration has fuelled the growth of Brooklyn and Los Angeles and add that today the population of New York is nearly 32per cent African descent is to mislead the reader. Are the large majority of people of African descent in New York not African Americans whose ancestors were brought there not through immigration but slavery? African-Americans are Americans and not migrants from Africa.
The aim of Cuno’s article is to defend the concept of the universal museum but without referring even once to what the whole debate is about: acquisition of looted artefacts of others and artefacts of doubtful acquisition, both in the past and at present by the powerful museums in the West. A group of the world’s largest museums signed a Declaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museums (2002) defending their possession of ill-gotten artefacts and arguing that they hold these objects in the interest of mankind and that the large museums enable more people to see the artefacts they have unilaterally declared to be part of the heritage of mankind.
Cuno’s attack on the modern nation-State is aimed at accusing certain States of restricting the free acquisition of artefacts by the rich museums in the West and lamenting the olden days when Western States could more or less take whatever they wanted from countries like Egypt under the so-called partage system.
None of the States and peoples requesting the return of their looted or stolen artefacts has based its claim on identity of any kind. The claims have been largely based on the territorial principle that objects within a particular State can be controlled by that State. The identity issue brought in here by Cuno is irrelevant but allows attacks of certain States.
The self-styled universal museums such as the British Museum, the Louvre, the Berlin State- Museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts, New York and others are all in the West. Cuno now brings in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai to create the impression that the voracious museums are not all in the West. For most of those critical of the concept of universal museum, the main characteristics of these museums are that they have been enriched by looting from the colonial and imperialist periods, they claim to have those objects as of right of conquest by their States, so called war booty,(or by purchase after conquest), refuse to return them to their rightful owners, claim to have an almost God-given duty to preserve the artefacts for mankind and hold millions of objects from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania. We do not know whether the museum in Mumbai shares any of the main characteristics of the large museums. We read that it has only 50,000 artefacts as compared to the 9 million artefacts in the British Museum.
Throwing in quotations to criticize cultures that may not admit that they are also hybrid is fine. But this is a red-herring. None of those claiming the return of their looted artefacts like the Greeks, the Italians, the Egyptians and the Nigerians, has ever argued that their culture is pure and on that basis requests the return of the objects. Dr. Cuno keeps repeating this unfounded argument but has never provided a single example of such a claim. It is all too easy to attribute a ridiculous point of view to an opponent and then demolish it.
Cuno claims for the “universal museum” virtues it does not possess;
“This is why, in the era of resurgent nationalist and sectarian violence in which we live, encyclopedic museums are more important than ever. They enlarge people’s view of themselves and their identity as part of the larger world, of the long and textured history of human existence.”
Has the violence of our times really been “nationalist”? Contrary to the impression some readers may gain, none of those claiming the return of their looted artefacts can be in any way connected to “nationalist violence” in their attempts to retrieve the looted objects. It would be unfortunate in a period where some are violently destroying cultural artefacts, if those who have been requesting for decades the return of their looted or stolen artefacts were in anyway linked in the mind of others to such violence, directly or indirectly. If violence is at all relevant here, it is the violence used in looting artefacts from areas such as Benin, China, Ethiopia, Gold Coast (Ghana), Latin America, and elsewhere. Readers can imagine the damage done to artefacts in those invasions and lootings.
Presenting the “universal museum” as a factor for peace is of course not credible and the insinuation that the creation of more of the voracious museums is somehow desirable for peace and understanding has not been established:
“They enlarge people’s view of themselves and their identity as part of the larger world, of the long and textured history of human existence. If only for this reason, large metropolises, not only Brooklyn and Los Angeles but also Jakarta, Shanghai, Mexico City, São Paulo, Tokyo and others, should encourage the development of such museums with all financial and political means possible”.
The existence of “universal museums” in the Western world has not enlarged “people’s view of themselves and their identity as part of the larger world, of the long and textured history of human existence.
Cuno and his supporters would have to explain why the existence of “universal museums” in Great Britain, France, Germany and the United States of America for decades has not prevented those countries from going to wars and fighting each other. France and Germany fought for several years despite the existence of the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. Peoples in those countries have not considered themselves and their identity as part of the larger world otherwise they would not have proceeded on the destructive path of war and aggression which unfortunately has characterized our world in the last centuries.
Using the methods of the supporters of the “universal museum,” one could even prove the contrary since the existence of these rapacious museums could increase or stimulate the necessity or interest in invading other States for other resources and artefacts. The British Museum was established in 1753 but this did not prevent the invasion of Benin in 1897 after the possibility of securing precious artefacts had been discussed in the Foreign Office. Whether the existence of the British Museum and the various British invasions of other States-Benin, Gold Coast (Ghana), Ethiopia, China- are related has not been clearly established. It is known though that in most invasions the venerable museum sent specialists as part of the army to advise the invading troops about what artefacts to collect.
The European Enlightenment philosophy which is said to be at the base of the concept of “universal museum” has been in many ways, through its racist ideology, partly responsible for European aggression in the rest of the world.
Cuno’s attempts to attribute to the so-called universal museum certain virtues clearly fail to convince since this would imply activities that do not normally fall within the purview of museums. Dr. Cuno’s statements remain what they are: mere affirmations without an iota of evidence in support. Is this a service to the museums insofar as they are being connected to activities over which they have no influence at all? Affirmation and declarations…
The so-called “universal museums” such as the British Museum, Cuno’s favourite model, have come to symbolize for many in Africa, Asia and Latin America oppression and denial of the rights of others. They symbolize the total defeat of our countries and their political systems. The continued feelings of defeat are kept alive by the lack of understanding of our need to recover our looted artefacts.
Instead of spending energy and resources to remind us constantly of our past defeats, Cuno and his supporters could try reconciliation by returning some of the looted artefacts and by adopting a more reconciliatory tone. Insisting on replicating or imitating institutions that represent our defeat will in the end only create hate.
At a time when there are groups that are destroying physically precious ancient cultural artefacts, should one not be more concerned with them than rather continuing to deny the rights of those who simply want their looted objects back? The United Nations and UNESCO have been calling on Member States to prevent the damage. It would seem to me that this is clearly not the time to revive the pretentious claims of the so-called universal museums.
We should not be put into a situation where we have only a choice between an outmoded model of museum or no museum at all because of the hatred generated by the claims of the large museums. Cuno could plead for museums generally and not for the model of museum that represents oppression of others and the denial of their right to their own artefacts. At a time when some museums have been attacked and their artefacts destroyed, it does not seem right to plead only for that model of museum that revises bad memories of imperialism in the world. Cuno and his supporters should abandon the “universal museum” and embrace simply the museum so that we can all concentrate our efforts and thoughts in saving precious records of human history.
At a time when Western States have increased their immigration restrictions and indeed have decided to use military force to prevent migrants from Africa and the Middle-East from entering their territories, we found strange this statement from Cuno:
“Then all those young people who cannot, or do not wish to, move to Los Angeles or Brooklyn can experience the truth about national identity as being limited only by access to new and different things. And, by broadening access to difference, nations can lay the foundation of greater understanding of both difference and similarity. That can only be good for all of us, regardless of where we live”.
Does Dr.Cuno want to encourage our youth to move to Los Angeles or Brooklyn knowing fully well the difficulties youth of African or Asian descent face in those great cities? Does Cuno really believe that “the truth about national identity as being limited only by access to new and different things? Does the American scholar believe that the difference between an African national identity and an American national identity is that the first have limited access to new and different things whereas the other has unlimited access to all the modern gadgets? He should honestly discuss this issue with some of his colleagues in the social sciences.
The young people for whom Dr. Cuno seems to care a lot would like to live in peace in the world and would wish the African American youth could be sure of their lives when they go out onto the streets of those great American cities. American immigration laws would prevent most of the youth from moving to Los Angeles or Brooklyn even if they wanted to move. However, they would like to see in their own countries artefacts that were produced by their ancestors and are now in museums in America and Europe.
“Whether the Enlightenment model of the universal museum currently being promoted by some museum professionals is sufficiently flexible to accommodate the competing semantic claims made on today’s museums by diverse communities and interest groups remains a matter of conjecture. What seems certain is that the increasingly combative postures adopted by a number of European and North American museum directors can only exacerbate the problem, although this is how things are currently developing.”
Tom Flynn, The Universal Museum A valid model for the 21st century? (Lulu Press, Inc.)
Kwame Opoku. 31 May 2015.
admin May 31st, 2015
THEY ARE SELLING RECORDS OF AFRICAN HISTORY: WHO CARES?
The auction house Dorotheum in Vienna has issued a catalogue announcing a forthcoming auction of cultural artefacts from Africa, Asia and Oceania on 26 May 2015. (1) Among the many African items to be sold are pieces of Nok (Nigeria), Komaland (Ghana) and many other interesting pieces. The impressive array of African artefacts once again confirms the accepted fact that Europe has more valuable African artefacts, mostly looted, than Africa itself. Very few in Abidjan, Abuja, Accra, Cape Town, Lagos Luanda or Maputo could assemble such a collection.
admin May 24th, 2015
VIENNA MUSEUM DIRECTOR CALLS FOR TIME LIMITATION ON NAZI LOOT CLAIMS
We are gradually beginning to think that there is something special about restitution which makes it very difficult for some, especially museum directors, to accept that there are crimes, including the looting of cultural objects that should never be barred by a statute of limitation.
Egon Schieles Portrait of Wally, 1912.
We thought we had dealt adequately with the grounds why such heinous crimes as the Nazis committed against individuals and their property, including artworks, should under no circumstances, be forgiven or forgotten and that restitution or adequate compensation accepted by the victims of such crimes or their successors appears to be the only solution. We thought we had dealt with this as Sir Norman Rosenthal made a suggestion to set a time limit to such claims. (1)
Similar ideas were also subsequently proposed by Jonathan Jones who in the meanwhile has seen the light of the day, recanted and is even calling for the restitution of all artworks looted in the British colonial period as well as the Parthenon Marbles. (2)
Now we have the Director of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, calling for a time limit on all Nazi-loot restitution claims on art works in public collections. The Art Newspaper reported as follows:
The international community should decide on a sensible time frame of 20 or 30 years from now, says Klaus Albrecht Schrder. If we dont set a time limit of around 100 years after the end of the Second World War, then we should ask ourselves why claims regarding crimes committed during the First World War should not still be valid; why we don’t argue anymore about the consequences of the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian war, and why we don’t claim restitution of works of art that have been stolen during previous wars? (3)
Schroeder believes that Nazi-looted art claims in public collections have been well treated by museums in countries such as Austria that signed the Washington Principles, adopted in December 1998.
According to the museum director, Austria has done well in returning some 50,000 artworks and objects looted by the Nazis and were held in public collections. Schroeder thinks it is now necessary to set a time limit:
Until now we have done the right thing in Austria by disregarding statutes of limitations on art looted during the Second World War. Nevertheless, without ever forgetting the ferocious crimes of the war, I think we must come to the point in which history is accepted as history and it can be laid to rest.
I do not know what conception of history Schroeder has but the remark I think we must come to the point in which history is accepted as history and it can be laid to rest, frightens me a lot. How can anybody, aware of the recent history of Austria and other European countries make such a statement? Many of us believe that history in such matters as the Nazi loot is not to be laid to rest. On the contrary, given the ignorance and lack of interest by many persons in this decisive period of European history, efforts should be doubled to teach the youth and others about the horrible and evil acts of that period and lessons learnt about how to prevent re-occurrence. What did previous generations mean when they shouted Nie Wieder! (Never Again)?
According to Schroeder, prices paid by museums to keep works now recognized as Nazi looted are higher than could be realized on the free market. He gives as an example, the case of Egon Schieles 1912 Portrait of Wally, which the Leopold Museum in Vienna paid $19m to keep. With all due respect to the museum director, if prices of Nazi looted artworks have gone up that cannot be put at the door of victims of Nazi loot nor would that justify setting time limits to such claims. The museums could themselves take part of the blame for high prices in so as they are not obliged to pay prices they consider exorbitant. Moreover, the delay of decades in settling claims has undoubtedly contributed to higher prices but this is surely not the fault of claimants. In view of the circumstances surrounding Nazi loot and the costs to the victims – loss of life, exile and general deprivation of property and loss of jobs – do we dare to raise the issue of price?
The example of Schieles Portrait of Wally which Dr Schroeder gives is rather unfortunate for this case, in my opinion, clearly provides reasons why there should be no time limit. The delaying tactics that were employed to keep this painting in Austria were impressive. It required the intervention of American courts to oblige the museum to enter into negotiations with the claimant forsettlement by agreement.
It is commendable that Austria has taken necessary steps in returning many of the Nazi-looted artworks. But how many more of the looted artworks remain to be returned? And how long have the restitution cases taken? My reading of the materials available indicates that there is still a lot to be done and instead of talking about limitations of time, one should consider how the remaining cases can be speeded up. Perhaps more staff and funds could be provided for provenance research. Long after the end of the Nazi regime we are still dealing with such problems and some say it is time to stop. But have we finished the task of securing justice for the victims of Nazism and their successors?
So long as there are looted objects that have not been returned, so long should restitution claims continue.
Kwame Opoku, 31 March, 2015.
www.lootedart.com/NFVA1Y581441 Kwame Opoku,
The Strange and Amazing Thoughts of Sir Norman Rosenthal on Ending Restitution of Nazi Looted Art
Response to Jonathan Jones: Should All Looted Art be Returned?
Britains museums need to face up to a reality. Cultural imperialism is dead. They cannot any longer coldly keep hold of artistic treasures that were acquired in dubious circumstances a long time ago, taken from the splendid West African city by a British punitive raid in 1897, are never going to rest easy in Bloomsbury. Meanwhile the international mood is shifting and will inevitably continue to shift towards a consensus that many wonders of the world are wrongfully hogged by western museums.
In the end, the defence for hanging on to contested cultural goods boils down to the deeply offensive notion that Britain looks after the Parthenon marbles or Benin heads and plaques better than Greece or Nigeria ever could. How long can our museums keep up this arrogance? Not long.
The British Empire is dead. So is the age of cultural booty
admin April 3rd, 2015
BRITISH GOVERNMENT AND BRITISH MUSEUM REJECT GREEK REQUEST FOR UNESCO MEDIATION ON THE PARTHENON MARBLES.
Very few readers will be surprised by the negative response of the British Museum and the British Government to the Greek request for UNESCO mediation over the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum.(1) The real surprise is that it took such a long time, from 9 August 2913 to 26 March 2015 to send the British response. We used to think that a prompt reply or a response within a reasonable period was the hallmark of politeness.
The negative response consists of two separate letters to UNESCO, one from the British Government and the other from the British Museum. Though both letters conveyed a negative reply, it appears better, for clarity to discuss them separately. We will also see clearly the division of labour between the two British institutions that are united in the final objective but adopt different paths and style.
BRITISH MUSEUM ANSWER
The response of the British Museum bears all the hallmarks we have come to associate with this institution in the matter of the Parthenon Marbles: arrogance, defiance and provocation.
In a letter dated 26 March to the UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum states in the opening paragraph:
“After full and careful consideration, we have decided respectfully to decline this request. We believe that the more constructive way forward, on which we have already embarked, is to collaborate directly with other museums and cultural institutions, not just in Greece but across the world”.
The request of Greece for mediation on the Parthenon Marbles in London is drowned in the area of collaboration with “other museums and cultural institutions, not just in Greece but across the world”. The specific question of the Greek sculptures, their ownership and location is not the object of attention and concentration.
The letter expresses admiration for the work of UNESCO in the area of “preservation and safeguarding the world’s endangered cultural heritage.”
The Chairman of the Board of Trustees immediately points out that the Parthenon Sculptures do not fall within this category. The method used here is fairly simple. You narrow the competence of UNESCO to the preservation and safeguarding the world’s endangered cultural heritage and declare UNESCO’s involvement in other areas as undesirable:
“the Trustees would want to develop existing good relations with colleagues and institutions in Greece, and to explore collaborative ventures, not on a government-to-government basis but directly between institutions. This is why we believe that UNESCO involvement is not the best way forward”
The Board of Trustees of the British Museum seem to have forgotten that UNESCO has a broad mandate that covers most areas of culture as well as disputes relating to cultural artefacts. Indeed the Organization has specifically, through its Intergovernmental Committee, (Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation) the duty to assist States in settling disputes such as those relating to the Parthenon Sculptures. This dispute has been before UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for a long time. The mediation procedure is one of several procedures available for dispute settlement. (2)
As we are now used to,, the British Museum’s letter contains the usual claim that the museum is there for the whole world and works on behalf of audiences from the whole world, forgetting that the majority of the world would have no visa to London and would also not be able to afford the costs involved in a visit to London.
The museum’s letter, as we could expect, is full of references to the alleged international role of the museum for the benefit of humanity:
“The British Museum, as you know, is not a government body, and the collections do not belong to the British Government. The Trustees of the British Museum hold them not only for the British people, but for the benefit of the world public, present and future. The Trustees have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve and maintain all the collections in their care, to treat them as inalienable and to make them accessible to world audiences”
“Museums holding Greek works, whether in Greece, the UK or elsewhere in the world, are naturally united in a shared endeavour to show the importance of the legacy of ancient Greece. The British Museum is committed to playing its full part in sharing the value of that legacy for all humanity.”
Most readers would be used to this standard propaganda of the British Museum in its role as self-appointed saviour of humanity’s cultural heritage. But what would come to many as a surprise is that the venerable museum advances its own wrong-doing as a demonstration of its commitment to humanity’s culture’
The letter of the museum refers to the notorious and controversial loan of Ilissos to Russia as an example of sharing the legacy of ancient Greece;
“In this same spirit, the Trustees recently lent one of the Parthenon Sculptures to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and were pleased to learn that in only six weeks some 140,000 Russian visitors had the chance to see it there. This was a new audience for this extraordinary work of ancient Greek art, most of whom could not have visited either Athens or London.”
The loan of one of the contested Parthenon Marbles to Russia was condemned by many as wrong and was described by Peter Aspden, Financial Times critic as “ill-conceived trip to Russia”(3)
It requires a great amount of arrogance, self-confidence and provocation to advance an action condemned by most people as evidence of international co-operation. (4)
The British Museum also refers to what it calls”the historic distribution of the surviving Parthenon Sculptures:”
“Views on the historic distribution of the surviving Parthenon Sculptures naturally differ, though there is unanimous recognition that the original totality of the sculptural decoration cannot now be reassembled as so much has been lost, and that the surviving sculptures can never again take their place on the building.”
The use of the word “distribution” is in many ways misleading. It creates the impression that there had been a conscious and deliberate decision to divide the Parthenon Sculptures among the nations that hold them at present. This, as we all know, was never the case but it helps to divert attention from asking how the sculptures came to London. The statement that the sculptures cannot be all replaced in the ancient Acropolis is undoubtedly aimed, at the arguments for reunification of the sculptures in Athens. As far as I am aware, no one has ever suggested the Parthenon Sculptures could be put back at their old location. What has been suggested is that they should be reunited in the new Acropolis Museum where there is enough place for them.
LETTER FROM BRITISH GOVERNMENT
The British Minister of State for Culture and Digital Economy sent a letter dated 26 March 2015 to the UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture in response to the UNESCO letter of 9 August 2013.
The Minister’s letter acknowledges the important role of UNESCO in the settlement of international disputes through the Intergovernmental Committee. The letter adds that officials of Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the British Museum have attended regularly meetings of the Committee even though Britain is not a member of the Committee.
Contrary to the British Museum letter which seems to be contesting the competence of UNESCO to be involved in such disputes, the Minister’s letter acknowledges UNESCO role in such disputes:
“We would first like to express how much we value the role that UNESCO plays in helping to safeguard cultural heritage and in providing a forum for the resolution of international disputes through the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP”.
Are these differences of approach accidental? We can be sure that officials of both the Government and the British Museum worked together on both letters and that if there are any differences of approach or nuances, these are not accidental but intentional. You say nice things about them and we tell them where to get off.
The letter from Government declares that the sculptures in the British Museum were acquired legally by Lord Elgin under the laws then prevailing. The request for mediation was to seek the transfer of the sculptures to Athens and deny the British Museum’s right of ownership. The positions of the British and the Greeks are clear and mediation would not carry the debate forward:
“Given our equally clear position, this leads us to conclude that mediation would not carry this debate substantially forward.”
The global nature of the collections in the British Museum as well as legal restrictions on de-accession are thrown in for good measure.
Readers will no doubt have noticed the not so subtle attempts to relegate the dispute on the Parthenon Marbles to a dispute between museums and not States. As dispute between States, the British Government is under pressure from other States in the United Nations and UNESCO to settle the matter. As dispute between institutions there will be less pressure and the Greek museum will not be able to exert much pressure on the British Museum In their letters of rejection, the British Museum tells UNESCO to stay away from this dispute and concern itself with preservation and destruction of culture and not with the Parthenon Marbles that are very well kept. The British Government also agrees that the matter should be left to the museums that have excellent relations
The British Museum continues in its attempt to take hold of the narrative of Greek culture and history, presenting itself as major player in the dissemination of Greek culture by bringing the Greek legacy to Russia and elsewhere. The current exhibition, Defining Beauty, the Body in Ancient Greek Art is given as an example of the museum’s approach. Is it by sheer coincidence that the exhibition opens on the same date as the rejection of the Greek proposal was sent?
It is remarkable that the British Museum and the British Government continue to advance the museum’s propaganda that it holds the Parthenon Marbles on behalf of humanity. Does this humanity include the British people who have in countless opinion polls overwhelmingly and consistently decided that the Parthenon Marbles be returned to Greece. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the majority of States through their representatives in the United Nations and UNESCO have in countless resolutions decided that the sculptures should be returned to Athens. So for which humanity is the British Museum working?
The British Government and the British Museum appear never to have seriously considered the possibility of resolving the Parthenon dispute. One can understand that when a party has no real chance of winning a fair game that it is not interested in entering the game. But is this attitude to be expected from States that are often telling others to follow the law and emphasize the need for democracy? Can there be democracy without a willingness to submit disputes with other States to the rule of Law and other peaceful methods of dispute settlement?
The double refusal by the British Government and the British Museum is surely not the last word on the question of the Parthenon Marbles which they both admit are Greek. Praising the grandeur and the legacy of Greek civilization but at the same time refusing to let the Greeks have their cultural artefacts so that they could also celebrate that legacy can surely not be right.
Kwame Opoku, 30 March 2015
admin March 31st, 2015
“These objects are part of the cultural heritage of another people… to the people of Benin City, these objects are priceless
Dr. Mark Walker.
Bird of Prophecy, looted by the British in 1897 and returned by Dr.Mark Walker in 2014.
BBC NEWS has published an article under the title of “The man who returned his grandfather’s looted art”, recounting the recent return of two Benin Bronzes by Dr. Mark Walker, a medical surgeon and a descendant of one of the British soldiers who invaded Benin City in 1897 and plundered the precious artefacts from the palace of the Oba of Benin. (1).
No doubt many readers would have already heard-about Mark Walker but the story by Ellen Otzen is worth reading for there are not many persons in the Western world who, plagued by their conscience for holding looted art of other peoples, are in a hurry to return the objects to the legitimate owners. Since Walker returned two Benin Bronzes last year, there has not been a similar gesture in the whole of the Western world. This is a sad commentary on the prevailing morality. But this should not come as a surprise since in this 21st Century we have powerful institutions and leading academics that seriously argue that artefacts that have been wrenched from former colonies with violence and other illegitimate methods should be kept by the holders in the West. This position provides evidence and confirmation that not everyone has rejected colonialism and its effects despite the various United Nations resolutions. Many Western scholars seem to have banned morality from discussions on restitution.
Walker who inherited two Benin Bronzes from his grandfather felt it would be the right thing to return the objects to the descendants of Oba Ovonramwen from whose palace the objects were looted. He felt the people of Benin needed those objects more than the people at home in Britain. When Walker arrived with the two objects in Benin City, he was overwhelmed by the warm and enthusiastic reception he received from the 92 years old Oba, a great grandson of Oba Ovonramwen and from the people of Benin:
“It was very humbling to be greeted with such enthusiasm and gratitude, for nothing really. I was just returning some art objects to a place where I feel they will be properly looked after.”
As we have always maintained, African artefacts mean more to the African peoples than to the Westerners who hold these objects mostly for aesthetic contemplation and economic gain. (2)
Ancestors Bell. Looted by the British in 1897 and returned by Dr, Mark Walker in 2014.
Prince Edun Akenzua, great-grandson of Oba Owonramwen with Dr. Mark Walker in Benin City, 2014.
The BBC News report contains certain statements which we must comment on for the better understanding of the invasion of Benin and its aftermath.
“But in January 1897, seven British officials who were on their way to see the Oba of Benin – the king – were killed in an ambush”.
The history of this unwelcome visit which proved fatal should be clarified. Captain Philips had requested a visit to the Oba who replied he could not receive him because he would be involved in sacred ceremonies during which time no foreigners were permitted to see the Oba. Philips and his group were equally warned by chiefs who were well disposed to the British to refrain from the journey. Despite all warnings, Philip and his group proceeded with the visit as planned. Philips and his group with some 120-200 personnel disguised as carriers but having arms in their boxes, had as undeclared objective: to depose Oba Ovonramvem who was considered by the Acting Consul- General Philips as the main obstacle to Britain gaining control over trade in that part of Nigeria. Instead of the surprise attack the British group intended to launch, they were themselves surprised by an ambush on their way. Readers must ask themselves since when can one visit another person who says clearly that the tine proposed is inconvenient? Since when does one vist a monarch who states he is not prepared to receive such a visit?
The attack on Philips and his group provided a welcome pretext for invasion which the British had been weighing for a long time, including discussing the possible sale of Benin artworks to defray the costs of the intended campaign. British troops were sent to Benin on what they called Punitive Expedition. (3). Benin City was captured and burnt. The Oba sent into exile in Calabar, in Nigeria. The destruction in Benin must have been awful. R.
Intelligence Officer to the expedition wrote in his book, Benin: the City of Blood: “There was a dim grandeur about it all, and also these seemed to a fate. Here was this head centre of iniquity, spared by us from its suitable end of burning for the sake of holding the new seat of justice where barbarism had held away, given into our hands with the brand of Blood soaked into every corner and …….. fire only could purge it, and here on our lassa day we were to see its legitimate fate overtake it.” (4)
“After the killing came the looting – the British seized more than 2,000 artworks and religious artefacts, most of them hundreds of years old, which were sent back to England.”
The figure of 2000 mentioned as the number of the looted artefacts seems to us an underestimate. Prof. Felix von Luschan who was instrumental in procuring a large number of the Benin artefacts for the Ethnologische Museum, Berlin, puts the figure at 2400. We prefer to use the figure of 3000 used by Edun Akenzua, the brother of the Oba in his plea to the British Parliament. But there is no officially agreed figure. The Oba did not keep a list of his artefacts nor are the Western museums willing to give us exact figures of the number of Benin artefacts they are holding. The Germans have officially stated 507 as the number they have. Field Museum, Chicago once indicated holding 404 Benin artefacts but nobody now knows where those artefacts are. The British Museum does not give any official information at all on its number of Benin artefacts some of which the venerable museum has in the meanwhile sold for cash. (5)
The BBC News report contains a classic response from the British Museum on why it is not willing to return any of the many looted Benin Bronzes it is holding
The British Museum says it has not recently received any new official requests for the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
“As a museum of the world for the world the British Museum presents the Benin Bronzes in a global context alongside the stories of other cultures and makes these objects as available as possible to a global audience,” it says in a statement.
As usual, the British Museum presents first a denial that there has been a request and then advances a reason why it is justified in holding looted artefacts. We should note that the museum has made a modification to the usual denial of the existence of a request. For a long time, the museum simply denied that there had ever been a request at all for the Benin Bronzes even though the evidence for the demand was overwhelming. The Oba of Benin and the Nigerian Government and Parliament have for decades requested the return of the looted artefacts.
Various groups within and outside Nigeria have also made such request. The United Nations and UNESCO have since 1972 annually passed a resolution entitled “Return Cultural Property to country of Origin urging holding countries to return the objects.(6)The International Council of Museums has requested holding museums to take initiative in returning cultural objects. Several writers have also made such a request. The Oba of Benin sent his brother in 2000 to make an appeal to the British Parliament which is on the records of the British Parliament, known as Appendix 21. Still the British Museum denied there had been any request. (7)
The reported defence of the Bloomsbury museum is that “it has not recently received any new official requests for the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.” We are dealing here with objects looted in 1897. How recent must the request for return be? Is the request in 2000 before the British Parliament not recent enough? Must the Oba of Benin and his people renew the request every year or month? What about the requests made by the Oba at the opening of the various Benin exhibitions,
-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
? The exhibition was in Vienna from 9thMay to 3rd September, 2007, in Paris from 2nd October to 6th January 2008, in Berlin from 7th February to 25th May, 2008 and in Chicago from 27th June to 21st September 2008.Do the annual United Nations/UNESCO resolutions then not matter at all? (8) We should note however the progress made by the museum from a blatant denial of the existence of a demand for return to absence of recent demand.
The claim that the British Museum is “a museum of the world for the world” is simply not true and people at Bloomsbury know this very well. The museum has not been created by any world authority with participation by other States such as those in the United Nations and other international organizations. The British Museum is a British museum created by the British Parliament through an Act of the British Parliament,
British Museum Act 1753 as subsequently modified by
British Museum Act 1963.
The Board of Trustees of the museum are appointed by the British Monarch and the British Government. No doubt the museum has high or world standards but that does not make it a world museum. There are several museums in the world with such standards but none will make such claims.(9) The big difference between the museum in Bloomsbury and other important museums is that the British Museum has looted/stolen artefacts from several parts of the world. In that sense, one may consider it a museum of the world but could one claim such a distinction on the basis of illegality?
Even if the British Museum were a “museum of the world for the world”, it would not be entitled, by this fact, to hold onto artefacts of other peoples, obtained through violence and the use of force who now request their return. The acquisition of” world status” cannot be advanced to deny the basic human right to cultural development.
But who requested the British Museum to present “the Benin Bronzes in a global context alongside the stories of other cultures”and “make these objects as available as possible to a global audience” whilst denying to the people of Benin access to their own artefacts?
We can see from the argument of the British Museum the urgent need to tell the story of Dr, Mark Walker as often as possible so that all may finally understand that every people creates its artefacts for its own use and should not through violence and other oppressive means be deprived of the basic human right to cultural development and self-determination of the location of cultural artefacts.
By his noble gesture, Mark Walker has restored our confidence in the ability of humankind to distinguish between right and wrong, justice and injustice; he has positioned himself beyond petty economics and the parochial nationalism that presents itself in the disguise of universalism, using arrogance and mendacity as its favourite tools.
Queen-Mother Idea, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom. Can MacGregor tell her story better than the Oba of Benin?
Culture is the soul of a nation. The illicit removal or destruction of cultural property deprives peoples of their history and tradition. Restitution is the only means that can restore damage and reinstate a sense of dignity”.
Permanent Representative of Greece to the United Nations on the Presentation of
the Resolution titled, Return or restitution of cultural property to the country of origin GA/RES/67/80, 12 Dec. 2012.
Kwame Opoku, 27 March, 2015.
1. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine See also K. Opoku, “Return of Two Looted Benin Bronzes by a Briton: History in the Making”,
Peju Layiwola, “Walker and the Restitution of Two Benin Bronzes”,
2. K. Opoku,” Africans need their cultural objects more than Europeans and Americans” …www.afrikanet.info/…/africans-need-african-cultural-objects-more-than-e.
Benin1897.com : art and the restitution question by Peju Layiwola.
pp.107-108 cited by the great Ekpo Eyo in “,Benin:the Sack that was”
5. Anja Laukötter, in her excellent book, Von der ‘Kultur’ zur ‘Rasse’ – vom Objekt zum Körper : Völkerkundemuseen und ihre Wissenschaft zu Beginn des 20.Jahhunderts (Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2007, P160), cites Luschan as follows:
‘Im ganzen sind rund 2400 Benin Stűcke zu meiner Kenntnis gelangt: davon sind 580 in Berlin, 280 im Brit.Museum, 227 in Rushmore (die von Pitt Rivers hinterlassene Sammlung), 196 in Hamburg,182 in Dresden, 167 in Wien, 98 in Leiden, 87 in Leipzig, 80 in Stuttgart, 76 in Cőln und 51 in Frankfurt a .M
Barbara Plankensteiner, a leading authority on Benin and Deputy Director, Volkerkunde Museum, Vienna, now World Museum, states as follows in her excellent book, Benin, 2010,Five Continents, p. 7;
“The quantity of historic works is impressive, estimated at between 2,400 and 4000 objects, including 900 relief plaques nearly 300 bronze heads, beads and roughly 130 elephant tusks covered with relief carvings.”
UN General Assembly,
A/RES/67/80 Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origins, adopted by the General Assembly on 12 December,2012
7. Appendis 21. The Case of Benin. Memorandum submitted by Prince Edun Akenzua www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ …/371ap27.htm. March 2000
K. Opoku, ‘Is the Absence of a Formal Demand for Restitution a Ground for Non-Restitution?
9. See K. Opoku,”When Will Everybody Finally Accept that the British Museum is a British Institution? Comments on a Lecture by Neil MacGregor.
Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence
LIST OF HOLDERS OF THE BENIN BRONZES
Almost every Western museum has some Benin objects. Here is a short list of museums where some of the Benin Bronzes are to be found and their numbers. Various catalogues of exhibitions on Benin art or African art also list the private collections of the Benin Bronzes. The museums refuse to inform the public about the number of Benin artefacts they have and do not display permanently the Benin artefacts in their possession since they do not have enough space. A museum such as Völkerkunde Museum, Vienna (Now World Museum) has closed since 12 years and is not likely to re-open soon. The looted Benin artefacts are in the African Section.
German authorities still have to explain the disparity between 507 objects they now admit and the figure of 580 given by Prof. Felix van Luschan who was instrumental in procuring the Benin for the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin. Has the German museum, like the British Museum also sold some of the Benin artefacts? See K, Opoku, Did Germans Never Hear Directly or Indirectly Nigeria’s Demand for Return of Looted Artefacts? http://www.modernghana.com
See also, Felix von Luschan, Die Altertümer von Benin, hrsg. mit Untertstützung des Reichs-Kolonialministeriums, der Rudolf Virchow- und der Arthur Baessler-Stiftung, 1919.
Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 507.
Boston, – Museum of Fine Arts 28.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400
Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Glasgow _ Kelvingrove and St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life 22
Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London – British Museum 900.
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.
Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.
Vienna – Museum für Völkerkunde (World Museum) 167.
admin March 29th, 2015
DOES DR.CUNO REALLY BELIEVE WHAT HE WRITES ?
After my last article, I swore not to comment anymore on Dr.Cuno’s statements in order to avoid any impression that I was unduly concentrating on the opinions of one scholar. (1) However, it seems the U.S. American scholar is never tired of presenting views that most critics would consider patently wrong. Could we just keep quiet when a most influential scholar expresses an opinion that is obviously wrong? In his latest letter to the editor of the New York Times, 11 March,2015,James Cuno, President and Chief Executive of the J. Paul Getty trust, Los Angeles declares
”The recent attacks on the ancient cities of Nimrud and Hatra in Iraq underscore a tragic reality. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization encourages — and provides an institutional instrument for — the retention of antiquities within the borders of the modern state that claims them. That state, very sadly, also has the authority to sell them on the illegal market, damage them or destroy them.
Until Unesco changes its basic position on this issue, antiquities will remain at risk. The world can only be grateful for the earlier regime of “partage,” which allowed for the sharing of Assyrian antiquities with museums worldwide that could preserve them. This unconscionable destruction is an argument for why portable works of art should be distributed throughout the world and not concentrated in one place. ISIS will destroy everything in its path.” (2)
What an astonishing declaration. UNESCO is here made to be responsible, at least partially or indirectly, for massive destruction of cultural artefacts. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 (3) or UNESCO, directly or indirectly encourages the destruction of cultural property. UNESCO is charged with the preservation of culture and cultural artefacts. If anyone has credible evidence that the organization, its organs or officials are involved in destruction or encouraging others in this direction, it would be their duty to bring this evidence to the attention of UNESCO and its organs for appropriate action.
Most readers would have read the statements from the UNESCO. Director- General and other senior officials on recent events concerning the destruction of cultural artefacts. (4)
We do not know how Dr. Cuno reads the UNESCO Convention. There is not a single word in the Convention to support the view that the Convention vests States with a proprietary right or authority to destroy artefacts. The duty to protect artefacts does not include the right to destroy them. Think of the various cultural artefacts that belong to various communities within some States. No one ever suggested that the State could sell those artefacts or destroy them by virtue of the provisions of the Convention. The State is not necessarily the owner of the artefacts it protects or should protect. Think for instance about the Benin Bronzes or the Nok sculptures in the State of Nigeria. No one has suggested that the Convention as such vests proprietary rights in the famous artefacts in the State of Nigeria so that the Nigerian Government could simply destroy them…
As for the suggestion that the world should be grateful for the partage system which existed previously, this is what Dr. Cuno himself has written about the system which he wishes to revive, a system that allowed imperialist powers to take as much materials as they wanted from non-Western countries.
. “For many decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, archaeological finds were shared between the excavating party and the local, host country through partage. This is how the great Ghandaran collection got to the Musée Guimet in Paris (shared with Afghanistan), the Assyrian collection got to the British Museum in London (shared with Iraq, before the formation of the modern, independent government of Iraq), the Lydian materials from Sardis got to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (shared with the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey), the Egyptian collection got to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a number of collections got to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and of course how the great collections were formed at the university archaeological museums, like the Peabody Museums at Harvard and Yale, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, and the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania. But this principle is no longer in practice. With the surge in nationalism in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it has become almost impossible to share archaeological finds. All such finds belong to the host nation and are its property. Only the state can authorize the removal of an archaeological artifact to another country, and it almost never does. Even when one lends antiquities abroad, it is for severely restricted periods of time. Antiquities are cultural property, and cultural property is defined and controlled by the state for the benefit of the state.” (5)
After reading the extract above and others from Cuno’s book, one wonders how he can suggest a return to a clearly unfair system. (6) The partage system allowed the rich countries which financed many of the exploration and excavation of archaeological sites to regard the countries of these sites, so called “source countries” as some sort of archaeological supermarket The partage system left us disputes such as the one between Egypt and Germany concerning Nefertiti’s bust.The partage system, in conjunction with looting and stealing,, enabled stronger and aggressive countries to build up the so-called “universal museums”.
Where does Cuno derive the notion that the State may legally participate in the illegal market? By definition, the State cannot participate in the illegal market unless we abandon all distinctions between “legality” and “illegality”. The State as source of legality cannot participate in illegality and continue to proclaim laws, issue regulations and provide penalties.
The statement by Cuno that recent destructions offer a further argument for “why portable works of art should be distributed throughout the world and not concentrated in one place”, is surely more appropriately addressed to the “universal museums” than to “source countries”. Nowhere do we find a massive accumulation of artefacts as in the so-called universal museums in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Madrid and elsewhere in the Western world. These museums have “collected” uncountable objects from non-western countries and are refusing to return any. The British Museum alone has some 9 million objects. Could Cuno’s advice de directed to the venerable museum in Bloomsbury?
There are aspects of the 1970 UNESCO Convention that may be criticised but the suggestion that the Convention and the UNESCO are somehow responsible or have contributed to destruction of cultural artefacts is, with all due respect, clearly not based on any tenable evidence and is a dangerous suggestion
Verily, this is not the time to launch attacks on the United Nations body for culture; support for this body could be expected of all those interested in the preservation of cultures and cultural artefacts whether they are in favour of more freedom of action for the so-called “universal museums” or not.
Kwame Opoku, 14 March, 2015.
See Paul Barford, James Cuno, President and Chief Executive of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles, writes to the Editor of the NYT (Deploring ISIS, Destroyer of a Civilization’s Art
UNESCO calls for mobilization to stop “cultural cleansing” in Iraq Friday, February 27, 2015
“UNESCO Director General condemns destruction of Nimrud in Iraq”, 6 February 2015. http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1244
UNESCO Conference calls for protected cultural zones to be established Syria and Iraq Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Emergency plan to safeguard Iraq’s cultural heritage Thursday, November 6, 2014
Emergency Response Action Plan to safeguard Iraqi heritage Thursday, July 17, 2014
6 .Cuno, ibid, pp.55 and 154.
“Under the British Mandate, from 1921 to 1932, archaeology in Iraq was dominated by British teams – including the British Museum working with the University of Pennsylvania at Ur, the fabled home not only of Sumerian kings but also the Biblical Abraham – regulated by British authorities. The Oxford-educated, English woman Gertrude Bell, who had worked for the British Intelligence in the Arab Bureau in Cairo, was appointed honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq by the British-installed King Faysal in 1922. A most able administrator, having served as the Oriental secretary to the High Commission in Iraq after the war, Bell was responsible for approving applications for archaeologists, and thus for determining where in Iraq excavators would work. She was also a major force behind the wording and passage of the 1924 law regulating excavations in Iraq, a result of which was the founding of the Iraq Museum and the legitimization of partage:”p. 55
“Archaeologists should question their support of nationalist retentionist cultural property laws, especially those who benefit today from working among the finds in the collections of their host university museums, collections which could not now be formed, ever since the implementation of foreign cultural property laws. And they should join museums in pressing for the return to partage, the principle and practice by which so many local and encyclopedic museum collections were built in the past.”p.154
admin March 14th, 2015
WHO NEEDS AGAIN ANOTHER POLL ON THE PARTHENON MARBLES?
Anyone who has been following discussions on the Parthenon Marbles would be surprised to read about a new opinion poll on the same subject. She would ask herself if we have not had enough polls on the perennial question whether these Greek sculptures, torn away from their original location in Akropolis, should be returned to Athens or remain in London, in the British Museum.
As is well known, all such public opinion polls in the United Kingdom have consistently and overwhelmingly been in support of returning the famous sculptures to Athens.
So who is now interested in another opinion poll? We can only surmise and speculate since whoever commissioned this new poll has not found it necessary to have their identity revealed. We have here indeed a very curious situation. Whoever it is must have an interest in securing an opinion poll different from all those in the last fifteen years or so. To secure this, you do not go again to the British people for their answer will be the same as what they have consistently said: send the Marbles back. So what do you do?
You create a group that is fairly diverse including persons in the UK and some from outside the British Isles and present them as representing the art industry:
“Of the 70 respondents, 50 (74%) were UK based, while the rest 20 (26%) were equally split between the Middle East and Asia. What respondents told us can be found on the following pages.
For the purposes of this survey we have classified respondents into five groups: Galleries and museums (18/26%) Advisors (17/24%) • Including fine art dealers, valuers, restorers, archivists, wealth managers, insurers, legal experts, sponsorship brokers and event organisers Arts media (14/20%) Other (14/20%) • Including auction houses, collectors, artists, performing arts, art schools and universities Political (7/10%) • Including those in the political world who advise on the arts or who have specific interests in art” – See more at: http://www.elginism.com/elgin-marbles/questioned-bell-pottinger-parthenon-marbles-poll/20150219/7774/#more-7774
With this imprecise classification, with respondents from London, Asia and the Middle East, you extract an agreeable opinion. Which Asia are we dealing with here? Does this include China, Cambodia and India? How come London is put on the same level as a continent like Asia?
We should not bother too much with such polls. But what purpose could such a poll serve? It could serve as a factor of confusion and uncertainty and thereby fulfil the function of diversionary tactic.
After the large outcry against the controversial loan of the Ilissios Parthenon sculpture to Russia, those unable or unwilling to hear the voice of the British people realized that there is a need to have people talk about something else than the recent condemned loan. Instead of reporting on what the terms of the loan were and whether these were scrupulously fulfilled, we are given a poll that could confuse people through its vagueness and indirect pretention to represent the opinion of part of the British public.
The British public and the lovers of art deserve better than this.
Kwame Opoku. 2 March, 2015.
admin March 2nd, 2015
admin February 22nd, 2015
CAN MODERN TECHNOLOGY HELP RESOLVE DISPUTES ON RESTITUTION OF CULTURAL ARTEFACTS?
The Parthenon Sculpture of the river god Ilissios that the British Museum sent on a controversial loan to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
There is no doubt that modern technology can contribute a great deal to arts and education generally in spreading knowledge about the cultures of the world. For example, a child in Nigeria can learn a lot about Africa if she has access to Internet, IPhone or IPad. She can learn about African History, the drinking habits of the English, German family relations, Ghanaian Music and Dance. She could also learn about Yoruba cosmology, costumes and sculpture. But it still remains to be established whether modern technology could help resolve thorny problems of restitution of cultural artefacts.
Paul Mason has in an article in the Guardian, Let’s end the row over the Parthenon marbles – with a new kind of museum has suggested that technologies such as virtual reality and 3D printing could make the physical location of ancient artefacts less important:
However, the rise of digital technology should allow us to imagine a new kind of museum altogether. The interactive audio guides and digital reconstructions found in some museums should be just the beginning. It is now possible to extend the museum into virtual space so that exhibits become alive, with their own context and complexity. Hard as it is when you are managing a business based on chunks of stone and gold, we should challenge museum curators to think of their primary material as information.
Once we change our conceptions about what we can expect from museums and regard them as sources of information rather than as places where objects are physically present, a whole new way is opened to modern technology. We do not need to see physically the Parthenon Marbles but will see a virtual presentation of the sculptures:
With virtual-reality headsets and digital recreations, you could have it all. You could walk through the Parthenon as it was in 400BC, and as the mosque it became under the Turks, and as the ruin Elgin found. If we rethink the museum as information plus things, then the location of the things becomes negotiable and not so emotive.
Suggestions have been made from time to time that modern technology could help us to dispense with the need to return physical objects that have been stolen or transferred mainly, from non-Western countries to the West. There are also many examples of contested transfer of artefacts within the Western world such the Parthenon Marbles that were taken from Greece to Great Britain. But it seems to me that such ideas, however useful, do not take into account, the real nature and significance of the restitution issues we have been discussing over the years.
Demands for the return of cultural artefacts are not only demands for the physical return of the objects but also requests for recognition and acknowledgement of grave wrongs inflicted on peoples for refusing to accept imperialism. Restitution of artefacts could be the beginning of a healing process which is necessary for the wounds inflicted on peoples and their way of life. Many Westerners do not seem to understand the need for such healing. The hundreds of years of slavery, colonialism and racism do not seem to matter for them. However, these are factors that have shaped the history of the relations of the West with Africa, Asia, Australia, America and Oceania. To ignore these factors means only a partial history can be presented.
Some of the artefacts taken away have been desecrated by the very fact of being handled by persons outside the community that produced them. The tabots of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are desecrated by being viewed by persons other than the clergy of the Church and cannot be substituted by any modern inventions.
Some objects, like masks are required for cultural and religious performances. No amount of imagery could replace such objects. How do you dance with a virtual sword or mask in street processions in Nigeria? Some of the looted artefacts, such as the Nok sculptures, are evidence of our history and cannot be replaced by virtual images or replicas. ICOM has declared that such objects should never leave their countries of origin.
The Ethiopian manuscripts which the venerable universities of
Cambridge, Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford
and other British and Western institutions are holding are clearly evidence of Ethiopian history and are not replaceable.
Edinburgh University refuses to return Ethiopian artefacts
Gold mask, 20 cm in height, weighing 1.36 kg.of pure gold, seized by the British from Kumasi, Ghana, in 1874 and now in the Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom.
By virtue of the material used, certain objects cannot be replaced by any virtual images. The golden and silver crosses of the Ethiopian Church looted by the British in the notorious invasion of Magdala in 1868 cannot be replaced by anything else. Would anyone dare to suggest to the Asante, Ghana, that the solid gold head mask, golden swords and other valuables stolen by the British from King Karkari in 1874 can be replaced by virtual images?
Could anyone propose to the Egyptians to accept a virtual image of Nefertiti whilst the original bust of the African queen remains in the Neue Museum, Berlin, Germany? Would the Chinese be satisfied with virtual images of the precious treasures looted by the French and the British troops from the Summer Palace in Beijing?
The moral aspects of restitution must also be considered even though many Westerners have banned morality from discussions on restitution and seem to be only interested in the requirements of law, bearing in mind that most of the rules and regulations here have been, directly or indirectly, imposed by the West.
It has to be admitted finally that to deprive peoples of their cultural artefacts by dubious means or by the use of force cannot be accepted as a moral standard. But why do Westerners have difficulty in accepting that the commandment Thou shall not steal also applies to cultural objects?
Other aspects of restitution that cannot possibly be covered by virtual images are the financial aspects. Some may act as if they were unaware of the enormous transfer of wealth involved in the transfer of cultural artefacts to the West and the consequential losses to the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. When we think of the Kohinoor Diamond from India that now forms an integral part of the English Crown jewels, we realize that we are dealing with huge amounts. The solid golden Asante mask must be worth some millions due to its gold material in addition to its historical value. The Ethiopian gold and silver crosses and other artefacts will also have a significant monetary value. The 3500 Benin Bronzes the British stole and sold also represent great monetary value. Virtual versions of these objects will not release the looters from the obligation to make some monetary compensation. The benefits accruing to the holders of the artefacts over hundred years could be worked out by specialists.
Given the present attitude of many museum officials and Western intellectuals, mostly following false prophets from London and Chicago, it is not very likely that significant progress will be made soon in restitution disputes. These intellectuals who are occupied with the Western past, do not seem to understand that Africans are also occupied with their past. They seem to share the view of Hugh Trevor- Roper that we did not have any significant historical development in Africa before slavery and colonialism and that these two evils, according to many, were not as bad as Africans present them.
These intellectuals spend considerable efforts in defending violent acts such as the notorious invasion of Benin by the British in 1897 but are not concerned with healing the inflicted historical wounds. Occasionally, individual Westerners, such as Dr. Mark Walker have understood the need for reconciliation and have made the correct symbolic act of returning artefacts to the owners.
Modern technology can undoubtedly help us in the area of arts and culture but the difficult questions of restitution of cultural artefacts, with the historical, religious, moral and spiritual significance attached to them, do not lend themselves easily to any substitution by modern technology, apart from the fact that most museums are not up to date with modern technology.
Lasting solutions must start with acknowledgement and condemnation of the violence used in acquiring many artefacts from Africa, Asia and Latin America. One can condemn present looting, plundering and destruction of cultural artefacts but this will not sound convincing when one is at the same time reluctant even to admit that such acts in the past are equally wrong. This is especially so when in the past as in the present the benefits of such acts end in the West. No amount of technological advancement will help to resolve the basic contradictions here.
Any illusions that technological development could enable us to dispense with the physical transfer of cherished national cultural treasures must surely be dispelled by the following declaration by the unforgettable former Greek Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri, at the Oxford Union:
You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness.-
Kwame Opoku. 20 February 2015
admin February 22nd, 2015
The central issue can be ascribed to the fact that most of these Europeans intended, consciously or unconsciously, to destroy what was given in the African cultural world so as to implant that which is considered, in their view, human, civilised, worthy, and valuable. The same African culture which was belittled by the Europeans had produced many objects and artefacts which both the colonialists and missionaries plundered and shipped to Europe. To date, these treasures remain in museums and mission houses throughout Europe.
Chibueze Udeani, Inculturation as Dialogue
Mbulu-ngulu guardian of relics, Kota people, Gabon, now in Vatican Ethnology Museum, Vatican City, Italy.
When I first read in the excellent book by Dr.
Jeanette Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures,
that the Vatican Ethnology Museum was holding African artefacts that were sent for an exhibition but were not all returned, I was shocked:
In 1925 Pope Pius XI organized a missionary exhibition extolling missionary work all over the non-western world. About 100,000 items were sent and after the exhibition only about half were returned. The Pope proclaimed the formation of a new museum, the Pontifico Museu Missionario-Etnologico, so that the dawn of faith among the infidel of today can be compared to the dawn of faith which illuminated pagan Rome
As is well-known, the relations between Christian churches, and African artefacts, above-all, sculptures, have not been without serious fundamental problems. Ludovic Lado, a Cameroonian Catholic priest, describes the contact between the Catholic Church and African religions as a problematic encounter, ethnocentric and the attitude of the Church asiconoclastic in its attitudes towards African religions:
the evangelization of sub-Saharan Africa took place within the context of colonisation. For all the benefits it brought (not only the preaching of the gospel, but also the foundation of schools and hospitals), it was essentially a violent enterprise. Missionary societies tended to work in areas where their home governments were directly involved, behaving often as cultural agents of their own nations. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, Christianity reached black Africa as part of the Western campaign of civilisation meant to redeem the dark continent from the claws of ignorance and devilish superstition.The heroic commitment of Christian missionaries, not only to the preaching of the gospel but also to the implantation of schools and hospitals, was part of this general programme of elevating the primitive African to the level of the civilised Westerner. (2)
Basically, the churches regarded African sculptures, as part of African culture, as elements of a heathen, pagan culture along with the wild dances and music which accompanied pagan rites. They all had to go and be replaced by Christian religion which meant European culture. In this regard, the churches and the colonialist governments worked for the same final objective; deafricanize Africans and make them amenable to European domination.
Ajibade, Omon and Oloidi have written that
The most compelling reason for the initial lack of acceptance of African sculptures as sculptures is the denial by western military and missionary colonizers who contemplated the works as fetish, tribal and nonsensical rather than as works of art demanding of merit.
It is common knowledge that during the colonial period, many Christian churches urged converted Africans to destroy sculptures that were considered pagan and therefore incompatible with the new religion of Christianity. To this end, many missionaries requested the new converts to bring their sculptures, termed fetishes (from the Portuguese feitio) for burning. It is stated in the foreword to a catalogue of Society of African Missions:
It must be admitted that until the end of the 19th century and even into this century many Christian missionaries regarded the peoples and cultures among which they worked as inferior to those of the West. The artifacts of these peoples were often judged ugly and those having any connection with so-called pagan religious practices were often collected and burnt.
It was alleged that many priests burned part of the collected objects so that all could see that the so called pagan objects had been destroyed but many of the objects remained intact with the priests and nobody knew whatever happened to them later. Apparently, those sculptures that were not destroyed were shipped secretly to Europe where we can to-day read that many museums received gifts from missionaries who had been in Africa. Documents from many museums indicate the pivotal role of the missionaries in creating collections or establishing museums.
Thus we read in the catalogue of the Collection du Muse Africain de Lyon, Afrique en Rsonance :
Nous exprimons toute notre reconnaissance et notre gratitude a la Socit des Missions Africaines, qui est a lorigine de lexistence de ce Muse et qui a confie en 2012 la gestion de lensemble de sa trs riche collection notre association
Kente, Asante, Ghana, now in Vatican Ethnology Museum, Vatican, Italy.
It was therefore with great interest that I read the catalogue of the Vatican Ethnology Museum entitled Ethnos; Vatican Museums Ethnological Collection which I received recently. (6)
The book starts with what is called Index” that shows the contents. After a foreword, a presentation and preface, we are given a brief history of the Vatican Ethnological Museum. Then follows a chapter on Indigenous Collections which precedes chapters on Australia: Reconnecting and Keeping Culture Alive, Christian Indigenous Art, Africa, Asia, Oceania and America.
Then follows chapters entitled Deep History Artefacts, Boats and Musical Instruments , Photographic Collections, Oriental Collections, Far East Southern Asia, South East Asia, Near and Middle East, and Christian Oriental Art. I must confess I had some difficulty in going through all these titles and distinguishing them as well as finding the logic of the division of chapters. The catalogue seems to have had many problems at birth.
Korea. Yanggwan, Ritual Crown, now in Vatican Ethnology Museum, Vatican, Italy.
I found certain statements in the Forward, Presentation and Preface remarkable. We read in the Forward that:
Established by Pope Pius XI in 1926, the Ethnological Museum expresses the appreciation and positive outlook that the Catholic Church, since its very beginning, has had and continues to have toward all cultures around the world. The sentiment is reciprocal: it is not by chance that the majority of works held in the Ethnological Museum are the result of donations to the Pontiff throughout the centuries by people belonging to the most diverse cultures and religions, from anonymous Australian Aborigines to famous Heads of State. (7)
The Foreword continues to state
The catalogue has been enriched with photographs of people and landscapes, included with the precise aim of contextualising the objects described and giving a suggestion of what will be in more depth in successive catalogues, showing that these are expressions of living culture, immersed in a natural world that Pope Benedict XVI teaches us to admire and respect, as He teaches us to respect the culture and traditions of all peoples. (8)
We read again:
I present Ethos: Vatican Museums Ethnological Collection. It is a complex and refined work, reflecting the complexity and refinement of the cultures of the entire world, and the respect that the Catholic Church has for these cultures.
We also find in the Preface by the Director of the museum a reference to respect for other cultures:
My wish, shared also by Katherine Aigner and Nadia Fiussello, is that this catalogue might contribute to the worldwide battle to preserve not only the natural environment and the gifts of Mother Earth, but also and above all the beauty and variety of cultures of the world, against all attempts to destroy them or reduce them to a standard model of thought and lifestyles.
These various attempts to present the Catholic Church as having been always respectful of other peoples, their cultures and traditions, will not convince anyone with the faintest knowledge about Christian missionary work outside Europe and especially, in Africa. The Churches of Europe have always regarded people in Africa as heathens whose pagan traditions should be destroyed and replaced by Christian European religion and culture. This was the basic aim of missionary work and without this assumption, Christian missionary work and colonialism become difficult to understand. Indeed without this assumption much that has been written about Africa and Africans would be meaningless. Many classics such as Mongo Betis Le pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956) would be incomprehensible without the assumption of European superiority and the efforts made by the colonialists and the missionaries to implement that assumption.
We are here not concerned with an evaluation of missionary work and with its basic aims but with the attempts in this catalogue to present the Church as having always been a defender of diversity of cultures and preservation of traditions in the non-European countries that came under colonial domination, an enterprise in which the Churches played a major role. To attempt to replace the religions and cultures of Africans by European religions and cultures can surely not be presented as respect of African traditions. We are inclined to accept this statement from Dr. Greenfield cited already above:
The Pope proclaimed the formation of a new museum, the Pontifico Museu Missionario-Etnologico, so that the dawn of faith among the infidel of today can be compared to the dawn of faith which illuminated pagan Rome.
Christian missionaries could only carry on their work within the parameters set by the colonial government through pacification i.e. subjugation and domination by force of arms of African societies. The repetition of Catholic Churchs respect for cultures and peoples can only create suspicion that we are facing here a massive attempt at intoxication and bending of the facts of history already recorded in many books in several languages.
According to the catalogue, At the beginning of the 20th century Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) as a sign of Catholic Churchs respect for the culture, arts and religious traditions of the peoples throughout the world, wished to organize a major event: the 1925 Vatican Exhibition.
The catalogue attributes to the foundation of the museum principles that would only be adopted much later by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Father Jozef Penkowski states in the same source cited by Prof. Greenfield, The Vatican Collections Papacy and Art as follows.
Moreover, ,especially following the innovative ideas of the Second Vatican Council by the 1960s the concept of mission work had changed radically, especially following the innovative ideas of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The goal was no longer to Europeanize the Third World, but instead to establish foundations of Christianity in local cultures. The position of the Church with repect to other religions had also changed, encouraging open dialogue rather than confrontation. Promoting an understanding of other religions was considered essential.
The idea of an inherent European superiority seems to be so embedded in European minds that even when writing about this changed policy, Penkowski could not help writing: Works relating to the worlds higher religions are exhibited in both geographic and chronological arrangements. and a rich collection of indigenous Christian art from Third World countries also is shown. (13)
The exhibition that opened on 21 December 1924 was a great success and some 100,000 works were sent to the Vatican from all over the world. The success of the exhibition that ended on 10th January 1926 convinced the Pope to turn it into a permanent event in form of a museum. The new museum was opened in 21 December 1927. The museum had received donations and gifts from all over the world.
According to the catalogue The great religions and spirituality of Europe and Asia were represented on the first floor, and on the second, the other continents: Africa, America, Australia, Oceania, and the tribal groups of Asia,
The short account of the history of the Vatican Ethnology Museum ends with this statement The wish to culturally reconnect the objects with the peoples who donated them in the past, ideally closing a circle, means exactly the wish to give a voice to every people and culture on Earth through the wealth of works held in the Ethnological Museum. (15)
Goddesses Shri and Bhumi, Southern India, now in Vatican Ethnology Museum, Vatican, Italy.
That the peoples of the countries from which the objects came might wish to have them back so that they could tell their own history and development, did not occur to the author of the short history of the Vatican Ethnology Museum. Here the museum is obviously following the well-known and discredited position of the so-called major museums as elaborated in the notoriousDeclaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museums.
I must state quite clearly that I was not at all impressed by the pages dealing with indigenous collections as relates to Africa. The modern photos seemed to be mainly aimed at showing that African culture and civilization have remained at a certain level of development. A large photo covering two pages depicts a San man, almost naked and a cheetah, a Zulu, half naked making a shield, and two pages photo of women said to be performing initiation rites in Gabon. But what irritated me most was the reference to Africans worshipping their ancestors: In many African religious traditions ancestors were and still are strongly worshipped. The importance of this cult is reflected in the philosophy that guided Fr. Penkowskis choice of objects for exhibit in the Museum.
How often must Africans explain that reverence for ancestors is not worship of these important parents? Nor is the honour and reverence paid to ancestors worship or cult of ancestors. Is the remembrance of All Souls Day a worship of those souls that have departed? Surely it is high time people abandoned erroneous ideas of early ethnologists and missionaries. In any case, intellectuals and museum officials should have abandoned such ideas in view of the abundant evidence existing long ago.
Frank Willet, a foremost scholar on Nigerian art, has written: In general, Christian missionaries, even up to the present day have been culpably ignorant of indigenous African religions and in attempting to undermine them have often attacked the sculptures which gave expression to their ideas, in the mistaken belief that they were idols and object of worship.
On turning to the chapter dealing Indigenous Collections-America, I was surprised to find a presentation of the work of a sculptor who was not even from America but from Europe. (19) The work of artist Ferdinand Pettrich is given considerable space even though he was from Germany as the catalogue itself states. True, the artist had spent some eight years among the indigenous peoples and is said to have used indigenous persons as his models. But does this justify the inclusion of his work under indigenous collection? Many African artists have spent more than thirty years in European countries living among the indigenous peoples there. Would their work be included in works of the indigenous people of Europe? Classifications must have some meaning. It would have been better to treat the work of the German artist under a separate heading.
Still under indigenous collection, we have a section entitled Deep History, Artefacts, Boats and Musical Instruments, where we see some interesting stones, boats and musical instruments. I have difficulty in seeing the connections between these different objects and why they should be included in the same chapter. I found no explanation in the catalogue how boats and musical instruments are related. Similarly, a section entitled Photographic Collection shows us various photographs, presumably all taken by Europeans. I could not see why they come under indigenous collections.
The section on indigenous collection concludes with a statement that appears contestable: The Ethnological Museum is there to give voice to all of them, and through its collection it is possible to hear their voices, the voices of all the different peoples and cultures of the world and the splendour of the natural world, which we share.
We must confess that we did not hear the voices of the indigenous peoples; however one defines them on the pages we read. We could hear only the voices of the Western world that viewed the objects and the peoples discussed as less developed people the Europeans studied as objects of interest and curiosity. The photos in particular displayed a Western view of non-Western peoples and their way of life.
The rest of the catalogue, entitled Oriental Collections deals with Far East, Southern Asia, South-East Asia, Near and Middle East and ends with a chapter on Christian Oriental Art.
The Oriental collections have some very beautiful sculptures and vases. In this part of the catalogue, we read for the first time the names of some of the donors of artefacts who all happen to be Europeans. (21) Were there no African or Asian donors? If most of the objects in the museum were donations, surely there must be a record of the donors. We also see in this section very interesting photos of buildings and sites that are not part of the museums collections.
It would have been interesting to receive some information about the individuals or communities that made the various gifts to the Pope. Their addresses must still be available since we have been informed that at least half the donations were returned. This must mean returned to the senders.
We were also disappointed that writing in this 21st Century there is no mention of restitution or return of cultural objects. Is the Vaticans Ethnological Museum not part of the world of museums? We would indeed have expected the Vatican Ethnological Museum to take the lead in stressing to the other museums, especially, the European museums, that the injunction, Thou shall not steal, also applies to cultural objects and to European museums too. Now that we have a vast number of persons keen on destroying cultural artefacts of others or even of their own, we surely need to assert the presence and authority of moral prescriptions in this area. It is true though that many Western art critics and museums have banned morality from discussions on restitution and seek refuge in law.
In any case, the Vatican Ethnology Museum should look at its collections to ensure that there are no artefacts with doubtful histories. The great number of artefacts in the museum should be examined with a view to determine whether some of the artefacts should not be returned to the peoples and countries from where they originally came. Some of the artefacts may have been genuine gifts but given the colonial situation of structural violence many gifts may have been made reluctantly. Most artefacts were due to the collecting activities of the missionaries who wielded a lot of power over many Africans.
Those peoples who were assumed in the past not to be able to speak for themselves must now surely be in a position to do so and their artefacts could also be useful in that process of revival of their cultures after decades of colonial suppression.
The assumption that certain people could not speak for themselves is surely, a purely imperialistic invention to justify the domination of non-European peoples. We know of no people in the history of mankind that could not speak for themselves. Most peoples have a language, literature, poetry, music, religion, and a history. Museums and intellectuals should not contribute to solidifying imperialist inventions that only served to justify the domination of other peoples.
Anyone, with some information or knowledge about Africa would be shocked by this arrogant assumption which in the past was taken for granted and not questioned. If we consider the Asante (Ghana), their culture, religion, their military organization, their literature and political system, it would be impossible to think they were ever in their history of several centuries, not able to speak for themselves. Similarly, if we consider, the history, religion and cosmology of the Yoruba (Nigeria), their culture, literature, songs and dance, theatre, much of which has survived across the Atlantic in Brazil, we cannot for a second doubt that they can speak for themselves. And what about Benin (Edo,Nigeria) with the centuries old monarchy headed by the Obas and the splendid arts and culture exemplified by the fabulous Benin Bronzes now held hostage in Western museums? Can one for a second imagine that peoples that have produced such beautiful artworks are unable to speak for themselves?
Incidentally, why are there no European artefacts and art works in the Vatican Ethnology Museum? Are Europeans not part of our world? Do their artefacts not constitute an integral part of the diversity of cultures which is often mentioned in the Catalogue? Where then is the equal respect of cultures?
Could it well be that the Europeans and their cultures are considered superior and in a special category that should not be mixed with the cultures and arts of peoples considered heathen, wild and primitive? A revised edition of the catalogue of the Vatican Ethnological Museum should clarify some of these points.
Kwame Opoku, 5 February, 2015.
Chest, Korea, now in Vatican Ethnological Museum, Vatican.
Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 100. Dr. Greenfield refers to official Vatican publication as the source for this observation. See The Vatican Collections, The Papacy and Art, official publication authorized by the Vatican Museums, New York, 1982, p. 226. The statement attributed to the Pope may be compared to the view of the notorious Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, Hugh Trevor-Roper on the role of history:
If all history is equal, as some now believe, there is no reason why we should study one section of it rather than another; for certainly we cannot study it all. Then indeed we may neglect our own history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped.
Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe
, Thames and Hudson<, 1965, p.9.
2. Ludovic Lado, The Roman Catholic Church and African Religions: A Problematic Encounter,
Lado discusses in greater detail the encounter between the Catholic religion and African religions in his, Catholic Pentecostalism and the Paradoxes of Africanization Process of Localization in a Catholic Charismatic Movement in Cameroon, Brill N. V. Leiden, 2009.
A well-known Nigerian historian, Toyin Falola
wrote Almost everywhere during the last years of the nineteenth century, missionaries supported the partition of Africa in the belief that European rule would facilitate their work and enable them to demolish those aspects of African culture that stand in the way of Christianity. Indeed, there were missionaries who believed that the agenda of colonialism in Africa was similar to that of Christianity. In the words of one such person, the Rev. Jan H .Boer of the Sudan United Mission;
“Colonialism is a form of imperialism based on a divine mandate and designed to bring liberation – spiritual, cultural, economic and political – by sharing the blessings of the Christ-inspired civilization of the West with a people suffering under satanic oppression, ignorance and disease, effected by a combination of political, economic and religious forces that cooperate under a regime seeking the benefit of both ruler and ruled.“.
Other missionaries might have made the point differently or less strongly, but the perception that their goals were colonial in spirit was very common
Falola, Toyin (2001) Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies. University of Rochester Press, p. 32.
Another Nigerian intellectual, teaching at Augsburg University, Germany, Professor Chibueze Udeani has written
Africa, as noted by H. Rucker, was just another name for non-Europe. African traditional religions were consequently non-Christian and a priori anti-Christendom. Consequently European culture was taken to be identical with Christianity and what was not European was seen as not Christian. African religiosity and cultural standards were judged then by Western theological standards. As a result Africans were seen as godless heathens. The Africans, in this sense, represented the antithesis of the humanity, for the standard of participation in humanity was determined by how near they stood to the European culture. Adjectives for Africans were mainly negative; the African life was seen as primitive and the Africans themselves, as H. Rucker continued, were seen as cannibals. Their religion was considered to be superstition, idolatry, devils mischief, magic, fetishism, animism, polytheism, ancestor worship, offspring/product of unenlightenment and blooming imagination. Their thought pattern was seen as pre-logical.
Udeani, Inculturation as Dialogue – Igbo Culture and the Message of Christ,
Editions Rodopi B. V., Amsterdam, New York, NY 2007, p. 81.
Okot PBitek, wrote in his famous book Decolonizing African Religions, 2011, Diasporic Africa Press, New York, (with foreword by the Ghanaian philosopher, Kwesi Wiredu p.25):
The Christian mission to Africa was double-edged. The missionaries came to preach gospel as well as to civilize,, and in their role of civilizers they were at one with the colonizing forces; indeed they were an important vehicle of Western imperialism<which readily lent to the churches its wealth, power and influence. As Beetham put it With the partition of Africa following the Berlin conference European rule began to provide an umbrella of law and order for missionary activity> A settled government, the telegraph the railway- all helped
The missionaries came with the same arrogant assumptions that they represented a higher civilization indeed perhaps that no civilization existed in Africa. Western values and customs were to them identical with Christian morality
V.Y. Mudimbe wrote in The Invention of Africa .James Curry, London, 1988, p. 47: Obviously< the missionarys objectives had to be co-extensive with his countrys political and cultural perspectives on colonization as well as with the Christian view of his mission. With equal enthusiasm he served as agent of a political empire a representative of a civilization and as an envoy of God. There is no essential contradiction between these roles All of them implied the same purpose; the conversion of African minds and space A. J. Christopher rightly observes that missionaries<possibly more than members of other branches of the colonial establishment<aimed at the radical transformation of indigenous societyThey therefore sought<whether consciously or unconsciously<the destruction of pre-colonial societies and their replacement by new Christian societies in the image of Europe.
Kwame Bediako, a Ghanaian intellectual, wrote
There are African intellectual who, reacting to the historical entanglement of the Christian missionary endeavour with western colonial dominance, have retained a suspicion of the Christian religion in Africa. Christianity in Africa,
Edinburgh University Press, 1995, p. 178.
Dr Bediako who does not share this suspicion provides interesting arguments to
oppose the position adopted by many African intellectuals. His book is worth reading.
See also on the involvement of missionaries in the colonial enterprise.
Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa, Yale University Press, 1994, pp. 161-186.
Babson Ajibade, Emekpe Omon and Wole Oloidi, African Arts in Postcolonial Context: New Old Meaning for Sculptures in Nigeria,
Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences
ear: 2011 | Volume: 8 | Issue: 4 | Page No.:172-180
4. African Sculptures from the collection of the Society of African Missions
See also, Julian Bondaz, Autels et Ftiches, Afrique en Rsonance, 2014, 5 Continents Editions, p.61 La circulation des images et des objets servait ainsi la mise en scne du proslytisme et la mise en rcit des conversions, de manire heureusement moins violente que la destruction des ftiches par certains missionnaire catholiques et surtout protestants (ainsi que par certain prophtes africains ou par des prdicateurs musulmans).
Claude Prudhomme, Europe-Afrique – Echange Ingale , in LAfrique de nos Rserves, 5 Continents Editions, 2011, p. 26 :
Destruction des objets et des rites accuses de rendre un culte a Satan, ou enfouissement de ceux-ci pour les recouvrir par les objets et les rites chrtiens. Le premier rflexe missionnaire nincline pas lempathie pour les culture africaines
5. 2014, 5 Continents Edition, pp. 7, 10 ; see also A. E. Coombes, op. cit. pp. 161, 168.
What I want to suggest in this chapter is that it was through the careful cultivation of a distinct, though by no means disinterested, position in relation to the colonial enterprise, that the home mission was particularly effective in disseminating an image of Africa and the African that ultimately served imperial interests.
What the missionary in the field did not give, or sell, to the national or local ethnographic collection back home, they donated to their own societys ethnographic collection. Two of the earliest museums in Britain, which were founded independently of any concern for forming stock for use in exhibitions, belonged t the London Missionary Society and the Wesley Missionary Society.
6. Nicola Mapelli, Katherine Aigner and Nadia Fiusello, Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2012.
7. Catalogue, p. 7.
8. Ibid., p .9.
10. Ibid., p. 17.
11. Ibid., p. 21.
12. The Vatican Collections The Papacy and Art, p .227
14. Ibid., p. 25. Note the qualification of great which seems to be limited mainly to the religions of Europe and America.
15. Ibid., p. 26.
16. K. Opoku,
Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: Singular Failure of an Arrogant Imperialist Project,
17. Catalogue, p. 91.
18. Frank Willet, African Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 1971, p. 245.
19. Catalogue, pp. 181-187.
20. Ibid., p. 223.
21. Ibid., pp. 257, 262, 282.
22. Ibid, pp. 255, 260, 267, 290.
Maiden Spirit Mask, (Agbogho mmuo), Igbo, Nigeria, now in Vatican Ethnology Museum, Vatican, Italy.
admin February 7th, 2015
World Museum,Vienna (formerly,Ethnology Museum).
This surprising decision was made by the Minister for Culture but is apparently also supported by the Director of the museum. (1) As readers may recall, the museum has been closed since 2000 for repairs. (2)
Most museums have complained of inadequate space for displaying the artefacts they hold and have been requesting more space, resulting in new buildings or continued complaints. This is the first time that an important museum has actually been deprived of some of its existing space. Is this a reflection of the Citys slogan:Wien ist anders, Vienna is different?
This shocking decision is said to be supported also by the present director of the museum who had previously stated he was surprised by the decision and was reported to have said the decision came to him as a thunderbolt. (3) Most readers will recognize that the director probably had no choice in the matter. Museum directors have not been known to display any tendency to demolition. They rather tend to be for aggrandizement and for the expansion of their establishment and its resources, both in terms of artefacts, space and personnel. The museum world has never embraced the notion that small is beautiful.
In addition, the Vienna World Museum is said to have now at its disposal only 130.000 Euros for exhibitions compared to a museum like Quai Branly Museum, Paris, that has at its disposal more than 5 millions Euros for exhibitions.
One does not need to have the foresight of a prophet to predict that a museum that has reduced space and less money for exhibition is not very likely to attract huge crowds; its attractions have been reduced with the consequent loss of importance and prestige. Diminished space, diminished resources are more likely to result in diminished prestige.
The Austrian authorities clearly demonstrate in this matter that they do not attach much importance to the World Museum,Vienna. They also show thereby that they do not necessarily attach great value to the non-European cultural objects that are in the museum as compared to European works in a museum such as the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
It is not for me to advise Austria as to how it utilises its resources or organizes its museums but as a person who has been concerned with museums and their artefacts, especially the non-European artefacts in Western museums, an obvious diminution of the status and importance of such museums cannot escape my attention as an observer.
Whatever dispositions are made as regards the World Museum, our constant interest has been the fate of the invaluable African artefacts in this museum. We have always advocated the restitution of some of these objects to their rightful owners in Africa. We have in countless articles suggested that, in all fairness, the World Museum, Vienna, should return to the Benin Monarch some of the 167 Benin Bronzes it holds. (4)
The position regarding the Benin Bronzes in Vienna is quite extraordinary.
Members of the notorious British Punitive Expedition of 1897 against Benin, posing proudly with looted Benin ivories and bronze objects.
These fine works of art from Benin were looted by a British invasion army in 1897 and, later in the same year of invasion, some of the booty items were sold to Austria. The Benin Monarch has at various occasions repeatedly requested the return of some of his precious artefacts but so far, not a single object has been returned by the World Museum despite United Nations and UNESCO resolutions. (5) The museum has since 2000 been closed to the public as stated already. Visitors going to Vienna from Benin or elsewhere cannot see these excellent works of art. When, and if, the World Museum reopens in 2017 as projected, it will have less space for displaying the 167 Benin Bronzes as well as the other items of the 200,000 objects it holds. So why is the museum keeping objects it cannot display whilst the owners have been asking for the return of some of the artefacts?
Commemorative head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in World Museum (formerly Vlkerkunde Museum) Vienna, Austria.
Kwame Opoku, 23 January,2015
Offener Brief von ICOM sterreich an Bundesminister Dr. Josef Ostermayer,16.01.2015
2. Kwame Opoku, www.modernghana.com/…/ethnology-museum–vienna-changes-name-to
3. Der 2012 bestellte neue Direktor des Museums fr Vlkerkunde, Steven Engelsman, der das Haus 2013 in “Weltmuseum Wien” umbenannt und Plne zu einer Verschrnkung der Weltruf genieenden Sammlungen des Hauses mit den wichtigen Fragen der Gegenwart vorgelegt hatte, berichtete davon, wie er am 20. November bei einem Termin mit Minister Ostermayer aus allen Wolken gefallen sei, als er die neuen Vorstellungen der Politik erfahren musste. “In einem einzigen Moment wandelte sich Rckenwind in Gegenwind.
Weltmuseum Wien: “Redimensionierung in die andere Richtung” gefordertAPA 15.1.2015 http://www.weltmuseumwien.at/
Comments of the Director oft he World Museum
Queen-Mother Idia and Others Must Return Home: Training Courses are no Substitutes for Looted Treasures
LIST OF HOLDERS OF BENIN ARTEFACTS
Almost every Western museum has some Benin objects. Here is a short list of some of the places where the Benin Bronzes are to be found and their numbers. Various catalogues of exhibitions on Benin art or African art also list the private collections of the Benin Bronzes. Many museums refuse to inform the public about the number of Benin artefacts they have and do not display permanently the Benin artefacts in their possession since they do not have enough space. A museum such as Vlkerkundemuseum, Vienna, now World Museum, has closed since 15 years the African section where the Benin artefacts were, apparently due to renovation works which are not likely to be finished before 2017. Since that museum will have less space in future, it will clearly not be in a position to display all the Benin Bronzes it holds.
Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Boston, – Museum of Fine Arts 28.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400.
Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Glasgow _ Kelvingrove and St, Mungos Museum of Religious Life 22.
Hamburg – Museum fr Vlkerkunde, Museum fr Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
Dresden – Staatliches Museum fr Vlkerkunde 182.
Leipzig – Museum fr Vlkerkunde 87.
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London – British Museum 900.
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.
Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum fr Vlkerkunde 80.
Vienna – Museum fr Vlkerkunde now World Museum 167.
admin January 25th, 2015
WILFUL DISPERSAL OF DISPUTED CULTURAL OBJECTS AS DEFENCE STRATEGY: BRITISH MUSEUM’S DEFIANT TACTICS.
Parthenon Marbles, Athens, Greece, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Those who have followed the discussions on restitution of cultural artefacts in the last few years would know that the British Museum and its director, Neil MacGregor and his supporters have never been short of inventing new theories and explanations for the retention of the cultural artefacts of others by the so-called great museums.
The basic position of the rich museums was stated in the infamous Declaration of the Importance and Value of the Universal Museums (2002) by which the rich and powerful museums declared that the cultural artefacts of others that are in their great museums, however acquired, now belong to them. That notorious declaration was not effective in discouraging claims from the deprived countries. Italy soon obliged many American institutions to return looted artefacts. And Greece, against which the declaration was primarily directed, never for a second relented in its long struggle to recover the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum. Nigerians continued to press for the return of the looted Benin Bronzes.
A theory of traveling exhibitions was tentatively advanced by the British Museum by which those contested artefacts would be sent on travels to various countries and return to where they started. Nobody seems to have been impressed by the travel exhibitions idea or considered it as a solution to the persistent demands for restitution.
The Parthenon Marbles are usually at the source of any new theory or practice advanced by the British Museum. Just as the Parthenon Marbles were the motivation for the infamous Declaration in 2002, so are they at the source of the practice or threat of practice by the venerable museum to loan more Parthenon Marbles. This new threat as well as the loan to Russia has come just as the attempt by Greece to recover the Parthenon Marbles is gaining more support and the possibility of legal proceedings is being discussed more often in the media in more realistic terms.
After the almost universal condemnation of the British Museum’s lending of the Ilissos Parthenon Marble to Russia, typical of the arrogance of the museum, instead of being repentant or at least trying to cool tempers, including the Greek people and Government, outraged by this illegitimate loan of a contested cultural object, the unrepentant museum has announced proudly and defiantly that this is only the beginning of a series of loans that are being discussed:
The director of the British Museum has said it is already in talks to loan more Elgin Marbles to foreign museums….
“A number of other people, other institutions abroad have suggested that they are very interested [in borrowing Marbles],” said Mr. MacGregor. “A couple of other conversations are in train
Lee Rosenbaum has suggested that the British Museum may be banking on loans of Parthenon Marbles to help in any future proceedings although Rosenbaum herself doubts whether any judicial body would be impressed by the fact that the museum has lent the Marbles to others.
“MacGregor may be trying to bolster one of his institution’s chief arguments for retaining possession of Lord Elgin‘s bounty (or booty, as some believe): More people view these cultural treasures in London than in Athens. And now, with the incipient loan program, the British Museum’s reach could be further broadened. Therefore, the world is better off if custodianship of these treasures remains in London.
Taking that irrelevant argument to its illogical conclusion: All small museums should relinquish their greatest treasures to major institutions, so
they will be seen by more people
Somehow, I don’t think that line of reasoning would hold up in court
My own impression is that the British Museum, desperate in view of the overwhelming support for Greece, including the massive support from the British people as demonstrated in all opinion polls on the Parthenon Marbles in the last ten years, is now reckless and willing to try all kinds of tactics. Whether the board of trustees is behind such irresponsible behaviour is hard to determine. But we can assume that the director of the museum would not undertake such outrageous adventures without consulting the board of trustees that MacGregor proudly presents as containing two Nobel Prize-winners. (3)
The objective of the new threat of more loans may well be to spread the Parthenon Marbles as far and widely as possible to several countries and museums, possibly over more than two continents (Australia, Asia and America perhaps) so that when the continuing discussions of legal proceedings materialize, it would no longer be the British Museum against Greece but Greece against several other countries. Greece would then appear to be one country that wants to have alone what has been proclaimed as belonging to humanity and has been generously and widely distributed by the great ‘universal museum” in Bloomsbury. Public opinion may be wavering in its hitherto solid support of Greece. A whole generation of people may have grown up, less critical than their predecessors and easily persuaded by the internet that it does not matter where Greek Parthenon sculptures are located. What matters is that we all have access, virtual or real, to these artefacts of human culture. If this is what people are thinking in Bloomsbury, I believe they may be in for a rude awakening.
The legal proceedings may come much earlier than is assumed in one form or another and the uncooperative attitude of the museum would not create a good impression. Recklessly dispersing contested objects obviously in view of impending legal proceedings can only create a negative impact on any well-trained jurist.
The resolutions of the United Nations, UNESCO and recommendations by ICOM and International Conferences on the Parthenon Marbles are not likely to be forgotten so soon or put aside as would want those who have little regard for international opinion but often pretend to speak or act on behalf of the international community when it suits them.
It may be noticed that the British Museum has always preached, and still, propounds the idea of “universal museum”. But in the loan to Russia, the museum becomes British nationalist. The
museum is now allegedly concerned by the deteriorating relations between Britain and Russia
. The museum acts in accordance with what it thinks is in the interest of Britain and ignores the interest of Greece in keeping the sculptures where they are pending return to Athens. Can or should a “universal museum” take into account the interest of one State and ignore the interests of the majority of States? At this point, it becomes clear the Neil MacGregor’s championing of the “universal museum” is a smokescreen. When he thinks British interest requires, he is prepared to abandon the theory for outrageous acts as recently demonstrated by the loan of the Ilissos to Russia.
has described the action of the museum as dereliction of duty by the trustees; Positively embracing risk by placing the sculpture successively on…can only be seen as a failure of imagination and a dereliction of duties on the part of the museum’s trustees. (4)
The new tactics of the British Museum would only create chaos in the cultural world if, by chance, it became a pattern for others. Anytime an institution is faced by a demand for restitution of cultural objects, all it needs to do would be to distribute by loan or sale the objects to other institutions. In the process of distribution or loaning, institutions will be set against one another and confused antagonistic relations will ensue also between nations and museums. The naïve belief of the museum conducting diplomacy can only hurt museums and the cultural world.
What may be useful at this juncture would be to secure a resolution or decision from international organizations such as UNESCO, United Nations, ICOM and others, condemning the incipient practice of wilful dispersal of contested cultural artefacts and to issue a warning to all institutions of the possible consequences of such wilful acts. Thus potential partners of museums involved in such activities will be put on notice that they may be held accountable for any loss or damage occurring to the cultural artefacts that may have been loaned to them in this practice of dispersal.
Despite all the hue and cry against the recent provocative act of the British Museum in loaning a Parthenon Marble to Russia and the related defiant statements
British Government has remained relatively quiet and seems to have adopted the usual line that the British Museum is an independent body that takes its own decisions and the Government has no influence over its acts or any responsibility for its acts. Nobody is buying anymore this line which has often been adopted. Some of the grounds for rejecting the usual line are as follows.
a. The British Museum was established by an Act of Parliament, The current law, British Museum Act 1963, can be modified by Parliament if necessary.
b. The British Government appoints the overwhelming majority of the trustees of the British Museum, 19 out of the 25 members.
c. The Parthenon Marbles which were brought to England by Lord Elgin were bought by Parliament in 1816 and then donated to the British Museum and therefore, strictly speaking, it was Parliament and not Elgin that brought the Marbles to the museum.
d. The British Museum receives financial subsidy from public finance and to that extent is subject to Parliamentary control and enjoys charity status. (5)
e. Actions of the British Museum occur in Britain and the British Government has general oversight over what takes place in Britain.
f. The British Museum is subject to British Law and could not have transported the Ilissos sculpture to Russia without government consent.
The British Minister for Culture, Sajid Javid, is reported to have stated that the British Museum was right in sending the Ilissos sculpture to Russia. According to the minister, cultural boycotts do not work and culture is bigger than politics (6)
“Britain is currently leading the way in imposing economic sanctions on Russia over its
actions in Ukraine. But that’s not a reason to stop the British Museum loaning part of the Parthenon Sculptures to a museum in St Petersburg. Because culture is bigger than politic.” (6)
We are not sure that one should even bother to comment on statements that are patently wrong. How can anyone assert that culture is bigger than politics, seeing the pervasive influence of political decisions, whether relating to taxes, the conditions and circumstances of cultural activities or war? Cultural boycotts or any other boycotts, will not work if those charged with the implementation of the relevant decisions do not believe in what they are supposed to be doing.
The British Government should at least co-ordinate its policies or at least, the statements of its ministers. Whilst Javid is saying there is no reason not to carry on cultural relations with countries facing sanctions, the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller has declared that British culture should be seen as a commodity, to sell at home and abroad. Should Britain sell a commodity to a country facing sanctions? Can one refuse to sell commodities to persons in a particular State and still dance with them?
The notion of cultural diplomacy that has appeared at several places recently must be examined carefully. Those at the British Museum advancing this argument for the loan to Russia must admit that when it comes to relations with Greece regarding the Parthenon Marbles, the diplomacy of the Bloomsbury museum has failed woefully. Maybe diplomats from the Foreign Office could advise them that diplomacy is a way of solving problems by seeking or providing a solution acceptable to both sides. It does not consist of remaining intransigent and expecting all concessions to come only from the other party whilst your side keeps repeating old slogans. These slogans may earn one praises from a certain press at home, delighted in making easy puns about losing one’s marbles or maintaining them; it may even achieve for some a certain saintly reputation in patriotic circles but that is not diplomacy.
For some hundred years the dispute regarding the Parthenon Marbles has not advanced an inch. All the concessions seem to have been made by only the Greek side with none from the British Museum side. According to Professor Joan Connelly,
“In the past decade or so we have seen a deliberate shift away from the nationalist rhetoric of earlier years, at least on the part of the Greeks, who have now offered reasonable and creative suggestions for overcoming the impasse with the British Museum. In 2002 the then minister of culture, Evangelos Venizelos, visited England with fresh ideas, declaring that “ownership” of the marbles was no longer a key issue. Proposing that the Parthenon sculptures travel back to Athens via a long- term loan agreement Venizelos offered in exchange a never-ending rotation of the very finest antiquities that Greek museums can offer. Accommodating the British insistence on ownership, he even suggested that the gallery in which the Parthenon sculptures would be displayed be called an”Annex of the British Museum”. His innovative and conciliatory offer was rejected out of hand
Nor is it the height of cultural diplomacy when one side seems to make a practice of insulting the other to such an extent that one is no more in a position to distinguish plain insults from ordinary nationalistic language. The director of the British Museum has often made statements concerning the Greeks which can only be regretted by diplomats. (8) He has often said that by building the new Acropolis Museum and moving there the Parthenon Marbles; the Greeks were only imitating Lord Elgin, knowing fully well what the name of Elgin stands for in the Greek and other minds. And what about declaring that the location of the Parthenon Marbles was not an issue after the Greeks had built a new museum, partly in response of British argument there was no museum in Athens fit for such precious sculptures? All this does not show the minimum of respect that diplomacy requires.
Whatever the British Museum and the British Government eventually decide to do or not to do, the majority of the peoples of the world, starting with the British people and the majority of States and their leaders, including Putin, have already spoken in favour of the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens. International organizations, such as United Nations, UNESCO, ICOM and others have also called for the return to Athens of the precious sculptures that others in Bloomsbury are beginning to play politics with in a dangerous and reckless manner.
Professor Joan Breton Connelly, who has held posts at All Souls College, .Magdalen College, New College and Corpus Christi College at Oxford University declared in the epilogue to her recent excellent book, The Parthenon Enigma as follows;
“There is not a world leader who fails to stop on the Acropolis for the requisite photo op when visiting Athens. Invariably including a call for the return of the Parthenon sculptures, these appearances have been taking place for years. Jackie Kennedy, wearing pearls and a dress in the brilliant blue of the Greek blue flag, climbed the Acropolis in June 1961 and made the appeal. The Clintons did it in 2002, as did Vladimir Putin shortly thereafter. Even Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lifted his hands to the sky as he stood before the Parthenon and called for the marbles to be returned. In October 2010, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, pledged his support for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures. Standing on the summit, he cited the historical parallel of the Summer Palace in Beijing, which was looted in 1860 under orders from Elgin’s own son, then the high commissioner to China”. (9)
The defiant statements and the outrageous act of the British Museum may of course simply be the desperate acts of an institution short of cash and trying to justify its acts with some semblance of principle. The museum may well loan objects under its control or even sell them as allowed by the rules governing the trustees and we may only know after years. The British Museum has been known to sell for cash the national treasures of Nigeria, the Benin Bronzes. (10). Outright sale may be avoided by long term loans that are renewable. Recently, the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery sold a 4,400 year old statue of an Egyptian scribe named Semkhemka. (11) And as for the 400 Benin Bronzes in the Field Museum, we still do not know their status and whereabouts after the financial troubles of the famous museum in Chicago.
Museums are facing great financial problems and we may experience surprising acts from them. The loan of the Parthenon Marble may be, as the Bloomsbury has advised, only the beginning of a whole series of surprising acts.
The new strategy of the British Museum may in the short run bring cash to Bloomsbury but in the long term will damage its reputation and complicate its relations with other institutions and governments. The policy of dispersal can only work to its disadvantage and must be condemned without hesitation. No court or judicial body will be impressed by the defiant attitude of the British Museum.
For once, the British Government and the British Museum could in this matter listen to the voice of the British people as well as that of the rest of the world, including the opinions of the United Nations and UNESCO as stated in uncountable resolutions.
K. Opoku, 23 December, 2014.
Preparing for Lawsuit? Why Might Neil MacGregor Be Doubling Down on His Elgin Marbles Bet?“, Culturegrrl December 9, 2014.
Appointing the Board of Trustees
The Board of Trustees comprises up to 25 members.
One Trustee is appointed by Her Majesty
, 15 are appointed by the Prime Minister and five appointed by the Trustees themselves. The
remaining four Trustees are appointed by the Secretary of State
for Culture, Media and Sport on the nominations of the Presidents of:
Society of Antiquaries of London
Chairman is appointed by the Board from amongst its members
The full Board of Trustees meets four times a year usually at the British Museum.
Letter – The Times, 9 Dec 14 “Where should the Elgin Marbles be housed?” –
6. www.theguardian.com › Politics› Maria Miller
7. The Parthenon Enigma-
A new understanding of the West’s most iconic building and the people who made it. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014, p.347.
Joan Breton Connelly, op .cit. p. 349.
admin December 24th, 2014
ECONOMIZING WITH TRUTH: GREEK REQEUST OF PARTHENON MARBLES LOAN THAT WAS REJECTED BY BRITISH MUSEUM
TO LOAN OR NOT TO LOAN: BRITISH MUSEUM DID DISCUSS WITH GREECE PARTHENON MARBLES LOAN
“You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness”
Melina Mercouri, at the Oxford Union.
Parthenon Marbles, Athens, Greece, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
After my recent article on the loan of a Parthenon Marble, Ilissos, to Russia, (2) a friend drew my attention to the existence of a letter from the British Museum to the Greek Ministry of Culture, dated 14 November, 2002, which throws further light on the relations between the two European Union countries as regards the Parthenon Marbles. (3)
Despite the frequent assertions of Neil MacGregor and others that Greece has never asked for a loan of the Parthenon Marbles, the letter shows that Greece has indeed made such a request but that the British Museum, through its chairman of the board of trustees, in 2002 firmly rejected any idea of loan, temporary or permanent.
Nevertheless, this assertion was recently repeated:
“The Greek government has always refused to borrow, to date, but the trustees’ position is very clear that they will consider any request from anyone who is prepared to return the object.” (4)
Melina Mercouri, Minister of Culture of Greece. (1981-89,1993-94).
A transcription of the letter of John Boyd to the Greek Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos is reproduced below
A copy of the original letter is in the annex.
The British Museum
14 November 2002
H.E. Mr Evangelos Venizelos
Minister of Culture
Hellenic Ministry of Culture
The Parthenon Sculptures in the collections of the British Museum
It was a great pleasure to welcome you though this was no, I know, your first visit to the British Museum.
The Director and I are delighted to have held discussions with you and your colleagues on the Parthenon sculptures in the Museum’s collections and other matters. The exchanges suggested to me that there are many areas in which we can and should cooperate.
As I mentioned in our meeting, I am especially pleased to note that Dr Choremi, the Ephor of the Acropolis will speak at the Museum on Friday, 15 November, and that the British Museum is able to make generous loans to two exhibitions in Athens as part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2004. These are important examples of the fruitful cultural and academic relations that exist between us – and which can, I am sure, be developed further.
The Director and I naturally listened very carefully to what you had to say about the Parthenon Sculptures in our collections. I am grateful for the manner in which you approached the topic; grateful too for the understanding shown during the meeting for the Museum’s position. Nevertheless, it remains the opinion of the Board of Trustees that the Parthenon sculptures in the collections of the British Museum cannot be lent to the new museum currently under development in Athens, whether in the manner you proposed or for a temporary period.
Let me rehearse again the basis for our belief that the British Museum is the best possible place for these wonderful sculptures to be on display, as an essential chapter within the worldwide story of human cultural achievement. It is precisely this story which the Museum exists to tell through the rich and multi-faceted character of its worldwide collections. The ideas, aesthetics and skills of 5th century Greek civilisation are regarded here as elsewhere as central to this human experience. I am not sure that contemporary changes in political and economic attitudes, adduced at one point in our discussion, alter the point.
The Museum exists not only to delight but to instruct and provoke reflection. Its great collections, in close proximity, are seen by five million visitors every year entirely free of entry charge. The Parthenon Sculptures are integral to this unique experience.
When considering whether to make a loan the Trustees are required, by Act of Parliament, to have regard to the interest of the Museum’s visitors. While there is no list of objects that can never be lent, we do believe there is a prima facie assumption against the lending of key objects in the Museum’s collections which are normally on display and which the public reasonably expect to see in the Museum. The sculptures are precisely among that group of key objects indispensable to the Museum’s essential, universal purpose, and thus fall into the category of objects that can not be lent.
The Director and I much appreciated the opportunity to discuss these various matters frankly and in such a friendly context, and to establish friendly contact and undertake such an exchange of views between us. This must surely contribute to a relationship which we very much wish to promote and expand.
Again though, as I said in our meeting, I would not wish you to leave with the impression that any negotiation on the issue you raised is underway. This would be misleading. I am bound in all frankness, to repeat that I cannot envisage the circumstances under which the Trustees would regard it as being in the Museum’s interest, or consistent with its duty, to endorse a loan, permanent or temporary, of the Parthenon Sculptures in its collections.
I should like to end by thanking you for the kind gift of the coin replicas from the Numismatic Museum in Athens. They are especially appropriate as a symbol of the co-operation that exists between us, in the light of the recent collaborative British Museum / Numismatic Museum Internet project,
Presveis: One Currency for Europe
, which, I was delighted to see, is available on the Ministry of Culture’s website. Yours sincerely
Sir John Boyd
Anybody with some idea about the Parthenon Marbles can guess that when a senior Greek official visits the British Museum, it would be about the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. The letter of 14 November 2002 indicates in its title already that the visit of the Greek Minister of Culture was about this historic subject. It is to be noted that the letter does not indicate the date of the visit or the purpose of the letter. This deflects the attention of the recipient from the fact that the letter is a record of the meeting and avoids any objections, additions or corrections which the recipient might otherwise want to make to a record of the meeting.
The letter of the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, John Boyd thus acknowledges that the Greeks have made efforts on this issue and also that it was not the first time the minister was visiting the museum. Before 2002 there had been visits by various Greek officials and personalities. Such a visit was made by the unforgettable great Melina Mercouri who was met with insults from the then Director of the British Museum, David Wilson. (5)
The Boyd letter, echoing essentially the ideas of Neil MacGregor, makes it clear that the British Museum was not willing to make any loan of the Parthenon Marbles to the new museum the Greeks were constructing:
“The Director and I naturally listened very carefully to what you had to say about the Parthenon Sculptures in our collections. I am grateful for the manner in which you approached the topic; grateful too for the understanding shown during the meeting for the Museum’s position. Nevertheless, it remains the opinion of the Board of Trustees that the Parthenon sculptures in the collections of the British Museum cannot be lent to the new museum currently under development in Athens, whether in the manner you proposed or for a temporary period.”
“Whether in the manner you proposed or for a temporary period”
This leaves out intentionally whatever the Greeks might have proposed that may appear reasonable. The Greeks have made suggestions of transferring to the British Museums valuable Greek artefacts in exchange for the Parthenon Marbles. The idea also is to take away the British fear that the Greeks might not return loans. The British fear is the reflection of bad conscience.
As if to reinforce the message in the preceding paragraph which was clear enough, Boyd emphasises in the very next paragraph the determination not to loan any Parthenon Marble:
“Let me rehearse again the basis for our belief that the British Museum is the best possible place for these wonderful sculptures to be on display, as an essential chapter within the worldwide story of human cultural achievement. It is precisely this story which the Museum exists to tell through the rich and multi-faceted character of its worldwide collections. The ideas, aesthetics and skills of 5th century Greek civilisation are regarded here as elsewhere as central to this human experience. I am not sure that contemporary changes in political and economic attitudes, adduced at one point in our discussion, alter the point”.
Boyd then in a curious argument turns the Parthenon Marbles into objects that are necessary for the museum in order to fulfil its essential functions and and therefore cannot be loaned;
“The sculptures are precisely among that group of key objects indispensable to the Museum’s essential, universal purpose, and thus fall into the category of objects that can not be lent.”
The Chairman of the Board of Trustees is here telling the Greek Culture Minister that the Greek sculptures that had been taken under contested circumstances to Britain are absolutely necessary to fulfil the essential functions of the British Museum as a universal museum. How much more cynical can one be? Body for the fourth time in his short letter repeats again that the Parthenon Marbles cannot leave the British Museum:
“Again though, as I said in our meeting, I would not wish you to leave with the impression that any negotiation on the issue you raised is underway. This would be misleading. I am bound in all frankness, to repeat that I cannot envisage the circumstances under which the Trustees would regard it as being in the Museum’s interest, or consistent with its duty, to endorse a loan, permanent or temporary, of the Parthenon Sculptures in its collections
Ministers of Culture are usually well-educated and intelligent persons but the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum felt he must repeat several times the unwillingness of the Bloomsbury museum to loan the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Evangelos Venizelos, former professor of Constitutional Law, educated in Greece and France, held Cabinet positions -Justice, Transport, Culture and Deputy Prime Minister.
We now know that one of Parthenon sculptures has been loaned to Russia and thus the argument that they could not leave the museum has been destroyed by the Board of Trustees and the Director of the British Museum. Indeed, it seems the British Museum is discussing with others the loans of other Parthenon Marbles. A step which would lead to future complications.
But why the strenous denials of any discussions or requests by Greece for a loan of the Pathenon Marbles, in the presence of unquestionable overwhelming evidence that they have asked for a loan as well as restitution? This is a well-calculated strategy by the holders of contested cultural artefacts that has been used in the past and seems to worked in favour of the holders who thereby gain time.
The British Museum is past master in such tactics but others have followed its strategy and tactics. The British deny that there has ever been a demand for the restitution of Benin Bronzes even though a brother of the Benin Monarch has been before a British Parliamentary Committee to present Benin’s case for the return of the artefacts that were looted by the British in 1897 during a brutal invasion of Benin. The demand known as Appendix 21 has been recorded in Parliamentary records but there are academics who deny there was ever a formal demand. (6)
The Germans deny that there has ever been any demand by the Nigerian Commission on Museums and Monuments or the Oba of Benin for the return of the 500 Benin Bronzes they allegedly bought from the British invaders even though a Nigerian Minister of Culture has been to Berlin specifically to make such a request in what was appropriately designated, Berlin Plea for the Return of Benin Bronzes. (7)
James Cuno, then Director of the Chicago Art Institute, stated at the opening of a Benin exhibition in his institute that if a demand for the return of the Benin Bronzes in his institute were submitted to him he would consider A Benin princess hand-carried a letter of demand to Chicago. Up to today, there has not even been an acknowledgement of receipt of the Royal letter.(8)
Sometimes, the holders of cultural artefacts of others hide behind formalities such as that there has been no formal request or that the demand did not come from the appropriate high official. The Germans did this with regard to Egypt’s request for the return of the bust of Nefertiti which they have been holding in the Neues Museum, Berlin. When the then Secretary-General of the Egyptian Supreme Council, Zahi Hawass made a request for Nefertiti he was told to make a formal request. When the formal request was made, he was informed that the request should come from a Minister. Hawass became a minister and made a request but the Germans said the request should come from a Prime Minister or a President. (9)
The psychology here seems to be that of arrogant holders who are conscious of their power or strong position that no one can force them to deal with the matter. By their denials, the holders want to send a message to the claimants that they have more important matters to deal with and would not allow the likes of claimants to set their agenda. They can convince their supporters that since they have not recived a request to deal with the issue, they are not obliged to take any position.
This practice which the Germans call “Verweigerung der Realität”, denial of reality, can result in the end in convincing the holders and their supporters that no one has asked for the return of the artefacts since there is no one powerful enough to confront them with the reality of demand. Future generations may find no records of such demands. The claimants or their descendants would in time have no exact memory of the facts or the circusmstances. Claimants may become tired and discouraged and finally give up the fight or for reasons of their inability to secure their rights, gradually appear to forget which is a form of denial of reality. The risk of such a situations exists with many African peoples that have not demanded the return of their cultural artefacts from the imperialists States since Independence. Cultural officials recognizing their evident powerlessness as regards the holders, gradually accommodate themselves to the situation, helped by whatever personal benefits they can derive from the situation of persistent powerless demands. They and the former colonialists become friends and do not seriously talk about restitution. But cultural artefacts are not quickly forgotten especially among peoples with long traditions of recording their history and culture. This is precisely the lesson of the Parthenon Marbles.
It has bee said that “The British Museum is the most generous lending collection in the world.”
This may be so but it is also obvious that it is easy to be very generous in lending if the objects are not yours. It is less difficult to distribute the money of others than our own money. MacGregor may be generous in lending objects of others that have been looted, robbed, confiscated, stolen or otherwise acquired under dubious circumstances that are still contested.
Generosity born out of the lending of the property of others does not increase the prestige or fame of the lender as the recent loan to Russia has demonstrated. What the recent handlng of the property of others does, is to revive memories that are better left unmentioned – oppression, murder, denigration, arson, looting, destruction, assasination and all the evils of colonialism and imperialism are awakened among all those who themselves or their ancestors have lost property and suffered during the colonial and imperialist period. The association of such deeds with cultural artefacts becomes alive. MacGregor and his supporters are not sensitive to such suffering and may not appreciate what that means to us, former colonial subjects. The world could do without such revivals and the alleged generosity that disturbs us all.
The loan of contested artefacts must be stopped before it becomes a custom with museums harrassed by requests for restitution of artefacts. Soon we will hear the Humboldt Forum, Berlin, lending some of the 500 Benin Bronzes it will soon control to many States except Nigeria and it would be claimed the institution can better represent Benin culture than the Oba of Benin and the Queen Idia statute in Berlin will be sent by the Humboldt Forum to another place as ambassador of Benin culture in bronze..
The Neues Museum will soon claim to present Egyptian culture better than the Egyptian Government and therefore entitled to keep Nefertiti in Berlin to be seen by thousands rather than in Cairo where few will want to travel. The museum will ocassionaly lend the bust of the Egyptian Queen even though it has been often said the Queen is too fragile to travel.
The position of the British Government and the British Museum on restitution is now abundantly clear and it is left to those who believe in the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles to reconsider the ways and means of recovering the sculptures which were removed from Greece under dubious circumstances.`
The notion that foreign cultural institutions can represent a culture better than the government and people of the country that produced them must be rejected. The idea that the British Museum is entitled to keep the Parthenon Marbles because the museum is better qualified than the Greek people and government to represent the glory and grandeur of Ancient Greek culture and history is surely perverse and must be rejected without hesitation.
Verses by Roger Casement
Give back the Elgin marbles, let them lie
Unsullied, pure beneath the Attic sky
The smoky fingers of our northern clime
More ruin work than all ancient time.
How oft’ the roar of the Piraean Sea
Through column’d hall and dusky temple stealing
Hath struck these marble ears, that now must flee
The whirling hum of London, noonward reeling.
Ah! let them hear again the sounds that float
Around Athene’s shrine on morning’s breeze —
The lowing ox, the bell of climbing goat
And drowsy drone of far Hymettus’ breeze.
Give back the marbles; let them vigil keep
Where art still lies, over Pheidias’ tomb, asleep.
More ruin work than all ancient time.
Roger Casement. (10)
Parthenon Marbles, Athens, Greece, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom
Kwame Opoku, 12 December, 2014
2. K. Opoku, “
Arrogance, Duplicity and Defiance with no end: British Museum Loans Parthenon Marble to Russia”,http://www.modernghana.com/news/584950/1/arrogance-duplicity-and-defiance-with-no-end-briti.html
5. Christopher Hitchens, The Parthenon Marbles, Verso, London, 2008, pp. 97-99 I found in this useful book, a report on an interview said to have been given by David Wilson, then Director of the British Museum who threw the accusation of “nationalism” and “fascism” at the supporters of restitution. His statements are so remarkable in their violence and lack of logic that I feel everyone should read them. Note also the lack of respect displayed towards the Greek minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri who is likened to a burglar when she expressed the wish to see the Parthenon Marbles.:
“In a BBC television discussion on 15 June 1985, Sir David Wilson, Director of the British Museum, was invited to contrast his opinions with those of Melina Mersouri. Sir David had already exhibited a certain lack of gallantry when, on an earlier visit to London, Mrs. Mercouri had expressed a wish to visit the Museum and view the marbles. On that occasion he had said publicly that it was not usual to allow burglars ‘to case the joint’ in advance. But once before the cameras he easily improved on this ill-mannered exaggeration. ‘To rip the Elgin Marbles from the walls of the British Museum’ he said, ‘is a much greater disaster than the threat of blowing up the Parthenon’. This might have been thought hyperbolic, if Sir David had not gone on to say, in response to a mild question about the feasibility of restitution:
Oh, anything can be done. That’s what Hitler said, that’s what Mussolinisaid when he got Italian trains to run on time
The interviewer, David Lomax, broke in to say:
You are not seriously suggesting there’s a parallel between…
Sir David was unrepentant:
Yes, I am. I think this is cultural fascism. It’s nationalism and it’s cultural danger. Enormous cultural danger. If you start to destroy great intellectual institutions, you are culturally fascist.
LOMAX: What do you mean by cultural fascist?
WILSON: You are destroying the whole fabric of intellectual achievement. You are starting to erode it. I can’t say you are destroying, you are starting to erode. I think it’s a very, very serious, thing to do. It’s a thing you ought to think of very careful, it’s like burning books. That’s what Hitler did; I think you’ve to be very careful about that.
LOMAX: But are you seriously suggesting that the people who want the Elgin Marbles to go back to Greece, who feel there’s an overwhelming moral case that they should go back, are guilty of cultural fascism?
WILSON: I think not the people who are wanting the Elgin Marbles to go back to Greece if they are Greek. But I think that the world opinion and the people in this country who want the Elgin Marbles to go back to Greece are actually guilty of something very much approaching it, it is censoring the British Museum. And I think that this is a bad thing to do. It is as bad as burning books”.
This is an extraordinary performance by a Director of the British Museum. One can sympathize with his desperation in face of the mounting pressure to return the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles to Athens and the great presence of the unforgettable Melina Mercouri in London. But can anyone excuse his shameful performance?
K. Opoku,” Did Germans Never Hear Directly or Indirectly Nigeria’s Demand for Return of Looted Artefacts?”
8. K. Opoku, “
Cuno reiterates his views on Ownership and Location of Antiquities”,
Copy of letter from Chairman,Board of Trustees,British Museum to Minister of Culture of Greece
admin December 14th, 2014
ARROGANCE, DUPLICITY AND DEFIANCE WITH NO END: BRITISH MUSEUM LOANS PARTHENON MARBLE TO RUSSIA.
“Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday morning, MacGregor said he hoped the Greek government would be delighted that the sculpture would now be on display to a new audience”
Headless statue of the Greek river god Ilissos
Athens, Greece, taken to British Museum, London, now on loan to Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
As if to reinforce its defiance against the will of the British people and the vast majority of States, the UNESCO, United Nations and all those who have urged that the British Museum return the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles to Greece, the venerable museum that is known to hoard thousands of looted artefacts of others, has sent one of the Parthenon Marbles to Russia on loan for an exhibition from 6 December 2014 until 18 January 2015. (1)
The headless statue of a Greek river god will be displayed in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg as part of the celebrations for the institution’s 250th anniversary. Though the Director of the Museum and the Board of Trustees are delighted with the loan, they have not disclosed the terms of the arrangement with Russia.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, is reported to have told the
The politics of both museums have been that the more chilly the politics between governments the more important the relationship between museums.”
This may be the policies of the museums that often pretend not to have anything to do with politics but it seems to us that the British people who have overwhelmingly demanded that the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece will not be amused by this latest act of defiance by the museum. This comes on the heels of an incredible interview in which the museum director even goes so far as to deny that the Parthenon Marbles are Greek. (2)
In a blog on the British Museum’s website, entitled
Loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the Hermitage: a marble ambassador of a European ideal
MacGregor stated: “The British Museum is a museum of the world, for the world and nothing demonstrates this more than the loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to celebrate its 250th anniversary
Lending a contested object is not a demonstration that the British Museum is a museum of the world for the world. This can at best demonstrate that the museum does not care for the opinion of the British people, the Greek people, the United Nations and all those who seem to support Greece in its efforts to recover the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. The lending is furthermore a demonstration that the old British argument that the Marbles are too fragile to move outside Bloomsbury is gone forever.
There is no objection to cooperation between museums but this type of cooperation should not be encouraged since it is very likely, in the end, to create problems in the relationship of Russia and Greece. We cannot see a Greek minister going now to Russia to participate in the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Contested or looted cultural artefacts are clearly not appropriate instruments for cultural diplomacy. They serve at best to complicate situations where there have been more than enough disputes of long-standing.
MacGregor who is known for incredible and provocative statements is reported to have said that he hoped the Greek Government will be delighted by his latest action of defiance:
“I hope that they will be very pleased that a huge new public can engage with the great achievements of ancient Greece. People who will never be able to come to Athens or London will now, here in Russia, understand something of those great achievements in Greek civilisation.”
Visitors at the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, looking at the headless statute of the Greek river god Ilissos.
As we have often written these acts of provocation and insults to the Greeks may be part of a strategy to prevent Britain and Greece from sitting together at a table to solve the issues concerning the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. One side insults the other party to such an extent that the two cannot stand one another.
It is not by accident that this provocative act comes at a time when there is much discussion on taking legal proceedings on the matter. This latest act will surely inflame the Greeks and their supporters.
It is also noteworthy that the British Museum is loaning a contested cultural object to a country against which the European Union of which Britain is still a member has enacted sanctions against Russia. Questions are likely to arise as to whether decisions of the EU bind cultural institutions in member States. Can the British Museum loan cultural objects, as part of regular business to a country against which the British Government has enacted sanctions? Is the museum allowed to carry on parallel diplomacy with institutions in States sanctioned? Who leads the country in such matters? The Government or the museum?
The implications of the provocative act of the British Museum and the affront to the Greek people may be more than the museum officials realize. They may have to bring their action in line with the policy of the Government. One institution cannot be dancing with a foreign partner whilst the other practices economic sanctions.
The arrogance seeping through the statements of the British Museum in connection with its latest act is glaring and unbearable. The museum arrogates to itself the right and duty to control the narrative of Greek history and culture. It is sending the headless sculpture to enlighten Russians about the glory and grandeur of ancient Greece. The British Museum determines which Greek sculptures are appropriate to fulfil this duty of enlightenment and has even appointed ambassadors to do this. The sculpture of Ilissos is designated “ stone ambassador of the Greek golden age.”.
Taking control of the narrative of the history and culture of the Greeks is surely the worst form of cultural imperialism. The museum withholds Greek artefacts and states it will explain Greek culture to other nations. What are the Greeks to do when someone else has seized their magnificent cultural artefacts and using that as instruments of didactic history and culture? May Zeus and all the gods of ancient Greece protect Greece from this form of imperialism.
Whilst professing to be ready and willing to discuss issues relating to the Parthenon /Elgin Marbles with the Greeks, the British Museum was busy at the same time negotiating or finalizing negotiations with the loan of the Ilissos sculpture and its secret transport to St. Petersburg. When the whole deal was revealed, the Museum still unashamedly states it has always been willing to discuss the matter with Greece.
This latest act of affront and provocation shows clearly the museum‘s stand on resolving longstanding disputes on cultural property and appears to be very proud of it.
O what a glorious deed in Bloomsbury!
Kwame Opoku, 6 December, 2014.
1. The Times, Elgin Marbles moved out of Britain for first time
2, K. Opoku, “
British Museum Director Defends Once More Retention of Parthenon Marbles”,
In view of the following letter of Mr. R. Adair a Senior Official in the British Embassy to Turkey to Lord Elgin, the legal argument based of permission from the Ottoman authorities to take the Parthenon Marbles can no longer be sustained:
In answer to your Lordship’s enquiry respecting the marbles collected by your Lordship at Athens, and for leave to transmit which to this country I was directed by the Secretary of State for foreign affairs to apply to the Turkish government, I have to inform your Lordship that Mr Pisani more than once assured me that the Porte absolutely denied your having any property in those marbles. By this expression I understood the Porte to mean that the persons who had sold the marbles to your Lordship had no right so to dispose of them.
At the same time I beg leave to add that this communication was not made to me in any formal conference with the Turkish ministers.
I have the honour to be, my Lord,
your Lordship’s most obedient and humble servant
admin December 10th, 2014
BRITISH MUSEUM DIRECTOR DEFENDS ONCE MORE RETENTION OF PARTHENON MARBLES.
“Yes. It’s not even a Greek monument. Many other Greek cities and islands protested bitterly about the money taken from them to build this in Athens.”
Neil MacGregor on the Parthenon Marbles.
Parthenon Marbles, East Pediment, British Museum, London
.Photo Andrew Dunn.
On reading the recent statements of Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, regarding the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, I had to remind myself constantly that I was not reading an old article but a fresh report of an interview with Richard Morrison, in the British newspaper, the Times. The director of the British Museum has not changed, improved or modified his position on the issues. (1) He is singing the same song as James Cuno even though in a different key. (2) We shall spare the reader the time and effort of going through all the untenable British arguments which have been discussed elsewhere. (3)
MacGregor repeats his insulting statement that the Greeks are copying Lord Elgin who removed the Parthenon Marbles and brought them to Britain:
“Indeed, the Greek authorities have continued Lord Elgin’s work of removing sculptures for exactly the same reason: to protect them and to study them.”
What is not said is that the Greeks built the ultra-modern new Acropolis Museum largely in response to the British argument that there was no suitable museum in Athens for them to return the Marbles. Once the new museum was completed MacGregor said the location of the Marbles was never an issue. What mattered now was how the British and the Greek could make it possible for the Africans and Chinese to see the Marbles. This was stated by MacGregor in a discussion at the London School of Economics.(4)
Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece.
Regarding the question whether the action of Lord Elgin in removing the Marbles from the location in Athens was legal, Neil MacGregor responds:
“I think everybody would have to agree that it was”
The ground advanced by MacGregor for this bold statement is that: “Elgin had the permission of the Ottoman authorities who were then ruling Greece’.
On the comment that the written authorization, firmen, alleged to have been obtained from the Ottoman authorities has not been seen by anyone, MacGregor responds confidently that at that time “You had to surrender the document as you exported.”
To strengthen his point of view on the legality of the removal, MacGregor adds that the removal was done slowly in the public view of many. Surely, if it were not legal, somebody would have stopped it.
“That’s the point. Everything was done very publicly, very slowly. In 1800 you couldn’t move great slabs of marble quickly. At any point the Ottoman authorities could have stopped it.”
That the Ottoman authorities then ruling Greece were an occupying force does not seem to bother the director of the British Museum. And how is one to evaluate his statement that Lord Elgin could have been stopped from removing the Marbles and since no one stopped him his action must have been legal?
This argument could be advanced to defend any crime or act committed where the offender was not stopped. Many persons saw colonial officials and Apartheid South African officials commit acts or offences but did not or could not stop them. Does that make those acts legal? Making the legal or illegality of an act depend on the reaction of persons who saw the act is surely not a scientific way of determining legality.
MacGregor resorts to the usual argument that the ownership of the Marbles, like all property in the British Museum, is invested in the Board of Trustees of the museum and only they can deal with ownership questions. Not even Parliament could dispose of ownership of museum items. The trustees have a duty to preserve the objects entrusted to them and no trustee, in the legal system MacGregor describes as “Anglo-Saxon law” could or would want to dispose of the property entrusted to them.(5)
A demand for restitution sent to the British government or Parliament would be referred to the British Museum which in turn would declare it is bound by a law of the British Parliament to preserve the objects and so they cannot be returned. This favourite game has been played so often and long enough for all to understand that its purpose is to shield objects in the museum, however acquired, from restitution. The motto seems to be: Once in the British Museum, always in the British Museum.
The director of the British Museums states in the interview that the trustees have always been willing to discuss the Marbles with Greece but the later refuses to recognize British ownership in the Marbles:
“The trustees have always been ready for any discussions. The complication is that the Greek government will not recognise the trustees as the legal owners, so conversations are difficult.”
How can the British expect Greece to recognize their ownership in the very object that is at the heart of their differences? What then is the debate about if not about ownership?
Having stated sometime earlier that the location of the Marbles was never an issue, with the recent renewed call for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, location appears to be important to MacGregor and he advances again the self-serving theory of the advantage of having different objects located in the same museum. The Marbles gained great value when they came to London. Athens is demoted to a provincial town and London promoted to the universal city:
“When the Parthenon Sculptures came to London it was the first time that they could be seen at eye-level. They stopped being architectural details in the Parthenon and became sculptures in their own right. They became part of a different story — of what the human body has meant in world culture. In Athens they would be part of an exclusively Athenian story.”
The Director of the British Museum restates again the pretention that the museum has the duty to tell the history, or the story as he prefers, of the objects in the museum:
“From its beginning 250 years ago, the point of the BM was gathering together objects in one place to tell narratives about the world”
But who in the world authorized the British to tell the histories of others? There does not yet seem to be a realization that many peoples would like to have their own objects back in order to tell their own history. The seizure of the narratives of the history of others is clearly a bare-faced imperialism which cannot be accepted in this 21st century. Are the other peoples, the Greeks, the Turks and the Edo (Benin) congenitally incapable of telling their own histories? To advance the telling of their histories as argument for the non-return of their artefacts acquired under dubious circumstances is more than an insult.
The United Nations, UNESCO, uncountable conferences and meetings and the British people have expressed the view that the British Museum should return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. (6) The British Museum and the British government have played deaf ears. Whom does the museum serve? The British people? The world?
The interview given by Neil MacGregor indicates an unwillingness to find a solution to this long-standing dispute. If the legality of British ownership is as clear as presented by the director why does Britain not agree to a settlement by an international arbitration board or some other body?
One should perhaps remind all concerned that as far as International Law is concerned the obligation to return cultural artefacts lies squarely on the government and not on a museum. One cannot advance internal legal arrangements or system as a defence for not fulfilling an international obligation.
Is it by sheer coincidence that MacGregor and Cuno are singing, at about the same time, the praises of the so-called “Universal Museum” which they have championed over the years, one on this side of the Atlantic and the other on the opposite side of the Ocean? Is it also by sheer coincidence that the one is British and the other U.S. American? Is it by coincidence that one is president of the most powerful cultural institution in the world, situated in the USA and the other the director of a most prestigious museum situated in London?
After reading MacGregor’s latest statements, I could not help feeling that the cause of those wishing to hold onto the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles would be better helped by avoiding such statements as discussed above.
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (7)
Kwame Opoku, 14 November, 2014.
2. K. Opoku
,” Dr.Cuno again; Reviving Discredited Arguments to prevent Future Repatriation of Museum Artefacts”,
There are excellent discussions on the Parthenon Marbles are, Christopher Hitchens, The Parthenon Marbles, Verso, London, 2008 and Mary Beard, The Parthenon, Profile Books, London, 2004.
See also K. Opoku,
Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: Singular Failure of an Arrogant Imperialist Project”,
K. Opoku,”Will the British Museum Ever Modify its Claim to be Unquestionable Legal Owner of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and all other Stolen Items in the Museum?”
K. Opoku, A History of the World with 100 Looted Objects of Others: Global Intoxication?
K. Opoku, Democratization through Vandalism; New Answer to Demands for Restitution of Cultural Artefacts?”
4. K. Opoku, “The Amazing Director of the British Museum: Gratuitous Insults as Currency of Cultural Diplomacy? “
5. Comparative Law specialists, have always raised objections when some European Continental lawyers, especially the French, referred to the British or English law as “Droit anglo-saxon” or “système anglo-saxon”.
6. K. Opoku, “The Guardian Poll on the Return of the Parthenon Marbles”
7. Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elgin_Marbles Lord Byron expressed in this stinging verse his objection to the removal of the Parthenon Marbles from Greece by Elgin.
admin November 14th, 2014
DR. CUNO AGAIN: REVIVING DISCREDITED ARGUMENTS TO PREVENT FUTURE REPATRIATION OF MUSEUM ARTEFACTS
When I read Dr. Cuno’s latest article entitled “
in the American journal Foreign Affairs,(Nov/Dec 2014) appearing under a bold heading, “Culture War”, I was very surprised.(1) The last time I commented on the work of the American scholar and President of the J. Paul Getty Trust , I had written that Professor Cuno, whose writings had been heavily criticised by scholars all over the world, was changing and seemed to be moving away from his provocative positions and adopting a more reconciliatory approach in contrast to the abrasive tone of most of his comments. (2) His latest output however, is a full blast of the well-known but often unsubstantiated attacks on his opponents whom he seems to lump into a group of undifferentiated nationalists and nationalist States that, in his view, are constantly making “frivolous” requests for the repatriation of their cultural artefacts that belong to the whole world, not being subject to any geographical limitations and are, according to the cosmopolitan Cuno, better kept in the so-called ‘Universal museums’/Encyclopaedic museums” – the British Museum in London, Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:
“Rather than acquiesce to frivolous, if stubborn, calls for repatriation, often accompanied by threats of cultural embargoes, encyclopedic museums should encourage the development of mutually beneficial relationships with museums everywhere in the world that share their cosmopolitan vision. Cultural property should be recognized for what it is: the legacy of humankind and not of the modern nation-state, subject to the political agenda of its current ruling elite
As we have argued before, the use of the term”culture war” is completely misleading and unfortunate in the context of restitution of cultural artefacts. When Egypt, Greece, Italy, Nigeria or Turkey ask for the return of their looted/stolen artefacts they do not consider themselves as being at war with the holding countries. In a world in which there are real wars that result in great loss of lives and people experience untold suffering and great deprivation, one must be careful in the use of terminology that would tend to obscure the tragedies of wars. Perhaps coming from a non-warfare nation, we are rather too sensitive about such terminology in an area where co-operation should be the basic principle.
Cuno is back presenting again the false view that it is nationalism that fuels demands for return of cultural property and laws tending to control the handling of cultural property:
“Such claims on the national identity of antiquities are at the root of many states’ cultural property laws, which in the last few decades have been used by governments to reclaim objects from museums and other collections abroad. Despite UNESCO’s declaration that “no culture is a hermetically sealed entity”, governments are increasingly making claims of ownership of cultural property on the basis of self-proclaimed and fixed state-based identities. Many use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image — Egypt with the Pharaonic era, Iran with ancient Persia, Italy with the Roman Empire. These arguments amount to protectionist claims on culture. Rather than acknowledge that culture is in a state of constant flux, modern governments present it as standing still, in order to use cultural objects to promote their own states’ national identities.”
Many persons support restitution of cultural artefacts who can by no means be described as nationalists. But who are more nationalistic than the British, US Americans and the other States that stubbornly refuse to return artefacts that are undoubtedly looted, stolen or acquired under dubious circumstances? Ironically, many of the States demanding restitution are countries that suffer from lack of strong national cohesion or nationalism which explains partly the instability in those areas.
The American scholar starts his essay by presenting as nationalist Francesco Rutelli, a former Italian Culture Minister who was largely instrumental in obliging leading American institutions in 2006 to return a great number of looted artefacts to Italy. Referring to the exhibition of the returned looted artefacts that was held in Rome in 1977, Cuno writes:
“Leading nearly 200 journalists through the exhibition, Francesco Rutelli, Italy’s then cultural minister, proclaimed, “The odyssey of these objects, which started with their brutal removal from the bowels of the earth, didn’t end on the shelf of some American museum. With nostalgia, they have returned. These beautiful pieces have reconquered their souls.” Rutelli was not just anthropomorphizing ancient artifacts by giving them souls. By insisting that they were the property of Italy and important to its national identity, he was also giving them citizenship”
Rutelli may have exaggerated a little and been also somewhat lyrical. But even before the grandparents of the Italian Minister were born, the returned artefacts had a home and place in Italy before they were looted and taken to the USA by various devious routes. Does welcoming the pieces back to Italy imply conferring on them a “citizenship” which they did not have before?
One of the museums Dr. Cuno admires most has as part of its name the word ”British” but the American scholar is not unduly worried by this and presumably does not see it as a nationalistic mark. “British” appears to be synonymous with “universal” for some people. On the other hand, “Italian”, “Turkish” or “Nigerian” surely appears to be a nationalistic designation.
Many will remember the Italian Minister and his colleagues for their success in forcing leading American institutions to return to Italy cultural artefacts that had been illegally exported from Italy to the United States. Contrary to the impression created in the essay, the American institutions did not freely agree to return the objects. The Italians forced them to do so through a combination of pressures, legal process and even the imprisonment of a senior curator of a leading American museum. It was realized that there was no alternative but to agree to Italian requests for repatriation. Incidentally more artefacts were returned than the 69 objects in the exhibition Cuno mentions in his essay.
An unflattering image of Zahi Hawass, the dynamic former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, emerges from Cuno’s essay under what he titles “Claim Game”:
“Although the UNESCO convention has helped crack down on the illegal trade in antiquities and led to the rightful repatriation of illicitly acquired art, it has also inspired many governments to make combative and sometimes dubious claims for restitution. As Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s then long-serving antiquities minister, said in 2010, “We will make life miserable for museums that refuse to repatriate.”
Many who did not always agree with the former Egyptian Minister will remember him for his untiring efforts to secure the return of Egyptian artefacts that are illegally in Western museums, including Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin, and the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, London. Hardly anybody now speaks for the return of African artefacts after the departure of the active Egyptian archaeologist from his post. Zahi Hawass was a great voice in discussions on repatriation.
Cuno refers to UNESCO declaring that” no culture is a hermetically sealed entity”. One wonders whether any of the claimants for restitution has ever asserted that their cultures were completely sealed from other cultures. Besides, this point could not reinforce or weaken any demand for repatriation. Even if two States have the same or similar cultures, the fact that one is holding illegally cultural artefacts stolen or looted from the other would not be affected by evidence that the two cultures are related. One is reminded of the noble British Lord who, with respect to claims for restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, suggested the Greeks should be informed that admiration of Greek culture is part of British culture and history.
Dr. Cuno does not mention that it is the same UNESCO that in the interests of mankind puts certain obligations on States where cultural objects are located. Who else can better take care of artefacts than the States where they are located? It is interesting to see Cuno relying on a UNESCO citation for he has not always been supportive of the aims of that organization in its efforts at cultural preservation.
Cuno criticizes UNESCO and ICOM for encouraging and assisting States to demand repatriation of cultural objects:
“UNESCO, despite what it says about cultural fluidity, has joined with nation-states to assist in the repatriation of cultural objects on the grounds that they represent countries’ exclusive national heritages. Its repatriation and restitution committee has a broad mandate to facilitate bilateral negotiations for the return of “any cultural property” that a state deems to have “fundamental significance from the point of view of the spiritual values and cultural heritage of [its] people.”
Dr.Cuno does not seem to accept that international bodies exist to assist the international community and all member States and not only the powerful States of the West which were instrumental in establishing these organizations. But what Dr. Cuno laments above all is that it is up to each State to determine what objects form part of its culture:
“But individual countries alone determine when something is part of their cultural heritage: there is no international institution with the authority to make that determination. A national government or state-backed entity can even declare a preceding state’s or regime’s self-proclaimed national cultural property idolatrous and destroy it, and there is nothing any other country or any international agency can do to stop it. In 2001, UNESCO tried in vain to prevent the Taliban from demolishing the Bamiyan Buddhas, two monumental sixth-century statues carved into a cliff in central Afghanistan. Not even a meeting between UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and representatives of the Taliban leader could spare the statues.”
It would appear that Cuno and his supporters would prefer to have a situation where a body, preferably controlled by the West, determines what is and what is not part of the culture of the non-European States from which many artefacts have been looted or stolen. That body could then decide that modern Egyptians have nothing in common with ancient Egyptians. Could such a body also determine that modern Europeans have nothing in common with ancient Europeans?
Dr. Cuno writes about his first visit to Louvre and how he was fascinated and captivated by an object he saw there which came from the ancient Near East and goes on to attribute to the universal museums a power and promise and praises them for offering to visitors examples of the diversity of cultures in one place:
“And in doing so, they protect and advance the idea of openness and integration in a changing world. Over the last three decades, more people have moved across or within national borders than at any point in human history, straining the very contiguity and definition of nation-states, which are now less politically defined and territorially circumscribed than ever before. But all too often, as a result, governments seek fixed national cultures to shore up their hold on their states’ identities”.
Probably Prof. Cuno does not care to know the impression the so-called universal museums make on young persons from Africa, Asia and Latin America who visit these citadels of Western culture for the first time. My own recollection of my first visit to the British Museum more than forty years ago was one of shock and anger. I was jolted by the architecture of the building, its vast size and fortress character reminded me of the forts and castles European imperialists- British, Danes, Dutch, French, Germans, Portuguese, and Swedes-built on the west coast of Africa in order to protect their goods and later to hold slaves they had acquired. But what could a museum have that required such massive protection?
Once I entered the museum and had recovered from the shock of seeing so many huge artefacts from all over the world, I thought I understood why they needed a fortress like this. There seemed to be so many looted and stolen objects there that they had to protect them from possible attempts by the enraged original owners to retake their artefacts.
My anger boiled over when I realized there were many objects from Africa which one would no longer see on our continent. I wondered whether our ancestors had made gifts of all these objects to the British or were forced to deliver them or face punishment or worse. And when I read that the Benin artefacts had been looted as a result of British invasion of Benin in 1897, my suspicions seemed to have been confirmed.
Cuno cannot expect us to see in universal museums our salvation and his calling to build universal museums where there are none appears to be an attempt to obscure the true history and development of such museums.
When Dr. Cuno writes about the movements of people across territorial boundaries and writes on migration, I wonder whether he is writing about our world as it now exists or about some other world. Is he familiar with the policies of those States where there are universal museums and their stand regarding immigration? What he writes on these issues apply more appropriately to Western States and their determination to keep all others out of the parts of the world they now occupy.
What Cuno writes about the Parthenon Marbles and about Nefertiti can be easily ignored. He tells only part of the histories and the reader may go away with too many misleading impressions. These objects were acquired under very dubious circumstances and yet we are given the impression they were legally acquired. Why then have we had disputes for decades on their acquisition?
What surprises me most about the essay by Dr.Cuno is that after appearing for some years to have retreated from his untenable position of intransigent retentionism, the President of the J.Paul Getty Trust now suddenly launches one of his usual attacks. The essay does not appear to have been motivated by any particular demand for restitution and Dr. Cuno does not explain to us why he has returned to his old aggressive and abrasive position. We are left with speculation.
Given his high position as President of the most powerful cultural institution in the Western world and writing in a very prestigious journal, we may assume that all this is not a personal whim. The essay comes also at a time when as a result of fighting in the Middle East, a lot of cultural artefacts have been destroyed, stolen, looted and displaced.. Could it be that as usual, some clever people have started to think about the post-war situation? Could this essay be part of a strategy to warn or disarm States in the conflict area about any attempts to claim in future the return of looted or stolen artefacts? This strategy would be following the path of the notorious Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museums. (2000).
Or has the British Museum, in view of recent publicity concerning a possible legal action by Greece to recover the Parthenon Marbles, again resorted to the same strategy used in connection with the discredited Declaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museum in getting other museums to work on its behalf and allow it to stay in the background? If this were the intention then they could not have made a better choice to lead this revival of imperialist museology.
Readers will recall that the intention of that Declaration was to discourage claims for return of cultural property and especially to discourage Greece from claiming the return of the Parthenon Marbles. None of the intended effects were achieved and the Declaration was followed by massive claims and returns from American institutions to Italy and other States.
Whatever may be the objective behind the unexpected revival of the aggressive posture, it is not very likely to be successful unless and until supporters of that strategy seriously examine the objections made to the position of the notorious Declaration. They would also have to show some respect to claimants for restitution and not reject their demands as”frivolous” and “nationalist.”
Insults are not very likely to contribute to a peaceful settlement of disputes about artefacts. Cuno and his supporters would also have to make some effort to understand the causes leading to mistrust of the West in this area.
There need not be any great disputes about cultural artefacts if those holding them would be a little respectful of the feelings and the needs of the owners when they demand their return. When western museum directors and others describe demands for repatriation as “frivolous,”it is a sure sign that they are not seriously interested in any amicable solution. Cuno does not give examples of “frivolous” demands. Would anybody characterize the demand by the Oba of Benin for the return of some of the looted Benin Bronzes as “frivolous”?
In the final analysis, refusal to return cultural property to the peoples from whom it was wrongfully taken is a denial of the human right of those peoples to a free and independent cultural development. States and museums that preach human rights should surely not be seen as denying the human rights of others. But do the so-called universal museums care about human rights? How come that the British Museum and the British Government do not follow the wishes of the British people who have in numerous opinion polls expressed the view that the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Greece? Is that how democracy works?
The views expressed in Cuno’s essay are not likely to encourage the respect of the rights of other peoples and States. It will prolong the unethical spectacle of the rich stealing from the poor and refusing to return their loot.
Kwame Opoku, 30 October, 2014.
“Culture War: The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts”
Cuno’s essay reminds one of a similar article in the New York Times by Hugh Eakin entitled ’The Great Giveback” which lamented that the American museums were making restitutions without much fight.
K. Opoku, ”Declaration of the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: Singular Failure of an Arrogant Imperialist Project”
admin November 2nd, 2014
According to the Journal du Cameroun, an Italian Maritime Museum has declared its willingness and readiness to assist in repatriating looted Cameroonian cultural artefacts that are at present in Europe. (1) This offer of assistance was made by the president of the Maritime Museum in Genoa, Italy, Professor Maria Paola Profumo, during a visit to Yaoundé and Doula. The professor also suggested that her museum could act as mediator between Cameroon and European museums that are holding Cameroonian archaeological and historical artefacts. (2)
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admin September 3rd, 2014
DID EMPEROR HAILE SELASSIE AUTHORIZE DAKAR-DJIBOUTI EXPEDITION TO REMOVE RELIGIOUS PAINTINGS?
Painting of St John, Ethiopia, now in Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France
We read with great interest and attention a report entitled “Stolen Ethiopian Saint John Turns Up at Paris Auction” which was published by the Museum Security
The report states that a 17th century Ethiopian painting representing Saint John that had been stolen from the Musée de l’Homme, Paris, in 1989 turned up at an auction at Drouot, Paris.
According to the report, the painting had been in an Ethiopian Coptic Christian church, Abba Antonios, in Gondar, former capital of Ethiopia but was, with eleven others, collected in 1932 by the French ethnologist, Marcel Griaule during the Dakar-Djibouti Expedition (1931-33). Griaule had been able to persuade the church authorities that the Abba Antonios church was not suitable for these paintings and obtained from the local ecclesiastical authorities the permission to replace the original paintings with copies supplied by the artist of the French mission.
According to the report, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry had complained about the removal but the Emperor had decided in favour of the French.
After the work had disappeared from the Musée de l’Homme in 1989, it was bought by the wife of a painter at the Vanves flea market in Paris in the 1990s. The painting will now join the other eleven that are held in the Musée du Quai Branly which inherited works from the Musée de l’Homme and the Musée des Arts Africains et Oceaniens in Paris.
I was very uneasy with the report as presented. It seemed unspecific, referring to the emperor at that time, without giving the name of the emperor who was Haile Selassie. I got more suspicious as I read that the recovered work with eleven others had been acquired by Marcel Griaule during the notorious Dakar-Djibouti Expedition. Readers will recall that this rapacious mission went through the former French colonies taking, looting, stealing and seizing artefacts it thought useful for understanding those countries and their cultures, armed with the authority of a French government decree. The methods used by this expedition have been detailed by the secretary-archivist of the mission, Michel Leiris in his fundamental book, Afrique Fantôme. (2)Members of the expedition did not shrink from using bribery, intimidation, corruption, blackmail, threats, undue pressure and plain stealing in obtaining objects they desired.(3) Michel Leiris
wrote in his dairy of the expedition:
“Yesterday, we were refused with shock several statuettes which were used to cause rainfall, as well as a statuette with raised arms, found in a sanctuary.
Taking away these objects would have been like taking away the life of the country, said a young man who, even though had been in the army, had remained faithful to his customs, almost crying at the thought of the disasters that our impious gesture would have provoked, and opposing our evil design with all his strength, had alerted the old men. Feeling like pirates: saying good-bye this morning to these affectionate old men, happy that we had spared them a disaster, we kept an eye on the huge green umbrella which was normally used to protect us but was today carefully bound. There was a strange bulge looking like the beak of a pelican: it contained the famous statuette with raised arms which I had myself stolen at the foot of the earth mound which served as its altar. I first hid it in my shirt… and then I put it in the umbrella… pretending to urinate in order to divert attention.
This evening, at Touyogou, where we are camping at a public place, my chest is full of earth:my shirt served again as a hiding place for a kind of double edged blade, as we left the cave of masks of this village
Paintings from the Church of Abbas Antonios, Gondar, Ethiopia. now in Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France.
The recovered painting apparently will be returned to the Musée du Quai Branly without any compensation or payment to the consignor, the artist whose wife had bought the painting at the flea market. This is interesting. We will probably never know the whole truth about the deal between the consignor and the museum. If the consignor or his wife bought the painting in good faith, he surely could expect some compensation from the museum. Anyone buying such a piece of work in Paris would know where to look for help if they were not sure of the origin of the work and its history. The museum is, of course, not very interested in a general discussion on the origin and history of any of its works since this would involve discussing the sources of the works from the Musée de l’Homme and the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et de l’Oceanie which are largely due to colonial plunder and deceit.
Made curious by the vague and very general reports and the mention of the notorious Dakar-Djibouti Expedition which brought some 3500 looted/stolen artefacts including 70 skulls from Africa to France, I decided to read a little more for I had the impression that there was more in this matter than meets the eye.
I consulted Afrique Fantðme by Michel Leiris. To my surprise, Leiris who is usually prolific about the itinerary and activities of the expedition, giving details about whom the group met and what precisely was taken, was not very forthcoming this time. Commenting on the account of Leiris of the activities of the mission’s acquisition of objects at Gondar, Hélène Joubert, Senior Official responsible for the African section in the Musée du Quai Branly writes;
‘The acquisitions in the region of Godsr in mid-July are shrouded in mystery.’’
(5) But what Leiris wrote was enough to convince that the group did not hesitate to resort to its usual unorthodox methods of intimidation and deception. (6)
The corruption used by the Dakar-Djibouti Expedition comes out clearly in a passage from Leiris in which he writes that villagers who had wanted to help in removing the canvases from the church did not turn up; no doubt instructed by a chief who had not received the bribe he had expected. (7)
The expedition seemed to have favoured most of the time deception and dissimulation; Marcel Griaule and Roux packed the painting like ordinary materials and were decided to show only part of their loot to customs. (8)
Dissimulation is obviously, the preferred method of the French expedition. Michel Leiris wrote that the group had spent a whole morning packing items in such a way that custom officials may not discover the paintings and other items they had in their bags. (9)
The conduct and acts of the expedition as described by Michel Leiris do not reflect the conduct of persons who had received permission from the local authorities and the Emperor to carry away religious paintings. Why should they dissimulate the paintings at customs? Would it not have been logical and natural to expect them to tell all who wanted to know that they had permission from the local authorities and ecclesiastical authorities as well as from the Emperor to take them away? The overall impression one gets from the account of Michel Leiris is that of a marauding looting party of scholars.
I looked at the interesting book of Claire Bose-Tiessé and Anaïs Wion,
Peintures sacrées d’Éthiopie: Collection de la Mission Dakar-Djibouti. (10)
According to the authors, the expedition’s artist, Gaston Loius Roux, demonstrated to the local church authorities the resistance to rain of the oil painting he had done by throwing water on the work whereupon the churchmen agreed to the expedition taking down all the old paintings and replacing them with new paintings by the artist. When the expedition tried to do the same at another church, there was resistance and the matter was reported to the governor of the province and the Emperor. However serious political problems in autumn 1932 pushed the matter to the background and thus there was no decision from either the governor or the Emperor that would have allowed us to assess how far the expedition was authorized to remove the old religious paintings that had been in the church for centuries. (11)
We also looked at Éthiopie Millinaire; Préhistoire et Art Religieux , catalogue of an exhibition in 1974 with some pages on the paintings from Abba Antonios church. The issue of authorization is not discussed in the catalogue but the authors state that if the Dakar-Djibouti Expedition had not taken those paintings away, they would have been destroyed. (12) This is of course the classic defence of many Westerners when discussing looted artefacts but this does not justify illegal acquisition of artefacts. In an article entitled ‘’Conjuring tricks’’ Clementine Deliss describes the tricks used by the expedition to intimidate and pressure the local clergy. The author states that Griaule secured the deal to remove the old paintings and replace them with new ones by threatening the clergyman with imprisonment. (13)
So it does not seem that any political authority and certainly not Emperor Haile Selassie gave any authorization for removal of religious paintings. But where did the Figaro article, translated into English and reproduced at various websites, get the notion that the Emperor at that time sided with the French against his own Ministry of Foreign Affairs? (14)
In view of what has been said above, it would be enlightening to receive more precise information on the following;
1. How did the French expedition manage to persuade the local church and the ecclesiastical authorities to allow them to take away 12 canvas paintings of the saints, 60 square meters of religious material that had been in the church for hundreds of years and replace them with copies made by a member of the expedition?
2. How did the French expedition manage to have the Emperor of that time, as the report puts it, back the French against his Foreign Ministry that was opposed to the removal of religious paintings from the Coptic Christian church?
3. Did the Musée de l’Homme advertise widely the loss of the painting in 1989 before the establishment of the Musée de Quai Branly in 2006?
4. Has anyone seen a written authorization of Emperor Haile Selassie or his representative to the expedition? Ethiopians were used to writing long before many other nations and by 1932 most authorities would issue such important decisions in writing, to be shown where necessary.
5. Has anyone thought of returning the original canvas painting of Saint John as well as the other 11 paintings to Ethiopia as requested by several United Nations and UNESCO resolutions? (15)
6. Has the Musée du Quai Branly that has as motto ‘the “place where cultures dialogue”, (là où dialoguent les cultures) been in dialogue with Ethiopian authorities with regard to these paintings that are more relevant to the culture and history of Ethiopian Coptics than to the culture and history of the French?
Kwame Opoku, 4 August 2014.
Gallimard, Paris 1934. Another edition of Afrique Fantôme may be found in Michel Leiris, Miroir de l’Afrique, with other writings of Leiris edited and annotated by Jean Jamin in 1996.
3. K. Opoku ‘’
Benin to Quai Branly: A Museum for the Arts of Others or for the Stolen Arts of the Others?’
4. Afrique Fantôme, p. 156.
Translations from the French are by K. Opoku.
5. H. Joubert :
“Les mentions d’acquisitions dans la région de Gondar a la mi/juillet
restent enveloppés de mystère`
in Nicolás Sánchez Dura and Hasan G. Lopez Sanz (eds.) La Misión etnográfrica y lingüística Dakar-Djibouti y el fantasma de África, p. 287.
“ Il a été décidé que nous irions remplacer les peintures de Gondarotch Maryam comme si de rien n’était et comme si nous ignorions les deux phonogrammes que l
’alaga Sagga a envoyés. Mais, pour parer à tous incidents, .nous partons en force: une douzaine d’achkars armés de sept fusils, Griaule,Larget,Roux,Lutten et moi, tous armés, plus Abba Jérôme avec son habituel parapluie.’
Dès que nous sommes arrivés, Griaule, apprenant que l’alaqa Sagga se trouve là, l’envoie chercher. Les paysans, bien que nous les traitions avec aménité, ont très peur. Abba Jérôme, de son coté, n’est nullement assuré. Il est visiblement ennuyé d’être embarqué, en tant que représentant officiel du gouvernement dans une pareille histoire. Il sait que Griaule a l’intention si l’alaqa Sagga se présente et refuse de laisser remplacer les vielles peintures de l’église par les peintures neuves que nous avons apportées,de traiter l’alaqa Sagga de fourbe e d’exiger de lui un garant
pour le procès qu’il lui intentera à Addis Ab
.Michel Leiris, op. cit. p 450.
Aucun des hommes qui à l’origine étaient venus eux-mêmes demander à Griaule de s’occuper du remplacement des peintures, n’est là. C’est évidemment un coup monté par l’alaqa Sagga qui devait s’attendre à un fort pot-de-vin et est furieux de n’avoir encore rien reçu.
’Leiris, ibid. p.451.
8. ‘Méthodiquement, Griaule et Roux mettent les peintures d’Antonios en ballots. Une partie seulement sera exhibée aux douaniers. Le reste est roulé, entouré de papier et emballé dans des peaux. Les paquets ne seront pas différent des charges d’abou-gédid que transportent les caravanes.’’
Leiris, ibid p. 580.
9. ‘Toute la journée s’est passeé à dissimuler des peintures: un triptyque a été simplement revêtu de papier portant, dessinés et coloriés par Roux, les motives mêmes des ses propres panneaux; cela passera pour une copie. D’un diptyque également recouvert de papier, Griaule s’est fait un joli portefeuille dans lequel il a rangé des timbres et différents papiers. Un grand tableau, enfin, a été caché (sous du papier d’emballage collé) au fond d’une caisse qui contiendra des oiseaux empaillés.’’
Leiris, ibid., p. 584.
10. Éditions Sépia, 2005, Paris.
11, Bose-Tiesse, and Anaïs Wion op cit. pp 83-84.
12. Petit Palais.
Paris, November 1974-February 1975 p. 263.
13. Clementine Deliss, ‘Conjuring Trikcs ’centropecci.it
‘C’est en juillet 1932 que le grand ethnologue Marcel Griaule avait fait halte sur le site. Constatant l’état très dégradé de l’église, en particulier sa toiture, et les risques encourus par le décor mural datant du dernier tiers du XVIIe siècle, il avait obtenu des autorités ecclésiastiques l’autorisation ce déposer celui-ci et de le faire remplacer par des copies à l’huile exécutées par le peintre
, membre de la mission Dakar-Djibouti. La mission avait gardé les originaux. Une plainte à ce sujet avait été déposée par le ministère des affaires étrangères éthiopien mais l’empereur
avait tranché en faveur des français. Au musée de l’Homme, les toiles avaient été restaurées dès 1933
Did Germans Never Hear Directly or Indirectly Nigeria’s Demand for Return of Looted Artefacts?’’http://www.modernghana.com
admin August 7th, 2014
A SEASON OF “MIRACLES’’? BOSTON MUSEUM RETURNS LOOTED NIGERIAN ARTEFACTS
“It is indeed unfortunate that so much Nok material has been looted over time to supply the international market. Properly excavated, such pieces might have shed valuable light on the Nok culture.” Ekpo Eyo. (1)
When I read the news that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was returning 8 looted antiquities to Nigeria, I could not believe my eyes or the title of the article until I read the full report and was convinced that it was genuine.(2)
I asked myself whether it was the same museum that had been trying to convince us a few months ago that it was better for Benin bronzes to be in the Boston museum where more people would see them. The curators of the museum had also tried to convince us that they had a duty to tell the history of Benin. It seemed then that the museum would never return any object once it had entered its records. (3)
Have the museum officials who a few months ago seemed to be convinced of their right to hold other peoples cultural artefacts experienced a conversion? Whatever may be the cause of the change of position and attitude regarding restitution of looted cultural artefacts, the Museum of Fine Arts must be congratulated for this change of policy or practice which seems to be on the right path. Gone from the museum’s policy then are lengthy legal process and interminable arguments and counterarguments between the museum and artefact owners.
Coming a few days after the return of Benin artefacts by Mark Walker, the return of 8 artefacts by the Boston museum may incline us to think a season of “miracles” is at hand. This is not the first time that the museum has been involved in restitution of looted artefacts. The museum has returned artefacts to France, Greece and Italy but this was done, especially in the case of Italy, under pressure of legal action and threats of other measures (4). In the case of the Nigerian artefacts, the return appears to have been voluntary and under no pressure as far as we can tell.
If we understand correctly this change, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts does not wait for an owner to claim ownership before it acts. The museum has a designated official who undertakes the examination of provenance. If the official has sufficient doubts about the legitimacy of the acquisition of an object, she makes her own enquires and informs the museum accordingly. The burden of proof is no longer on a claimant to establish ownership but for the museum to establish the legitimacy of acquisition of the artefacts.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is here following the line of defence much beloved by Western museums when confronted with African claims of restitution: They advance the 1970 UNESCO Convention as an obstacle to restitution. They set 1970 as a cut-off date for restitution claims and will not consider claims of looting or stealing of artefacts occurring before 1970 even though the convention itself does not contain any such barrier. True, the Convention, like most legal instruments, does not have a retrospective effect but it does not approve or disapprove of previous lootings nor does it prevent claimants from seeking restitution on grounds other than those provided in the convention.
So what appears at first sight to be a “miracle”, due to the unexpected return of looted artefacts from a museum that has not been very sympathetic to the idea, is in reality nothing more than a happy coincidence of many factors or a clever presentation of results that are in accordance with the declared policy of the museum and which happens to coincide with African expectations on different grounds.
The museum has not agreed to return the Benin artefacts that form the Lehman collection though the museum itself has admitted that all those artefacts were looted from Benin in the notorious invasion of 1897. (6)
Whilst congratulating the Museum of Fine Arts on returning 8 looted artefacts to Nigeria, we must remind ourselves and others that the museum follows the same line as many other western museums: they refuse to consider the issue of the return of artefacts looted in the colonial epoch. They have provided themselves with a cut off date of 1970 which conveniently happens to be a date when most African artefacts had already been looted and were lying quietly in Western museums. This factor of date must be brought to the attention of the African peoples, especially as some African officials entertain consciously or not, the illusion that Western museums are willing to discuss the restitution of artefacts looted at an earlier period.(7)
Western museums have repeatedly stated they are not willing to envisage the return of the Benin bronzes but African officials continue to act as if these artefacts were on their way home.(8)
Some have even said that Nigeria has received more than 100 artefacts back. What is not explained is that these returns, mostly looted objects intercepted by customs and police, are to be distinguished from the famous artefacts in the British Museum and other Western museums.
There is no shame in being unable to recover cultural objects looted by a powerful foreign State a century ago. But it is a dangerous tactic to entertain the illusion amongst people that we are succeeding in recovering those objects when we cannot concretely demonstrate that these looted objects have left Western museums and have now been returned to Nigeria. We do not know of a single instance where any of the famous Nigerian artefacts has left a Western museum and gone back to Nigeria. (9)
The return of the eight looted Nigerian artefacts by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is undoubtedly a very important step in the right direction. However, our enthusiasm for an action which a few months ago would have been considered improbable, if not impossible, should not blind us to the fact that this return involves a very, very tiny part of the thousands of looted Nigerian artefacts in the museum and in other American museums.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, must return the Benin artefacts in the Lehman Collection which it received by way of donation. The museum itself has admitted that the artefacts in the collection were all looted in the nefarious British invasion of Benin in 1897. What else does one need to know that these are stolen and looted artefacts of others? Both the National Commission on Museums and Monuments and the Benin Monarchy have requested the return of these items.
.More of such returns would be expected not only from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston but also from Western museums that have until now acted as if there were nothing wrong in holding well-known looted artefacts of others. Western museums must also contribute to the respect for the rule of law and ordinary morality. That attitude of exempting artefacts looting from the moral the commandment “Thou shall not steal.” may not be unconnected to the increase in robberies in religious places, museums, art galleries and other institutions in the West.(10)
A museum in a city that is associated with the struggle for American Independence surely would have no difficulty in understanding the desire of other peoples to keep and hold freely their own cultural artefacts without hindrance or interference by foreign museums and other institutions.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has described in a current exhibition, Magna Carta as“the foundation for many liberties that Americans enjoy”. This principle of liberty must also apply to Africans and peoples of African descent even though; racism, slavery, colonialism and imperialism have obscured the perception of many. Liberty surely includes the right to develop our culture as we wish and with instruments and materials of our civilization.
Kwame Opoku, 4 July, 2014.
1. Ekpo Eyo, From Shrines to Showcases: Masterpieces of Nigerian Art, 2010, Federal Ministry of Information and Communication, Abuja. p.23.
Museum of Fine Arts returns artifacts to Nigeria http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/style/2014/06/26/museuhm-fine-arts-returns-artifacts-nigeria/z2RenPtuhh9qyPoSi05fRO/story.html
Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts Returns Nigerian artifacts