Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (Tom Flynn's contribution to the Kwame Opoku versus Philippe de Montebello discussion)

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A couple of weeks ago, Dr Kwame Opoku of African culture website Afrikanet wrote an open letter to European and North American museum directors, posing the question, Is legality a viable concept for European and American museum directors?

In recent months, Dr Opoku has become one of the most energetic and determined voices in the restitution debate. His recent letter rehearsed the now familiar argument that directors of so-called ‘encyclopaedic’ museums must acknowledge their illegal ownership of thousands of cultural objects in their collections.

One of the people who responded to his letter was Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (above left). Attached to the original article was a picture of a Nok statue (right) which Mr De Montebello used as the basis for his brief response, which went as follows:

I read with interest Dr. Kwame Opoku’s article European and American Museum Directors and the Legality Concept and glanced at the photo that accompanied it.

What a haunting, strange-looking object. There is no caption accompanying the photograph so I looked in books and found that this was a product of ancient Nigeria, the Nok culture. I also discovered that more than 2,000 years ago as well an Ife culture in Nigeria produced sculpture that I found simply divine. As beautiful as anything produced at any time in the West.

Then I went to our African galleries and found — as must our audience of some 4.5 million visitors a year — that Nigeria seemed to have produced no art before the much later Benin period, well represented at the Metropolitan Museum. Why is that? Simply because the Metropolitan Museum does not own either a Nok or an Ife object. Their export and acquisition are strictly forbidden, therefore the Metropolitan Museum has refrained from their acquisition.

We have tried for years to convince the Nigerian authorities to place one object from each of these great cultures on loan to the Metropolitan for the benefit of our audiences, but unfortunately, to no avail.

Dr. Opoku believes all Nok, Ife, and Benin pieces outside of Nigeria should be returned to Nigeria; that all works produced on its territory should remain there. How this advances broad knowledge of the rich cultural history of Nigeria is a mystery to me.

Philippe de Montebello
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This exchange seems to me to encapsulate the very problem we need to get beyond if any progress is to be made on the vexed question of museums and repatriation. I am sympathetic to the position adopted by Dr Opoku, who has written some penetrating analyses of current debates in museology, particularly those pertaining to African cultural heritage, a subject hitherto roundly ignored by universal museum directors. But I am not without some sympathy for Mr De Montebello, whose job it is to protect his museum’s venerable collections. None of us wants to see the Met diminished. And let’s perhaps applaud Mr De Montebello for bothering to respond to the article.

The problem here is the nature of the dialogue, which is not really a dialogue at all, but a series of embittered volleys that merely consolidates the entrenched positions of both parties. Dr Opoku continues to write uncompromising attacks on museum directors. One can understand his growing impatience, given the unwillingness of most museum directors to address what are clearly very serious issues passionately articulated. Moreover, when he does get a response, as was the case here, he is treated with the sort of patrician disdain that has become the lingua franca of leading museum directors across Europe and North America.

It was rather surprising that Mr De Montebello did not recognise the cultural origin of the Nok statue, given that New York has been a rich and thriving centre for the trade and collecting of African art and ethnography since the 1920s. But then he can’t be expected to know about everything that crosses his desk.

However, to use that object in a rhetorical turn to pour contumely on Dr Opoku’s well-intentioned appeals and by extension on the broader issue of African cultural heritage claims was pretty contemptible. He knows that Dr Opoku is not arguing for an impoverishment of the Metropolitan’s collections, but such is the need to score cheap points…

The recent UNESCO conference in Athens called for a fresh approach to cultural heritage issues, for dialogue without prejudice and preconditions. Here is an example of how instead things can rapidly descend into mutual suspicion, personal attack and counter-attack. If we proceed in this vein it is not only cultural heritage claims that will suffer, but the museums themselves by eroding the pact of trust that exists between the institution and its public.

The Met was recently forced to adapt its position over the Euphronios krater, which led to an exchange of other objects that otherwise might not have happened. Perhaps if the Met looked more sympathetically on the Nigerian issue, those Nok, Ife and Benin pieces to which Mr De Montebello refers might then be forthcoming. But it won’t happen without friendly dialogue.

(De Montebello photo source: www.nytimes.com/2007/07/29/arts/design/29mcgr.html)






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