Dr. Kwame Opoku Comments on:
CAN ONE CONTINUE FOREVER OFFERING WEAK AND BASELESS ARGUMENTS?
“At issue, however, is not only the legality of the purchase but the precedent any return would set for museums around the world. The British Museum has long argued that it would encourage dozens of other countries to claim objects on display there, effectively stripping one of the world’s greatest museums of all its treasures.”
It is really depressing to realize that the British Museum and its supporters are advancing such weak and baseless arguments decade after decade and through this repetition some intelligent persons even begin to entertain the argument. It is absolutely untenable and only has the advantage for the British Museum that once it advances this argument, it needs not bother about the specific case at issue.
When Benin asks for some of its bronzes back, it is told if we give you some bronzes back, the Greeks will also ask for the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and so we do not want to set a precedent which will end up by emptying the British Museum.
First of all, the Benin bronzes and the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles are not the same in materials, nature, history and functions. We do not need to amalgamate two different claims with different histories and constituencies. The one might be easier to fulfil than the other.
Secondly, the Greeks are asking for the Marbles not because Benin is also asking for its bronzes and vice versa. The claims are independent of each other.
Thirdly, the argument really comes down to this; a person steals your Mercedes
and when you ask him to return it, he says he cannot give you your Mercedes back because in addition to your car, he has also stolen Peugeot, Volkswagen, Toyota, Bentley, Ferrari and other cars from other persons. He do not want to set a precedent otherwise his garage will be empty. Can one offer as a defence or justification the fact that one may have committed other violations? Can one wrong be utilised as argument for not correcting another wrong?
Fourthly, the argument that the British Museum would soon be empty is the figment of the imagination of nervous directors who are not prepared to examine carefully the needs and arguments of owners of looted/stolen artefacts or objects acquired under dubious circumstances. Nobody wants to empty the British Museum of all its objects. Not even Zahi Hawass wants all the Egyptian artefacts returned since some, we suppose, have been acquired under perfectly legal conditions. Indeed even in those cases, such as the Benin bronzes which where the objects came mainly from looting, the owners have not asked for the return of all. They have repeatedly emphasized they want some back. Instead of sitting down with the original owners to discuss what precisely should be returned and the conditions for return, the British Museum seems to prefer not to discuss at all. Indeed, many a museum director does not even bother to acknowledge receipt of such claims. We are still being told that the Greeks have not made a formal demand or proposal. How formal should the Greek proposal be? And why does the British Museum itself not take the initiative to make reasonable proposals to the Greeks, as the United Nations, UNESCO and the ICOM Code of Ethics would require?
Finally, does the British Museum regard itself as a citadel of looted/stolen objects? Why do the officials of the museum always act as if they were under siege?
None of us want the venerable museums to be emptied. That would be a disaster for all those genuinely interested in culture and cultural objects. What most of us want is recognition by the museum that the world has changed and with this change, some of the objects acquired under dubious circumstances will have to be returned.
Does the museum believe at all in international co-operation? Or does it accept co-operation only when it does not involve the return of objects?