Museum Security Network

kwame opoku: DOES THE REQUEST FOR THE RETURN OF STOLEN ART OBJECTS CONSTITUTE A DECLARATION OF WAR?

From: kwame opoku [mailto:k.opoku@sil.at]
Maybe because I come from a country which has not been noted for warfare and aggressive actions, and does not see itself as permanently involved in wars, it is somewhat difficult for me to understand the vocabulary and metaphors of war which others use as their daily vocabulary for communication on many matters, including issues related to culture. Thus the article by Lee Rosenbaum in the Los Angeles Times of January 21, 2008, entitled, “Make art loans, not war”, presented me some problems of understanding and appreciation.

In many countries, a request for the return of stolen or illegally acquired objects is regarded as a matter for the law and lawyers as well as other negotiators. Some American museums have recently returned to Italy stolen cultural artefacts found in their possession and have been applauded for doing the right thing. Rosenbaum apparently regards this as the conclusion of a successful war: “To the victor in the cultural-property wars belong the spoils”. The American museums involved and the Italian government did not see themselves as engaging in warfare but in doing what was legally and morally required. (www.afrikanet.info/)

Continuing with her military metaphors, Lee Rosenbaum declares:
“Now that source countries have forcefully asserted their claims, the time has come to make loans, not war. Everyone wins when cultural objects are internationally disseminated, studied and appreciated. Even objects that came into the custody of American museums through questionable means should be allowed to remain here on long-term loan, in recognition of the principle that art lovers everywhere should have the opportunity to admire the best of world art. The ownership, but not the venue, of these objects should change, and laws like Italy’s — which limits international loans to four years — should be relaxed. The 15 Italy-bound pieces of Hellenistic silver that will remain at the Met until 2010 are now labelled “Lent by the Republic of Italy.” Why not allow them to stay where they are?”

This statement deserves several comments and we shall begin with the last sentence because it shows how little many Americans and Europeans understand
the nature of the demands for repatriation of cultural objects by the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin American. Many of the stolen cultural objects cannot simply be left where they are even if the owners agree finally to donate or, lend some of them. It is clear that some of the Benin bronzes which represent records of Benin history cannot be left where they are. Similarly, those objects which symbolized power and authority of our rulers and those objects the seizure of which symbolized the end or defeat of the African ruler or dynasty cannot be left where they are. The golden sandals of the Asantehene, King Kofi Karikari (Ghana) and the other gold items cannot be left in the Wallace Collection in London for ever. These are not just art objects, as Lee Rosenbaum may think. Many embody the unity and the spirit of the particular African people. These objects have to be returned even if symbolically so that our peoples see and feel that the long exile of their gods and kings has ended. There will have to be a ceremony or several ceremonies where the objects are physically or symbolically handed over by the British, French, German , Austrian or American representatives to the Benin or Nigerian or other representative concerned. Some of the Benin objects in the British Museum may have to travel from Bloomsbury to the Victoria Embankment, London and return. It should be noted that the repatriation of cultural artefacts is not simply the return of goods but the beginning of a healing process for both the victors and the defeated, for the aggressors and the victims. Unless this healing process which may take various forms is taken seriously, the relations of the West and the rest of the world will always continue to be problematic. There is no way of getting rid overnight of complexes that have grown over centuries of wars, aggression and oppression. The collective memories of various African peoples are still alive with recollections of the oppressive colonial and slave periods. These have to be addressed.
Lee Rosembaum writes as if restitution of these objects had been accepted by all and that the majority of the claims for restitution have been settled:
“Now that the source countries have forcefully asserted their claims, the time has come to make loans, not war”.
There has not been any where massive restitution. The British Museum, the Louvre, Musée Guimet, Musée de Quai Branly, the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, the Pergamon Museum, and even the Metropolitan Museum have all not made any massive restitution. So how can anybody say that “the time has come to make loans, not war?” Besides why should those who have been deprived of their cultural objects even think, at this stage, of making loans of the same objects to those who have been keeping them and still even today largely refuse to consider the issue of restitution? Is Rosenbaum serious? How can she make this astonishing suggestion?

“Even objects that came into custody of American museums through questionable means should be allowed to remain here on long-term loan, in recognition of the principle that art lovers everywhere should have the opportunity to admire the best of world art. The ownership, but not the venue, of these objects should change…”
Has the commentator abandoned all morality and decency? Does she really expect the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America to agree to this? I think she is also mixing “ownership” and “possession”. Those holding stolen items and illegally acquired objects may be in “possession” of them but they are surely not the “owners.” When she writes about “art lovers everywhere”, she is, like Phillipe de Montebello, only thinking of art lovers in London, Paris and New York. Art lovers in Bamako, Lagos, Accra and Dakar are not considered. They can travel thousands of miles to New York and London. (technorati.com/blogs/aachronym.blogspot.com)
Rosenbaum has not said a word about compensation for those whose cultural objects have been detained by the rich museums; she writes about loans but does not indicate whether these are loans with no costs involved. Would these loans be retroactive or not? What does she offer the countries seeking restitution? Or does she think having our cultural objects displayed in New York, London, Paris and Berlin constitute sufficient compensation? Maybe she has not reached that point yet as has been suggested. ( http://tom-flynn.blogspot.com/2008/01/post-euphronios-approaches-to-cultural.html
Rosenbaum and those who write on the issue of restitution should remember that their writings will be read by others in many countries who do not accept without question such suggestions which are obviously made for the benefit of museums and other institutions in Europe and America.

Many persons recognize now that there is a need for fundamental changes in relations between western countries and the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America with regard to the thousands of cultural objects illegally acquired or stolen. Proposals on this issue should be seen to be fair to all sides and above all, be seen to make amends for the past injustices or al least not to continue in the same line. But can western commentators make the paradigmatic change required? Rosenbaum and others could also make a useful contribution in this respect. If only they think of the feelings and interests of others outside Europe and the United States.

Kwame Opoku, Vienna,
24 January, 2008.

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