IS ICOM BECOMING AN INSTRUMENT OF THE SO-CALLED UNIVERSAL MUSEUMS? COMMENTS ON STATEMENT BY DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF ICOM THAT PARTHENON/ELGIN MARBLES SHOULD STAY IN THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Those who have been following discussions on questions of restitution and preservation of cultural objects know the high esteem in which the International Council of Museums (ICOM) is held by many. (1) Most of us believe that this non-governmental organization has rendered extremely useful service to the world of museums by its activities and standard-setting instruments such as the Code of Ethics for Museums and the ICOM Red List. (2).The organization has demonstrated its will to maintain a fair balance between the interests of the museums in countries where looted artefacts are found and those countries that strive for the restitution of their national heritage. This delicate balance in an area of political, economic, cultural and psychological complexities runs the risk of being upset if the recent statement attributed to Julien Anfruns, Director-General of ICOM, is an indication of thinking in the organization.
A statement on the Parthenon Marbles attributed to the Director-General of ICOM, appears to put in great danger all the efforts achieved so far by ICOM in maintaining equality and fairness towards its members from different countries. According to the Spanish journal, La Nueva España, Julien Anfruns declared that the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles should stay in London:
“Julien Anfruns, director general of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), explained that “these pieces still give rise to misunderstandings”, and in this regard that, “had the transfer never happened who knows if we would be able to see these pieces today at all.”
“Greece formed part of the Ottoman Empire, it was not an independent country, there did not exist a consciousness that art encompassed the roots of a nation.”Anfruns concluded “that at least one thing is sure: Elgin’s bequest can be seen in the British Museum today”. (3) Anfruns has conveniently forgotten the damage done to the Parthenon Marbles by the use of wrong cleaning chemicals. A disaster which even the British Museum has admitted. (4)
Regarding the possibility of returning cultural objects to their countries of origin, the Director-General of ICOM, giving as examples of cultural objects found outside their countries of origin, the Venus de Milo or Samothrace’s Winged Victory, now in the Louvre, concluded that the idea was absurd. He questioned if the idea of return was “to bring together all the Velasquez to Spain, to do the same thing with all the heritage of Egypt?”
Anfruns is reported as saying that: “Tony Blair’s government promoted a law according to which the Elgin pieces cannot leave the United Kingdom”.
Some of these statements are, to put it very mildly, irresponsible. Should a Director-General of ICOM even express publicly his own views on such a controversial question as the legality and legitimacy of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, independently of the views of his organization?
When Anfruns was appointed, the Press Release stated, inter alia: “Along with his managerial and administrative duties at the International Council of Museums, Julian Anfruns will act as its operational and intellectual head through four fundamental missions:
- To act as the spokesperson of ICOM, and to promote the Organisation’s position as a reference for members of the museum community.
- To strengthen the network of museum professionals with the aim of building up the reputation, scope and visibility of ICOM within the museum community.
- To seek financial support from private sponsors and public partners.
- To strengthen the efficiency of ICOM in order to consolidate and improve all services and programmes carried out by the Organisation.”(5)
Can the Director-General of ICOM, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) maintaining formal relations with UNESCO and having a consultative status with the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), totally ignore the positions of the United Nations, UNESCO and the international community as expressed in several resolutions and at the recent Athens Conference on restitution of cultural items to their countries of origin? (6)
How far are the views of Anfruns compatible with Article 4.5 of the Rules of Procedure of the Intergovernmental Committee of UNESCO
this provides that:
“Representatives of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the Organization for Museums, Monuments and Sites of Africa (OMMSA) shall also take part in meetings of the Committee, in an advisory capacity.” (7)
Can ICOM provide unbiased advice to the Committee when its Director-General has publicly taken position in favour of the so-called universal museum? It is well-known that the dispute between Greece and Great Britain on the Parthenon Marbles has been for a long time before the Intergovernmental Committee which seeks ways and means of facilitating bilateral negotiations for the restitution or return of cultural property.
How far are the views of Anfruns compatible with the following ICOM declaration issued in connection with recent Athens Conference?
”There is a need to retrieve consideration of the historical movement since the eighteenth century of an articulation of ‘universal’ values; to trace the important trajectories in political and social philosophy arising from the concept of the dignity of all humankind. Seen in this light, the whole scenography of cultural heritage disputes and property claims brought to the door of museums may be re-cast in different terms from those staked out by the self-styled ‘universal museum’. The claims of those seeking to regain access, control or possession of their cultural heritage may no longer be projected as irritant or aberrant voices speaking from far outside the discourse of universal values, but rather as the extension and fulfilment of these values in today’s world.” (8)
Is the Director-General of ICOM at all conscious of the fact that the Greeks are also members of ICOM and as such should be treated equally in a dispute with the British which has been placed before the United Nations, UNESCO and ICOM? Can ICOM play any useful role when its Director-General declares publicly that he is in favour of one party? Is this compatible with his status as such and in accordance with the statutes of his organization? What role did the ICOM Secretariat, which consists of fairly experienced officials, play in this matter? Could they not restrain their D-G from making such absurd statements which only betray partiality and ignorance in the matter? It is possible that the Director-General did not consult either his Secretariat or the Executive Council of ICOM with regard to his unfortunate statement, even though as the Chief Executive Officer he is responsible to the Council.
However, if the statement of Anfruns is indicative of current thinking in the higher circles of ICOM, its wider implications for restitution cases should be carefully examined. Many institutions and persons will feel that they can no longer rely on the impartiality of ICOM since the current Director-General seems to espouse the discredited and self-serving arguments of museum directors such as Montebello (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Cuno (Art Institute of Chicago) and MacGregor (British Museum, London) that the so-called “universal museums” have a right and duty to retain looted artefacts or artefacts acquired under dubious circumstances.
It is probably not very useful to examine in detail the absurd statements attributed to the Director-General. However, some one in the ICOM Secretariat should explain to him the untenable explanation presented by the British Museum why the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles cannot be returned to Greece. The statement that: “Tony Blair’s government promoted a law according to which the Elgin pieces cannot leave the United Kingdom” is surely misleading. The D-G should also be informed that public opinion polls in Britain have always indicated that the majority of the British people are overwhelmingly spoken in favour of returning the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles to Athens.
The Director’s statements on the new museums in Abu Dhabi are not very helpful in dealing with the question of the Parthenon Marbles. These museums pose different questions and are better left out of discussions on the Parthenon Marbles. (9)
In trying to explain the historical circumstances under which the Parthenon Marbles were taken from Athens, Anfruns declared that: “Greece formed part of the Ottoman Empire, it was not an independent country, there did not exist a consciousness that art constituted the roots of a nation.” Is the Director-General trying to argue that previous ages were not conscious or aware that art of a particular people or nation belonged to that group? Such an argument can be used to justify the deprivation of many groups of their arts if such a level of consciousness, presumably attributed only to modern European nations, were applied to many demands for restitution.
As regards the diversionary argument, now bereft of any force, about what would have happened, if Elgin had not removed the marbles from Athens, Anfruns is reported as saying that we can at least see these pieces in the British Museum. The vandalism involved in forcibly removing these marbles from their original location and the destruction involved in the process, as well as the ensuing dispersion of parts of a unity are ignored. (10) We do not want to indulge in speculations but it is probable that if these Parthenon Marbles had not been removed by Elgin they would not now be in London and most probably would be with rest of the friezes in Athens.
We can hardly believe that a Director-General of ICOM would make such statements. If he has been wrongly cited or quoted out of context, we urge him to make available to the public the complete text of his statement in Spanish and English since the views attributed to him will in the long run only do damage to ICOM. The Director-General could have looked at Article 6 of the ICOM Code of Ethics which would have cautioned him from making such statements. (11)
It could of course be that this is part of a long-term strategy by supporters of the so-called universal museums to trivialize the discussions on restitution so that the public loses interest and thus fails to appreciate important implications of the issue. We have had recently the absurd spectacle of a director of a respectable museum on the other side of the Atlantic persistently refusing to recognize the difference between “unification” and “reunification” and thus avoiding examining the question of the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles at Athens. After the New Acropolis Museum was opened, a director of a famous museum in London who did not attend the opening simply declared that the question of the location of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles is a question of the past. He added that the most important issue now was how the British and Greeks could enable the Africans and the Chinese to see these Marbles. About the same time, a famous former director of a well-known museum in New York wondered what kind of world it would be if those interested in Greek art had to go to Athens, instead of London or New York.
All this may remind readers of the infamous Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums (1982) by which the big Western museums declared that the looted artefacts from Africa, Asia and elsewhere now in their museums had become part of the culture of the countries where they are located; they also affirmed their intention not to return the looted objects except in limited cases. At that time senior officials at ICOM vigorously rejected the claims of the large museums. (12) Now it appears the Director-General of ICOM has adopted the discredited claims of the “universal museums”.
Could all the absurd statements from intelligent and well-educated museum directors be by accident? Have we entered the age of the absurdity when some persons feel they can say anything which suits their interests and ignore history and public opinion? Or are we in the age of duplicity where the same person takes different positions on a subject depending on the audience he is talking to?
Kwame Opoku, 28 September, 2009
1. K. Opoku, “Let others loot for you,” http://www.modernghana.com
3. El Partenón está en Londres, La Nueva España, Aviles edition, 18 September 2009 http://www.lne.es/aviles/2009/09/18/aviles-partenon-londres/809714.html
A request to the ICOM Secretariat for copy of the text of the statement by the D-G has so far not even been acknowledged.
4. See the Annex below.
5. ICOM Press Release – Appointment of Julien Anfruns as New Director General of ICOM, 29 September, 2008, http://icom.museum/release_DG
6. See UN resolution of 2006 the “Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin” http://unbisnet.un.org . Athens Conference http://www.unesco.org
7. INTERGOVERNMENTAL COMMITTEE FOR PROMOTING THE RETURN OF CULTURAL PROPERTY TO ITS COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN OR ITS RESTITUTION IN CASE OF ILLICIT APPROPRIATION, http://portal.unesco.org
9. K. Opoku, “ Stolen Art Objects from one “Universal Museum” – Louvre Paris to another – Louvre Abu Dhabi?” http://www.modernghana.com
10. Readers may find it useful to read the following books on the Parthenon Marbles: Mary Beard, The Parthenon, Profile Books, London, 2004;
Christopher Hitchens, The Parthenon Marbles, Verso, London, 2008;
Jenifer Neils, The Parthenon Frieze, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.
11. Article 6 of the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums provides as follows:
Museums work in close collaboration with the communities from which their collections originate as well as those they serve
Principle: Museum collections reflect the cultural and natural heritage of the communities from which they have been derived. As such they have a character beyond that of ordinary property which may include strong affinities with national, regional, local, ethnic, religious or political identity. It is important therefore that museum policy is responsive to this possibility.
ORIGIN OF COLLECTIONS
Museums should promote the sharing of knowledge, documentation and collections with museums and cultural organisations in the countries and communities of origin. The possibility of developing partnerships with museums in countries or areas that have lost a significant part of their heritage should be explored.
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.
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.
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.
RESPECT FOR COMMUNITIES SERVED
6.5 Contemporary Communities
Where museum activities involve a contemporary community or its heritage, acquisitions should only be made based on informed and mutual consent without exploitation of the owner or informants. Respect for the wishes of the community involved should be paramount.
6.6 Funding of Community Facilities
When seeking funds for activities involving contemporary communities, their interests should not be compromised.
6.7 Use of Collections from Contemporary Communities
Museum usage of collections from contemporary communities requires respect for human dignity and the traditions and cultures that use such material. Such collections should be used to promote human well-being, social development, tolerance, and respect by advocating multisocial, multicultural and multilingual expression.
6.8 Supporting Organisations in the Community
Museums should create a favourable environment for community support (e.g., Friends of Museums and other supporting organisations), recognise their contribution and promote a harmonious relationship between the community and museum personnel.
12. K. Opoku, “ From Universal Museums to Universal Heritage Museums: Is the ICOM (Iinternational Council of Museums) seeking to Legitimize and Legalize Stolen African Art Objects in European and American Museums?” http://marystevens.wordpress.com K. Opoku, Benin and Other African Art Works to be Declared Universal?World Heritage? http://www.museum-security.org
Since much of the justification advanced by the by the British Museum for keeping the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles is based on its ability to protect and preserve the friezes in London, it may interest the reader to read a little more about the damages the sculptures have suffered under British protection.
High Beam Research
LONDON (AP) _ The British Museum, which has acknowledged “over-cleaning” the Elgin Marbles, said Monday it is inviting international experts to inspect the damage to the 2,500-year-old sculptures.
In a book _ “Lord Elgin and the Marbles,” _ published Monday, historian William St. Clair wrote that the ancient Greek sculptures had been cleaned with metal scrapers in an effort to whiten them, irreparably damaging the patina in places.
The museum, which admits some of the marbles were cleaned too zealously with copper scrapers and caustic agents in the 1930s, denies St. Clair’s charge that it covered up the damage.
New World Encyclopedia
To facilitate transport, the column capital of the Parthenon and many metopes and slabs were sawn and sliced into smaller sections. One shipload of marbles on board the British brig Mentor was caught in a storm off Cape Matapan and sank near Kythera, but was salvaged at the Earl’s personal expense; it took two years to bring them to the surface.
While the artifacts were held in London, unlike those remaining on the Parthenon, have been saved from the hazards of pollution, neglect, and war, they have also been irrevocably damaged by the unauthorized “cleaning” methods employed by British Museum staff in the 1930s, who were dismissed
when this was discovered. Acting under the erroneous belief that the marbles were originally bright white, the marbles were cleaned with copper tools and caustics, causing serious damage and altering the marbles’ coloring. (The Pentelicon marble on which the carvings were made naturally acquires a tan color similar to honey when exposed to air.) In addition, the process scraped away all traces of surface coloring that the marbles originally held, but more regrettably, the detailed tone of many carvings were lost forever. The British Museum held an internal inquiry and the officers responsible ceased museum employment. However, the extent of any possible damage soon became exaggerated in heated controversy. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org
The cleaning of the Parthenon Sculptures in 1938
In early 1939 there was press interest in rumours that unauthorized methods were used during the process of cleaning the Parthenon sculptures for display in the newly constructed Duveen Gallery (Room 18).
Contemporary reports, both official and unofficial, indicate that copper chisels and carborundum (silicon carbide) were used in addition to the recommended water and soap on some of the sculptures. As a result, the British Museum held an internal enquiry and the officers responsible ceased Museum employment.
An official statement was issued to the press on 18 May 1939 and questions were asked in Parliament. The Trustees resolved to publish a full report on the effects of the cleaning, but the outbreak of World War II intervened. The issue was for the most part forgotten within the academic community until the 1980s and 1990s. On 30 November and 1 December 1999 the British Museum held a scholarly conference as part of its series of Classical Colloquia. This addressed the visual and documentary evidence for the cleaning with the aim of determining how and to what extent the surface of the sculpture may have been changed. It also looked at wider issues concerning the history and theory of conservation. http://www.britishmuseum.org Ian Jenkins, Cleaning and Controversy: The Parthenon Sculptures 1811-1939 http://www.britishmuseum.org
Museum admits ‘scandal’ of Elgin Marbles http://news.bbc.co.uk
Revealed: how rowdy schoolboys knocked a leg off one of the Elgin Marbleshttp://www.telegraph.co.uk
British damage to Elgin marbles ‘irreparable’
Daily Telegraph exposes extent of damage to Elgin Marbles in British Museum