Museum Security Network


I become slightly nervous these days when I see an article or a note on the question of restitution of art signed by a European or American museum director, wondering whether we are going to read something that the normal person can understand even if he does not quite accept the argumentation or whether we will be faced with a statement that is so astonishing that one wonders whether we are living in the same world as the museum director. When I read the article, “Whose culture is it? Museums and the collection of antiquities” by Phillipe de Montebello, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York, in The Berlin Journal, (Fall 2007, No.15, pp.33-37.) – I had the impression that there was no ground for anxiety or nervousness. I was reading a normal article which I may or may not like. But at the end of article came the shock.

The director of The Metropolitan Museum of Arts ends his article with the following revealing conclusions:

As Neil McGregor, the director of the British Museum has often said very persuasively, the Greekness of Greek art at the museum is doubly clear because the art of Egypt and Sumer are available just ten steps away for comparison. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued, the treasures in the world’s major museums belong to an international, cosmopolitan society. Our museums are a kind of cultural family tree on whose branches all of us can find ourselves. It would be an odd world indeed if we had to travel to the remotest corners of the earth in order to see art.

Does the author seriously believe that in answer to a Greek who is demanding the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, one can pacify him or her with the answer that Greek art can be better seen in the British Museum because next to the stolen Greek art he is reclaiming there is also the stolen Egyptian art which clearly brings out the outstanding characteristics of Greek art? That the comparative or contrasting study is best done in London and not in Athens or Cairo? Will anyone dare to tell the people of Benin that the craftsmanship of the stolen Benin bronzes is better appreciated when seen in contrast and comparison to the stolen Ife or stolen Baule pieces in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin?Whom did the museum director seek to convince with this reasoning?

Was he perhaps addressing himself only to the converted? What should one say about the statement that: “the treasures in the world’s major museums belong to an international, cosmopolitan society”? I thought until now that the argument had been that those treasures belonged to the whole world but now I read that they belong to an “international, cosmopolitan society”.

Does this society include the people of Benin and the people ofKumasi? Do the museum officials even know where Kumasi is? Will the people of the Sahel region realize that they are part of an international, cosmopolitan society? As for the “cultural family tree”, it is probably better not to say anything about it.

For in no time in the history of the world have the African peoples been made to feel they were not part of mankind as much as in the 19th and 20th Centuries, in the heydays of colonialism when most of the plunder of African art took place and the so-called world museums, The British Museum in London, The Louvre in Paris, the Ethnology Museum in Berlin, and a host of others were filled with looted African art treasures which they stubbornly refuse to return. Our own days have seen the increased racism which prevents Africans from entering Europe where governments have set up an army, Frontext, with the sole purpose of preventing African refugees from entering Europe. What kind of family is that?

I do not know in what sense the word “cosmopolitan” is used in this context. Most people understand by “cosmopolitan” a person belonging to more than one nation, speaking several languages or at home in several countries. These would normally be the rich, those who have houses in London, apartments in Paris and perhaps a country house in Portugal; the kind of person who eats breakfast in London, lunch in Paris and spends the evening in Berlin. I have not heard it used with reference to the cowherds who spend some days in Ghana and move on to Burkina Faso or Togo, moving through different cultures and using different languages; they may drink Coca Cola, have a mobile phone and occasionally, even eat Italian pizza.

The cosmopolitans will normally be Europeans or Americans and most often, well-educated and well-connected but will this description necessarily apply to our average man from Kwadaso or Sururele? Or does the ordinary man from Accra or Lagos not count? Will it apply to Africans who have to apply for every short visit to France, Britain or Germany and are usually treated as undesirables by the various European and American embassies and consulates in the world? There is not a single European government that will grant a visa to an African whose sole purpose is to visit a museum in London, Paris or Berlin.

Do the treasures in the museums no longer belong to the ordinary, Baule, Edo or Yoruba or Zulu whose ancestors produced these objects stolen by the colonialists? The museum director must explain to us what he means.

The museum director declares with confidence that “It would be an odd world indeed if we had to travel to the remotest corners of the earth in order to see its art”. What a remarkable statement from a museum director in whose museum there are objects from every corner of the world. When the objects were being collected nobody seemed to have been concerned that they were from the “remotest corners of the earth”. The means of transportation and communications were not all that very developed in those days compared to our modern facilities and yet we are being told there are “remote corners of the earth”. Are there “remotest corners” in Europe and the USA or are they all in Africa, Asia and Latin America? Does “remotest” depend on where we are or is this all measured from London or New York?

In other words, is the usual Eurocentricism at work here? The kind of ideology that proclaims certain peoples and their arts as “primitive” and forever “primitive” even though the Europeans are spending considerable force and resources in collecting their works and imitating them or copying their style or deriving inspiration from the same works in order to be modern? I have heard the argument that in this age of internet and good communi-cations, the whole world is connected and that it does not really matter where art objects are located. Apparently, not all museum directors share this view. This argument seems to apply only when the art objects are located in London and New York.

Is the Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which signed the infamous Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums (2002) renouncing here the principle “that museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation?” It seems in the end that the so-called Universal Museums are only universal in the sense that they have stolen objects from the “remotest corners of the earth.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Arts is one of those museums that recently returned to Italy art objects which had been stolen from Italy. This return violates the basic principle underlying the infamous Declaration, i.e., not to return any stolen or looted art object to its place of origin. Having taken this step in favour of Italy, which may or may not be “remotest corner of the earth”, depending on where one may be standing, will he and his colleagues finally start seriously considering returning some of the stolen African art objects back to Africa which is not very far from Italy, depending on where one is standing?

It is noticeable that the director of a museum which boasts of some of the finest pieces of African art did not mention even once in an article dealing with restitution or repatriation, African art. Does the museum not include African antiquities under the designation antiquities? Is this a reflection of the usual Euro-American arrogance towards Africans and of the belief that we will never dare to ask Western Europe and the USA for the return of our art objects? If so, they are making a serious mistake. Or is this a confirmation of the belief of many European and American museum directors that these museums are doing Africans a great favour by keeping our cultural objects? It is true that the writer mentions Egyptian art but following the false ideas of Hegel and co, many Europeans and Americans do not consider Egypt as part of Africa and consequently, Egyptian art, in their opinion, does not fall into the category of African Art.(1)

Kwame Opoku, 4 January,2008. (1)The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, follows this Hegelian line in the organization of its art objects. Thus it has a Department of Egyptian Art which is for Egyptian Art. All other art works from the rest of Africa are in the Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Thus Africa as a continent is not recognized as a concept for the learned museum specialists. It seems the arts of the rest of Africa have nothing in common with Egyptian art. It seems the museum directors of Europe and America have arrogated to themselves the right to define what is African and what is not. Kwame Nkrumah and Gamal Abdel Nasser thought Egypt was in Africa and admitted Egypt as one of the founding States of the OUA and now, the African Union. Anwar Sadat and Hosini Mubarak have kept Egypt in the African family of nations. Were they mistaken, not realizing perhaps that the culture of the Pharaohs is better located somewhere outside Africa and not in proximity to Sudan, Mauritania, Somalia, Senegal and Mali?

This is a question we will take up elsewhere. Here it suffices to state that this is basically one of the many racist distinctions that Europeans have tried to introduce into African affairs.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: