Last week’s UNESCO conference in Athens on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin was intended to draw attention to the issue of the London-based Parthenon Marbles. Instead, news reports of last week’s conference were dominated by yet more column inches on the Iraq War. (International Herald Tribune; ArtInfo; FoxKMPH; Guardian; Museum Security Network; etc., etc.)This was largely due to the presence at the conference of the oddly charismatic figure of U.S. Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, (above left) head of the investigation into looting at Iraq’s National Museum (which remains closed). The broader issues surrounding cultural property elsewhere in the world are now arguably at a more critical point than ever before, with more and more countries calling for restitution of significant objects from European and North American museums. But such matters remain of limited interest to the media, which remains fixated on the aftermath of the Iraq War. At every coffee break and lunch interval in Athens the press pack descended on Colonel Bogdanos as if he were Harrison Ford.It is true that the looting of ancient sites in Iraq has reached catastrophic levels and Colonel Bogdanos has indeed emerged as something of an Indiana Jones figure, albeit playing a minor role in a horrific war movie directed by Donald Rumsfeld. Some of us will never forget hearing Rumsfeld commenting at a press conference on the looting from the Iraq Museum:
“The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, ‘My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?’ “
In the sequel to the movie he would surely be saying: “My goodness, were there that many insurgents? Is it possible that there were that many insurgents in the whole country?”
Who knows how many of the numerous vases extracted not only from the Iraq Museum but from the country’s archaeological sites have found their way onto the market? Trade associations representing the antiquities dealers who help fuel the illicit trade were conspicuous by their absence from the Athens conference. The upper echelons of the trade have in the past been persuaded to cooperate with new ethical guidelines on provenance, but those who operate further down the food chain are a little more difficult to police.
Meanwhile, at a museum level, awareness of the illicit trade and the need for due diligence over provenance has never been more acute. Most responsible museum curators are now familiar with the ethical guidelines drawn up by UNESCO, ICOM and other organisations. Elsewhere the readiness of the Italian government to resort to the law courts in support of its demands to American museums to return important objects has further concentrated minds.
Italy has put its money where its mouth is in more ways than one. Not only did it undertake to return to Ethiopia the Axum Obelisk looted by Mussolini in 1937, it also provided and paid for the engineering and logistical expertise required to dismantle the monument, thereafter flying it back to Ethiopia and re-erecting it on its original site. It remains one of the most high-profile repatriation cases on file.
The Athens conference heard several similar case studies that together underscored the sea-change that has taken place in cross-cultural cooperation in recent years. The overriding message was that repatriation, far from opening up the so-called ‘floodgates’ to uncontrollable claims on a museum’s material heritage, instead tends to increase the institution’s standing in the world, fostering goodwill and creative cooperation with source communities. Managed properly, repatriation reinvigorates the museum’s mission through new loans and new learning.
Many museums are only now finally coming to terms with the chaotic, uncatalogued embarras de richesses bestowed upon them by the age of empire. While most collections even among so-called ‘universal’ museums remain largely unaudited, the growing clamour from source nations to return objects is providing an opportunity to release objects back into cultures where they will not only be more widely seen but more fully appreciated. This alleviates the curatorial and financial burden on many museums who are already severely cash-strapped and unable to manage their collections.
Such recent positive developments notwithstanding, the Parthenon Marbles remains something of a special case, both to restitutionists and to retentionists. Those arguing against their return often cite the British Museum Act of 1963 as the prohibiting statute. But expert legal opinion at the Athens conference made clear that the Act beneath which the British Museum invariably takes cover whenever the repatriation temperature rises, is by no means an immoveable object. An enlightened British Museum director could easily persuade his board of trustees to repatriate the Marbles were he willing and able to recognise the manifold benefits that repatriation would bring.
However, as long as the British Museum and other universal museums continue to construct their identity upon the notion of universality as inherited from the European Enlightenment, little progress is likely to be made. The Universal Museum model (enshrined in the now infamous Declaration on the Value of Universal Museums) is based on the notion that the world can only be coherently explained from a single-point perspective in which objects are shown juxtaposed with objects from other cultures. This is baloney. The true universal significance of the Parthenon Marbles as a gift to universal humanity can only be fully realised in Athens alongside the other surviving parts of the frieze to which they are related.
One has only to step into the new Acropolis Museumto understand with absolute clarity that Athens is the Marbles’ rightful home. To keep them in the crepuscular gloom of the British Museum and by doing so to force the Greeks to replace them with replicas in their own new museum is nothing short of scandalous.