Museum Security Network

PROTEST BY OFFICIALS AT THE FRENCH BIBLIOTHÈQUE NATIONAL AT REPATRIATION OF LOOTED DOCUMENTS BACK TO KOREA.

I  assume the official at the French Bibliothèque National are conscious of what they are doing and are aware of the implications of their stand of the return of the looted manuscripts back to Korea.

One is surprised at the very feeble arguments presented for their opposition to the decision by Sarkozy to return the manuscript to Korea:

“It should not be forgotten that copies of most of these manuscripts exist in Korea”

That copies of the manuscript exist in Korea is no argument against the return of the original to the country of origin. The French could also make copies before the originals are returned to Korea. Or are copies only good for Korea, the land that produced the originals but not for France,the land that took them away by military force?

That “the decision was taken against the advice of the Bibliothèque and of the Ministry of Culture” raises issues of competence and authority that can be settled by French lawyers and the courts. This contention does not affect at all the juridical situation regarding the ownership of the manuscripts as far as Korea is concerned.

The argument that the decision

“is sure to strenghten the increasingly sustained claims for the return of cultural property that various countries are making to the archives, museums and libraries in France, Europe, and beyond.”

This may be so but Korea and other States that are claiming the return of artefacts looted from their countries do not need such decision to bolster up their claims. These demands have been made over decades are no novel issues. This is an old argument that if you give in here others will also come and claim their stolen objects. Does the Bibliothèque consists only of looted objects or objects of dubious acquisition?

“- the decision demonstrates the growing and worrying subordination of the law and heritage policy to politic economic and geostrategic considerations, at the risk of threatening the principle of inalienability in respect of public collections.

With all due respect to the protesters, the French should be the last to make such an argument for nowhere else  are politics, economics, and geostrategic so intertwined with such considerations as in France. Think of the establishment of the Musee du quai Branly, the  Bibliothèque National François Mitterrand and all the various cultural institutions that have been built on political considerations. The very names of these institutions show the political motivations at work.

“The risk of threatening the principle of inalienability in respect of public collections.”

This is no doubt a useful and necessary principle in preserving national cultural property but where it is clearly established that the objects have been stolen or looted, surely that principle should not apply. In any case,, there is a procedure under French law for seeking a modification by application to the Minister of culture as has been done recently in the case of certain Egyptian artefacts and also in the case of human remains that were returned to South Africa and also the Maori heads that wre returned to the Maoris, in New Zealand..

The protesters should be reminded that in several United Nations and UNESCO resolutions and Conferences, holding countries have been urged to return cultural objects to their country of origin.

ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums – 2001 Edition

Provides that:

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.

The Bibliotheque should have followed these principles in handling the Korean manuscripts.

We have always maintained the view that if museums and libraries would not seek to arrive at acceptable compromises with countries of origin of artefacts, the politicians will eventually step in and act in a way that may not please the specialists but will solve the issue. This is what has happened. Are the French museums and libraries going to learn from the case of the Korean manuscripts and act before politicians intervene in the other pending claims from the African, Asian and American States?

One has the impression that the protesters have forgotten the natural and logical interest of the Koreans in their manuscripts. It may also be questioned on what moral basis the French officials are protesting in a matter in which return is the honourable solution.  The protest does not show any concern for the Koreans even though the protesters write about the Bibliothèque  “demonstrating its high regard for the heritage of all civilizations across the world and its desire to make this heritage available to everyone. A high regard for all civilizations should move all to support the claims of the Koreans to recover their manuscripts taken away by brutal military force

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