RETURN OF THE ROSETTA STONE TO EGYPT: LIMITS TO THE GREED OF THE SELF-STYLED UNIVERSAL MUSEUMS.
| “Generally speaking, it is clear that cultural property is most important to the people who created it or for whom it was created or whose particular identity and history is bound up with it. This cannot be compared with the scholastic or even inspirational influence on those who merely acquire such objects or materials. The current arguments about the retention of major objects on the grounds of scholarship are no longer tenable. In most cases the task of learning has been satisfied, as for example with the Rosetta stone, whose hieroglyphics have already been deciphered. The Parthenon and its marbles continue their hold on the imagination but they no longer have a revelatory significance for the twentieth-century Europe. The continued scholastic value of keeping the marbles in Britain is debatable and most scholars would probably welcome their return to Greece or at least not oppose it. Scholasticism can be a high-sounding motive for a selfish and unrelated purpose.” |
Jeanette Greenfield (1)
Since the British seized the Rosetta Stone, considered by scholars as having been very crucial to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics, from the French on the defeat of Napoleon's army in 1801, they cannot claim any right greater than that of the French, except if you concede that the powerful can take whatever they like from any country. The Egyptians never consented to such a seizure or removal. The capitulation agreement, the Treaty of Alexandria (1801), was an agreement between the victorious British and the defeated French. The surrender, resulting in the seizure of Egyptian artefacts under the control of the French, some allowed to be taken to Paris and others, including the Rosetta Stone, taken to Britain, was an affair between two European imperialist powers at the cost of an African country, not recognized by either combatant State as equal partner at the International Law level.
Roy Clare declares that “… it's not about keeping the objects, but sharing their stories. The ownership of particular artefacts is now far less significant than the fact that people can enjoy them, be enlightened, entertained and brought closer to a real understanding of the inheritance that binds us all. And nowhere is that better achieved than in the galleries of the British Museum”.
When you have looted, stolen and dubiously acquired thousands of cultural objects of others, it is perfectly understandable that you are not interested in discussing the keeping of objects but rather in telling stories about them. The British Museum and its director, Neil MacGregor are very good in telling stories. But those from the aggrieved countries where these object were seized are more interested in their histories rather than in stories fabricated by those who now feel they need stories, in the face of constant demands by owners for restitution. They also obliged to convince their own people of the necessity of keeping foreign artefacts which, despite several decades in the museums, have not become part of their culture.
To state that “the British Museum is an impressive proponent of international cultural dialogue” may impress the ignorant. How many objects has the British Museum returned to their countries of origin as required by several United Nations and UNESCO resolutions and conferences? How many British cultural objects (as opposed to looted or seized objects of others) has the British Museum exchanged with other countries or institutions? The requests, for example, by the people of Benin to have back some of the bronzes looted by the British in 1897 in the notorious Punitive Expedition has been treated with incredible disdain and contempt by the British Museum and other Western museums, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Field Museum, Chicago and the Ethnology Museum, Berlin
What the community of nations now requires is the possibility for all peoples to develop their own cultures with their own cultural objects without interference and impediment by erstwhile colonial powers. This implies at least the necessity to return some of stolen/looted and illegitimately acquired objects that now fill Western museums and putting a definite end to the nefarious colonial era and its practices of detaining cultural objects of subjugated peoples. A-M. M'Bow, former Director-General of UNESCO has correctly affirmed that
“The return of a work of art or record to the country which created it enables a people to recover part of its memory and identity, and proves that the long dialogue between civilizations which shapes the history of the world is still continuing in an atmosphere of mutual respect between nations”. (4)
With specific reference to Egypt, Westerners should be ashamed to be seen or heard arguing with Egypt over any particular Egyptian cultural artefact. They have collected thousands of Egyptian objects. The number of museums in Britain as well as other Western States with collections of Egyptian artefacts is indeed impressive. (5) The British Museum alone has some 110,000 objects. (6) How many British cultural artefacts does Egypt have? How many Egyptian towns have collections of British cultural artefacts? Or do the Egyptians not need to know about British culture? Roy Clare declares that:
“Museums and cultural organisations throughout Britain are actively engaged in scholarly exchange with partners around the world – helping to build the global understanding of the world's cultural heritage.” Have the British museums and cultural organizations that are said to be engaged in building “global understanding of the world's cultural heritage” not considered it useful for Egyptians to have easy and direct access to artefacts produced in their own culture and history such as the Rosetta Stone or the bust of Nefertiti? What is global understanding worth when Egyptians, like other Africans and Asians have incredible difficulties in entering the United Kingdom? Would the British accept from a young Egyptian as valid ground for seeking visa to enter London his desire to see the Rosetta Stone? Any schoolboy in Britain can see this Egyptian artefact but not many Egyptians have this possibility. So is global understanding only a one-way affair? The Rosetta Stone which Clare and others are busy trying to convince the world that it is not a symbol of Egyptian culture but of world culture, was described by those who brought it to Britain, according to a publication by the British Museum, as a “proud trophy of the arms of Britain”. (7)
Those who accuse Zahi Hawass and others demanding restitution as nationalists should remember that “The Rosetta Stone still bears nationalistic texts painted on the sides:
CAPTURED IN EGYPT BY THE BRITISH ARMY IN 1901 on the left edge of the slab, and on the right: PRESENTED BY KING GEORGE III. (8)”
Western States - USA, Great Britain, France, Germany and others - are the most nationalistic of all. (9) It is true though that their nationalism has advanced to the stage of imperialism and their attempts to impose their will and world view on other States and peoples have been at the source of several wars in the last 200 years. Their control of sources of information has enabled them to mislead and blind others to the facts of our times. Some even earn Noble Prize for Peace whilst in the very process of increasing their military engagement in the territories of others with consequential loss of lives and the destruction of infrastructures. In the acceptance speech at the seat of the Nobel Prize, the recipient of 2009 had the audacity to proclaim, in front of cameras and televisions, that war is sometimes necessary and some applauded.
Clare writes that: “The trustees of the British Museum could decide to loan it [Rosetta Stone] out – although to date, no such request has been received – but their deliberations would take account of the conditions in which the item would be displayed, the risks to its safety and security, and the likelihood of its return. Dr Hawass's recent public statements would also be considered – which could present an unusual backdrop to any judgment the trustees might reach.” Roy Clare is here repeating the well-known contempt of the British Museum for all who dare to seek the return of their cultural objects. The ploy of a possible “loan” was used on the Greeks but it never worked. The Egyptians are now being treated to a tea party of a “loan” of their own cultural artefacts even though Zahi Hawass, the dynamic Secretary-General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, like the Greeks, has rejected this possibility. The sheer impudence and the obvious contradiction involved in stating that an owner of an object has not requested a “loan” should worry everyone. Expressions about conditions in which the work will be displayed as well as its security is a summary of standing arguments that those whose cultural objects are now in the British Museum are incapable of looking after them properly. This argument is unworthy of the British Museum, its officials and their supporters.
Similar arguments were used regarding the Parthenon Marbles but once the Greeks built an ultra modern museum, New Acropolis Museum in Athens, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, declared that the question of location was an issue of the past. (10) Once the new Grand Museum at Giza is finished in 2013, the Egyptians will be informed that the location of the Rosetta Stone was never an issue. The British Museum should be a little more serious in these matters and not belittle the intelligence of those reclaiming their cultural property. Scorn and contempt for others are not necessarily conducive to smooth international cultural cooperation.
Clare states that no request has been made by Egypt for the loan for the Rosetta Stone. He is here resorting to another well-established game of the British Museum. This game is a play of words about whether a request has been made or not even though everybody is arguing about the matter, including Clare himself. The impression is also created that this is a new issue. Egypt's request for the Rosetta Stone goes back several years and has been repeated enough everywhere. Zahi Hawass has repeated often enough the request for the Rosetta Stone as well as for other Egyptian artefacts such as the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin. Yet we are told no request has been made. There is, of course, a difference between loan and straightforward return but the play here is devious and not worthy of the British Museum and its allies.
This game was played as regards the Parthenon Marbles for which the unforgettable Melina Mercouri even went to London in 1985 and earned the insults of the then British Museum director, David Wilson. At some point in the discussions on the Parthenon Marbles, we receive information that the Greeks have not made any request for the loan/return of the Parthenon Marbles. The same game has also been played as regards the Benin Bronzes.
The Nigerian Parliament, the Nigerian Government and the Oba of Benin have all, at one time or other called for the return of some of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Delegations have been sent to the British House of Commons and the records of that legislative body contain the reports of the demand. The late
Bernie Grant, Member of the British Parliament, always reminded that body of the pending case of the Benin Bronzes. In the course of the recent Benin exhibition, delegates from the Benin Royal Family as well as from the Nigerian Government reiterated the demand. The catalogue of that exhibition contains a demand by the Oba of Benin. Yet we have people like MacGregor and others pretending there has been no such demand for the return of the Benin Bronzes. (11)
A similar request was made at the opening of the Benin exhibition at Chicago and the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, James Cuno, was obliged to concede that if a demand were submitted it would be seriously considered. A formal written letter was subsequently submitted on behalf of the Benin Royal Family in 2008 but the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum, Chicago, have not even had the courtesy to acknowledge receipt of the formal letter. (12)
The Germans have also been playing this British game. We have had a senior official of the Berlin Museum denying that Egypt has made any demand for the return of the bust of Nefertiti at the same time that there are announcements
about future meetings between the Germans and Egyptians on the very issue of Nefertiti.
One can only conclude that this misleading game of persistent denials is only intended to confuse the Western public about the true status and nature of the demands for the return of cultural artefacts. The public is deceived into believing that the deprived peoples are not really angry about their cultural objects having been looted/stolen by the colonialists. On the contrary, the impression is created that they are happy that their national treasures are being properly preserved and protected in London, Paris and Berlin, world capitals.
In any case, there is no requirement in either International Law or Municipal Law that the owner of stolen/looted cultural objects must make a formal request for return before the present holder can act. Countless United Nations and UNESCO resolutions have urged the holders of such artefacts to take the initiative and start negotiations for return. This has been reiterated by Athens International Conference on the "Return of Cultural Property to its Country of Origin", 2008. (13) A similar requirement is contained in the ICOM Code of Conduct for Museums. that the British Museum and other Western museums arrogantly disregard. Paragraph 4. 4. of the Code entitled, Return and Restitution of Cultural Property, provides, inter alia, that
“In response to requests for the return of cultural property to the country or people of origin, museums should be prepared to initiate dialogues with an open-minded attitude based on scientific and professional principles (in preference to action at a governmental or political level). In addition the possibility of developing bilateral or multilateral partnerships with museums in countries that have lost a significant part of their cultural or natural heritage should be explored.”
When some writers attempt to present Zahi Hawass as a lonely fighter, somebody out there on an ego trip, they are making a very grave mistake. The famous Egyptian archaeologist is no doubt the most prominent exponent from outside the Western world to articulate the need of many Africans, Asians and others for their cultural objects illegitimately removed during the heyday of Western imperialism. There is definitely a strong desire to recover cultural and religious objects taken to the West as war trophies or as evidence of backward, dominated peoples. A redress of the balance is absolutely necessary and Western intellectuals and politicians would do well to pay heed to this profound desire. Clare writes: “Indeed, the British Museum is an impressive proponent of international cultural dialogue and growth. Its director, Neil MacGregor, has rightly won praise for reaching out to museums threatened by war in Iraq, for example: his expertise, and that of his curators, was of great significance in Baghdad in particular.” Is this statement to be taken seriously? How are Egyptians to understand this example?
Can one offer such an argument to those reclaiming their cultural property from the West? Can one seriously offer such a statement to Egyptians or Nigerians seeking the return of their cultural property from the British Museum? Clare does not explain that the museums in Iraq were threatened by a war launched by Western States including Britain. How can the British Museum be presented as more or less a saviour of the Iraqi National Museum or Iraqi artefacts? We may recall that the British Museum has always been more concerned with ensuring that it has access to the archaeological artefacts of Iraq. (14)
The looting of the Baghdad Museum is often offered by some as a reason why the so-called source countries should not keep all their national treasures in their country since an attack might result in the loss, through looting or destruction, of such objects. It is suggested that these treasures are best kept in the so-called universal museums in London, Chicago, Berlin, Paris and New York. The basic principle here is that we should not keep all our eggs in one basket. This is a fairly intelligent proposition but when we apply it seriously to the museum context, we begin to see the hypocrisy involved and the self-serving nature of the presentation by Western writers and museum directors. Where do we have the greatest accumulation of thousands of precious cultural objects under one roof? Surely, the answer would be London, Paris and Berlin. There are the museums holding looted/stolen treasures of other peoples and nations. A strict application of the idea of not keeping too many treasures at one place should lead to dispersing some of the thousands of accumulated objects in Western museums. However none of those preaching this insurance or security idea has made such a suggestion. Indeed, they use this very argument to justify their unlimited desire for more cultural objects. MacGregor, Montebello, Cuno and others have always argued that since the so-called universal museums have already treasures from all over the world, they are the best places for keeping the Parthenon Marbles and the treasures of others. This is a strange justification for holding on to the property of others. The argument used to deprive others of their treasures, is used to support others holding on to looted/stolen objects or objects illegitimately acquired. Principles are easily bent to serve the interests of Western museums by those we could have expected to be more rigorous in their thinking.
Clare begins his article with the statement: “It's a staple question at dinner parties or job interviews: if your house or office was burning down, what's the one thing you would save? For the staff of the British Museum, the question might seem almost impossible to answer, given the wonderful riches contained in its collection. Yet if you pressed them, they would probably have to admit that the answer would be simple: the Rosetta Stone”. If this mind-game-Gedankenspiel- were modified and transposed to countries in Africa and Asia where people might play it anytime since many may not have any meal in the day, the results might be quite interesting. What cultural object would you like to take from the British Museum, if you had the possibility of doing so? The Rosetta Stone might not necessarily be the first object mentioned because of its dimensions and weight but other objects, such as the Benin bronzes come readily to mind. (15) But supposing a group of young Egyptians thought the Rosetta Stone was what Egyptian culture absolutely required? Should one continue this mind-game any further or return to the concrete issue of the Egyptian request? In this connection, a reflection on how the British Museum obtained its large collection of Egyptian artefacts might indicate caution in such mind-games. (16)
Many of those writing in defence of the retention of cultural property of others do not seem to realize that the world has changed profoundly since the 1940s; they use arguments that basically reinforce imperialist and colonialist positions. They seem unaware that what is being challenged is the hegemony of the former imperialist States and their epistemological pretences and subterfuges. The very claim that London, Paris and Berlin are the better places for keeping stolen/looted cultural artefacts reinforces the suspicion that the successors to imperialist powers are only fighting to maintain the status quo. Who looked after the various artefacts before they were stolen, looted or otherwise illegitimately taken out of the countries of origin? Roy Clare may, like many Westerners, see the British Museum as the natural place for the Rosetta Stone, the Benin bronzes and the thousands of cultural artefacts of others now in the museum. We hope he will understand that not many outside the circle of Western museum officials and their supporters view the situation in the same way.
Western writers should finally wake up to the fact the quest for the restitution of cultural artefacts stolen/looted during the colonialist and imperialist eras is part of a wider struggle to restore the dignity of the erstwhile colonial subjects. The presence of these cultural objects in Western museums constitutes constant painful reminders of our defeat, oppression, subjugation and humiliation at the hands of the former colonial powers. Arguments about London, Berlin and Paris being world centres of culture are further aggravations of the damage and re-opening of the wounds. They also indicate that many Westerners have no idea about slavery, colonialism and imperialism. They write as if colonialism were a mere picnic in the neighbour's garden which disturbed him a little. The massive destruction, dislocation and annihilation Africa experienced in the encounter with Europe, the effects of which are still visible, should indicate to Westerners a less arrogant approach to questions of restitution. But would those sitting comfortably in their undisturbed cultural environments in London, Paris and Berlin, understand the depth of the wounds inflicted on others and the need for a healing process to be commence by conciliatory gestures? The have no experience of being obliged to use the languages of others, adopt their religions, assume their names and be under the control of powerful foreigners ever-ready to use military force.
Cultural objects seized in the past by Western nations should have been returned at Independence. Egypt had been regarded for decades as some sort of archaeological supermarket where Western States collected whatever objects they wanted with connivance of occupational forces. Given the enormous amount of Egyptian cultural artefacts found in Western States, should their museums officials and other representatives not feel ashamed that now in the 21st century they even dare to argue with the Egyptians about returning individual cultural artefacts such as the Rosetta Stone and the bust of Nefertiti? There is definitely lacking here a sense of balance and proportion which we find difficult to understand especially when it appears that even some intellectuals accept this as a natural order of things. (17)
The return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt would symbolize the beginning of the end of a long period in which Western States have felt entitled to steal, loot or otherwise seize the cultural artefacts of those they considered inferior peoples in the belief that only the West entitled to keep the important cultural achievements of others. Britain was involved at the commencement of large-scale looting and should be there at the beginning of the end of that process. Russell Chamberlain has underlined Britain's pivotal role in the process of plunder in cultural artefacts in Egypt:
“Britain's abstraction of the Rosetta Stone marks the beginning of an open season for the plunder of Egypt that was to last for 150 years, virtually until the country at last gained independence. Savants and tourists, plain thieves and solemn scientific expeditions all took their toll, feeding the hungry museums first of Europe, then of America.” (18)
Russell Chamberlain also refers to the great number of Egyptian artefacts in the West: “The sheer quantity of Egyptian artefacts that found their way into the museums of Europe and North America is staggering. From the great national galleries, with their colossal stone statutes, their rows of mummies, their ranks of figurines and tools, their acres of frescoes and papyri, to the little county museum ,housed in some antique merchant's home, devoted to local exhibits but proudly boasting a scab or mis-shapen chunk of stone - all bear testimony to an obsession. Egyptology was the sacred cow of scholarship, the great museums being fully prepared to starve their other collections so long as they could lay hands on yet another statue, more papyri, another mummy.”(19)
Surely, there must be some limits to the desire to acquire the cultural objects of others, especially if the means used have not always been fair and cause constant disputes with those who produced those objects or whose history culture and identity are bound up with the objects disputed.
Bust of Ramesses II, weighing 7.25 tons, Egypt, now in the British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Kwame Opoku, 20 December, 2009.
1. Jeanette Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures, Cambridge University Press, Third Edition 2007, p.411.
2. Daily Telegraph, 10 December, 2009 http://www.telegraph.co.uk
3. Richard Parkinson, The Rosetta Stone, The British Museum Press, 2005, p.24.
4. A-M. M'Bow, “A Plea for the Return of an Irreplaceable Heritage to those Who created It”. An Appeal by the Director-General of UNESCO (1979) 31 Museum 58; reproduced also in John H. Merrymann, Albert E.Elsen and Stephen K. Urice (Eds.), Law, Ethics and the Visual Arts, Kluwer Law International, 2007,p.342.
5. http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk The British towns listed as having Egyptian collections include, Bolton, Bristol, Cambridge, Dublin, Durham,Edingburgh,Glasgow,Leicester,Liverpool,London,Manchester,Plymouth,Sheffield,Swansea and Ulster.. The list of other European and North American museums with Egyptian collections can also be found at this link.
7. Richard Parkinson, op.cit, p.30.
8. Parkinson, ibid. p.31.
9. K.Opoku, “Is nationalism such a dangerous phenomenon for culture and stolenl/looted cultural property?
10. K. Opoku, “The amazing director of the British Museum: Gratuitous insults as currency of cultural diplomacy?
11. K. Opoku, “Once in the British Museum always in the British Museum: Is the de-accession policy of the British Museum a farce?
12. K. Opoku, “Formal demand for the return of Benin Bronzes: Will Western museums now return some of the looted/stolen Benin artefacts?”
13. See conclusions of the Athens Conference in the Annex below.
14. According to Ana Filipa Vrdoljak, International Law ,Museums and the Return of Cultural Objects,( Cambridge University Press, 2006, p.86.) at the end of the British Mandate over Iraq in 1932, “…the trustees of the British Museum aired concerns about Iraqi legislation, by which it was rumoured the Baghdad Museum sought to retain “ everything of any value” and “insist on control over expeditions, by attaching a native inspector” C. Leonard Woolley maintained that the proposed law ignored “the interests of science” and that these antiques were usually best conserved by Western institutions. The trustees sought and got assurances that the Iraqi parliament would not table new antiquities legislation” without consulting foreign archaeologists.”
15. The Rosetta Stone is 112.3 cm in height at highest point, 75. 7cm. wide, and 28. 4 cm. thick and weighs 760 kg. http://www.britishmuseum.org
16. The homepage of the British Museum gives interesting information about how the museum acquired its large collection of Egyptian artefacts. Those who argue against returning the Rosetta Stone should perhaps look at how the other objects were obtained in order to appreciate, in a larger context, the seriousness of such demands for return of cultural property and the absolute need for the British and other Western States to make conciliatory gestures towards countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria and others. http://www.britishmuseum.org
17. In her excellent book, already mentioned, Dr. Greenfield remarks on the extraordinary accumulation of Egyptian artefacts in the West as follows:
“Considering the vast quantities of material which found their way from Egypt to the museums of the world, particularly in Europe and North America, the Egyptian request for a fragment of the Sphinx appears to have been a singularly modest one. Many thousands of objects were removed from Egypt over a 2,000 year period, including mummies, frescoes, figurines, tools and papyri. Three of the more commonly known objects were the 200-tonne obelisks, one of which now stands in Central Park, New York, one in the Place de Concorde in Paris, and the other, known as Cleopatra's Needle, on the Victoria Embankment, London.”. Greenfield, op. cit. p.117.
18. R. Chamberlin, Loot! The Heritage of Plunder, Thames and Hudson, London, 1983. p. 51
19. Russell Chamberlin, ibid. p.40.
Conclusions of the Athens International Conference on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin, Athens, 17-18 March 2008. *
Experts on the issue of the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin, who participated in the first International Conference held in Athens, on 17th and 18th March 2008, within the framework of the meeting co-organized by the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, in the presence of the Member States of the Committee have reached the following conclusions:
• It is important that UNESCO organise international conferences, so that experts intensify their study of the issue of the return of cultural property to its country of origin, in order to produce viable and realistic solutions;
• Cultural heritage constitutes an inalienable part of a people's sense of self and of community, functioning as a link between the past, the present and the future;
• It is essential to sensitize the public about this issue and especially the younger generation. An information campaign may prove very effective toward that end;
• Certain categories of cultural property are irrevocably identified by reference to the cultural context in which they were created (unique and exceptional artworks and monuments, ritual objects, national symbols, ancestral remains,
dismembered pieces of outstanding works of art). It is their original context that gives them their authenticity and unique value;
• The role of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation must be strengthened through the necessary means, resources and infrastructure. Effort should be made to encourage mediation either through the Committee or by other means of alternative dispute resolution;
• Requests and negotiations for the return of cultural goods can work as a vehicle for cooperation, collaboration, sharing, joint research and economic promotion;
• In recent years a clear tendency towards the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin has been developed on legal, social and ethical grounds. The return of cultural objects is directly linked to the rights of humanity (preservation of cultural identity and preservation of world heritage);
• Museums should abide by codes of ethics. On this basis, museums should be prepared to initiate dialogues for the return of important cultural property to its country or community of origin. This should be undertaken on ethical, scientific, and humanitarian principles. The cooperation, partnership, goodwill and mutual appreciation between the parties concerned could lead to joint research programs and exchange of technical expertise.