BRITISH MUSEUM DIRECTOR PLAYING THE USUAL GAME BUT THIS TIME WITH INDIA.

By Kwame Opoku, Dr.
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By Kwame Opoku, Dr.

1/27/2012 6:43:59 PM -

“In Africa, South-East Asia and South Asia, the pattern of exploration, colonization, tribute, and then the punitive removal of treasures was repeated, with the result that many African and Asian nations were deprived often of the central core of their own art, as in the case of Benin, or of invaluable records., as in the case of Sri Lanka”.
Dr. Jeanette Greenfield (1)

Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Golden Throne, India, now in Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom. Throne was seized by the British following the defeat and annexation of Punjab in 1849 after the Second Anglo-Sikh War. Throne was seized on the same ground as the Koh-i-noor diamond http://upload.wikimedia.org http://www.vam.ac.uk

We read the following text with great interest from a recent report by the Museum Security Network:

“In India along with other British museum experts as part of an ambitious
culture ministry programme to train museum officials from across the
country, MacGregor deftly sidestepped a question on whether there is any
effort to restore India objects of historical value lying in Britain's
museums to India.

"In London, people from all across can see Indian objects besides objects
from Europe, Americas and elsewhere and make out for themselves the
extraordinary position of Indian culture along with other civilizations of
the world and that is a very important thing," the museum expert said.

On the other hand, Union culture secretary Jawhar Sircar told HT that
efforts, albeit 'slow', are definitely taking place to restore such objects
to their respective countries of origin.

"We are working through the UNESCO Convention of Restitution of Cultural
Property in this regard. Although slow, it is a sure process that is
working. And we have reasons to believe that mutual settlements under the
aegis of UNESCO are being worked out through a consultative process," said
Sircar, who has been awarded the first-ever British Museum medal for his
"extraordinary contributions" in piloting museum reforms in the country.” (2)

The statement about people from various countries coming to London (3) and being enabled to appreciate Indian culture among other culture is vintage MacGregor:

”In London, people from all across can see Indian objects besides objects
from Europe, Americas and elsewhere and make out for themselves the
extraordinary position of Indian culture along with other civilizations of
the world and that is a very important thing.”

Contrary to the view expressed in the report, I think MacGregor has answered the question; there is no effort on the part of Britain to restore to India the treasures that were looted, confiscated, stolen or otherwise seized during the British domination of India. The answer given by the Director of the British Museum follows the pattern of answers given to Greece about the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, to Egypt about the Rosetta Stone and to Nigeria regarding the Benin Bronzes. The basic philosophy of the argument presented is, of course, faulty and bereft of any truth but is the stock- in-trade of MacGregor, Cuno, Philippe de Montebello and many others who want to keep at all cost the looted/confiscated artefacts in the so-called “universal museums” or “encyclopaedic museums”..

To say or imply that Indian culture could only be fully appreciated in London because of the presence of objects from other cultures, is of course, not correct, apart from its being an insult. Indians surely can appreciate their own culture without the presence of objects from other cultures. They can also appreciate English culture without having in their museums looted national treasures of England.

We are not objecting to any comparative approach to the study of culture but the requirements of a serious comparative approach are clearly beyond the grasp of average visitors to the museums who come with a heavy baggage of preconceptions that will impede a proper understanding of a foreign culture in a comparative way. It is enough for the average visitor to understand the functions and importance of an artefact in its own cultural context without being burdened with comparisons with other cultures.

Tom Flynn has described the museum visitor as follows:
“This ideal visitor, endowed with a sufficiently sophisticated visual awareness to grasp the finer nuances of formal stylistic development across cultures, is a myth propagated by museum curators out of touch with their audience. In fact, the evidence would suggest that such art historical subtleties are beyond the average visitor. As Louvre Director Henri Loyrette recently told a conference at the British Museum, “Most of our displays mean nothing to people.” Indeed, a survey of Louvre visitors revealed that 67% of those questioned in the Archaic Greece room could not identify a personality or event connected with the period.

Today's average museumgoer is a modern day flâneur, strolling rather aimlessly through the corridors, partaking of the visual pleasures in a random way, looking at objects, looking at other people, looking at other people looking at other objects, perhaps pausing occasionally to marvel at something that asserts its individuality from within the panoply arrayed before him. To state it in this way is not to patronise the visitor, but to acknowledge the nature of the modern museum experience. Moreover, while the majority of today's museum visitors may not have grasped the dramatic changes in the representation of the human body that marked the transition from the Archaic to the Classical in Greek sculpture, the majority has nevertheless registered the equally dramatic shift from a colonial to a post-colonial world. Hence the unequivocal majority vote for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece every time a poll is undertaken.76 Museum visitors, if not museum directors, seem to have benefited from the true legacy of the Enlightenment although clearly on this issue the opinion of what James N. Wood describes as the “unindoctrinated public” matters little to the museum.” (4)

It is interesting that Jawhar Sircar, Secretary, Ministry of Culture, who has been awarded the first-ever British Museum medal for his "extraordinary contributions" in piloting museum reforms in India sought to give assurance that they are working through the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 1970 and under the aegis of UNESCO. Most of us will agree that proceeding through UNESCO is slow but very few would agree that the slow process is working. None of the recent important restitutions of national cultural property, whether in the Peruvian case, the Egyptian or Italian case was achieved through the procedures of UNESCO which are dependent on the goodwill of the States concerned. The report before the 17th session (30 June -July 2011) of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (5) lists in an annex, significantly entitled,
“Examples of Cultural Property Returned or Restituted Without Action by the Committee.” lists the following;
May 2011: Restitution of collection of Peruvian cultural objects (United States of America - Peru)
May 2011: Restitution of a Maori head (France - New Zealand)

April - May: 2011: Restitution of Korean manuscripts (France - Republic of Korea)

April 2011: Restitution of six Icons (United Kingdom - Greece)

March 2011: Restitution of Archaeological items (Yale University - Peru)

March 2011: Restitution of Ancient Objects (Australia - Cambodia)

January 2011: Restitution of the “Morgantina Venus” (Getty - Italy)

The report of the Committee also lists cases that have been through the mediation or conciliation procedures of the Committee. These procedures are again dependent on the goodwill of the States concerned. The role of the Committee is advisory and its recommendations are not legally binding. The Committee, through its contacts with parties seeks to promote bilateral and multilateral cooperation and negotiations that may eventually lead to resolution of disputes relating to return of cultural property. But it cannot oblige a State that is not willing to return cultural property to do so. India does not appear at present to have submitted any case to the Committee.

The unresolved dispute between Greece and the United Kingdom regarding the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles has been before the Intergovernmental Committee for ages. (6) The slow process reminds us of the so-called “quiet diplomacy” Nigerian officials used to talk about but since 52 years of independence this approach has not secured any remarkable restitution for Nigeria. India has been independent since 1947. Has any process, slow or diplomatic secured significant restitution of cultural property?

It would be interesting to know and examine the evidence for the optimism of the award-winner regarding the chances of India to secure the return of the looted/confiscated artefacts under the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
As readers know, the general interpretation by many Western scholars is that the Convention does not apply to pre -1970 transactions. Moreover, many Western States were so opposed to the Convention that they ratified it only some 30 years after its entry into force.(7)

The answer to India's request for the restitution of the cultural objects taken under colonial rule has been answered by the British Prime Minister during a visit to India. When asked on TV in India on 13 October, 2010 about the famous Koh-i-Noor Diamond which the British took from India. (The 105-carat diamond was seized by the East India Company after the capture of Punjab in 1849 and later presented as a gift to Queen Victoria) The British Prime Minister David Cameron who had gone to India to strengthen trade relations with India flatly rejected the demand, adding that if the demand were accepted, the British Museum would be empty since there are several similar requests:

“If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I think I'm afraid to say, to disappoint all your viewers, it's going to have to stay put,” (8)

This amounts to an admission that the British Museum and perhaps other museums in Britain are full of looted/stolen artefacts.

Even though many persons and groups in India have requested the return of the famous diamond, it is reported that the Government of India has not requested its return. (9)

The most successful State, as far as concerns the restitution of artefacts seized during the era of imperialist hegemony, has been Egypt, under the leadership of Zahi Hawass, the former energetic Egyptian Minister for Culture, hated by Westerners for vigorously pursuing the issue of restitution of artefacts confiscated by Western States from non-Western countries. Hawass did not believe in quiet diplomacy or rely solely on the 1970 UNESCO Convention; he used all available means, including direct confrontation with Western museums and their Governments. He was very successful. (10) It is not known whether he received any awards or rewards for his outstanding contribution to the subject of restitution. Hawass organized the Cairo Conference on Restitution where India was represented. (11)
On the question of restitution of cultural artefacts looted/seized under the colonial regime, we could expect the country of Mahatma Ghandi, Pandit Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore to be at the forefront of the struggle. Restitution of national treasures is not only a cultural and legal issue but also a political question in so far as such treasures should have been returned at the independence of those countries. The process of liberation from colonial and imperialist domination cannot be considered as complete as long as the symbols of power and authority, seized during the colonial era, are still kept in the museums and other institutions of former colonial powers.

“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 civilisations which shapes the history of the world is still continuing in an atmosphere of mutual respect between nations.”
A, M. M'Bow (12)

Kwame Opoku, 27 January 2012

NOTES

1. The Return of Cultural Treasures, Third edition, 2007, p.99, University of Cambridge Press.
2.” MacGregor deftly sidesteps a question on whether there is any effort to restore to India objects of historical value lying in Britain's museums.” http://groups.google.com/group/museum/t 
Sanji Kr Baruah, “Interest in India like never before, says Britain's museum chief”
http://www.hindustantimes.com
Hindustan Times
Jonathan Jones. “Forgotten Story of the India Museum” http://www.guardian.co.uk

3. Neil MacGregor, “The whole world in our hands” http://www.google.at

K. Opoku, “Living in a Different World: Justifications for Non-Restitution of Stolen Cultural Objects”  http://www.museum-security
K. Opoku, “Do Directors of “Universal Museums” ever Learn from Experience?” http://www.modernghana.com
4. Tom Flynn, “The Universal Museum: a valid model for the 21st century?” 
http://www.tomflynn.co.uk/UniversalMuseum.pdf

5. See also, K. Opoku, “When Will Everybody Finally accept that the British Museum is a British Institution? Comments on a Lecture by Neil MacGregor  http://www.modernghana.com

 
6. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0019/001927/192728e.pdf
7. K. Opoku, “Would Western Museums Return Looted Objects if Nigeria and other African States were ruled by Angels? Restitution and Corruption,” http://www.museum-security.org
 8. http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13039&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

9. http://groups.google.com/group/museum/t
http://www.hindustantimes.com                   
Jonathan Jones. “History of the India Museum in London. “http://www.guardian.co.uk

10 “The Indian government is not asking for the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond]” http://www.elginism.com Pakistan as well as Iran have also put in their claims for the Koh-i-Noor.  
11. K. Opoku, “Egyptian Season of Artefacts Returns: Hopeful Sign to be followed by others? http://www.modernghana.com. Sebanti Sarkar, “India in global bid to get back treasures,” www.elginism.com
12. 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) Museum 58  http://www.google.at

Disclaimer: "The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. The contents of this article are of sole responsibility of the author(s). Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article." © Kwame Opoku, Dr..

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