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How Long Will The British Government And The British Museum Resist Calls For Changes In Restitution Policy?

Feature Article Asante gold trophy and gold mask
JAN 31, 2022 LISTEN
Asante gold trophy and gold mask

“You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness”- Melina Mercouri, at the Oxford Union. (1)

Readers will no doubt recall that in one of our latest articles, we posed the question as to who will finally advise and persuade the British Government and the British Museum that it is time to change their traditional position of refusal of restitution of artefacts acquired under dubious circumstances:

Every Government seems to accept now that the time has come to return artworks stolen under the colonial regime. Still, the British Government and the British Museum act as living in another world. The fear of losing the Parthenon Marbles is often advanced to explain this reactionary position. But all public opinion polls have shown that the British public overwhelmingly favours returning the Parthenon Marbles to Athens.

It was a British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who on 3 February 1960 told the recalcitrant apartheid South African Government about the wave of nationalism, the wind of change, blowing across the African continent. Who will tell the British Government and the British Museum about the strong currents that are now blowing in Africa, Europe, America, and the rest of the world for the restitution of looted cultural artefacts? Do they realize that restitution is the logical continuation of the decolonization process? (2)

Shortly after this statement, I received the latest book by Neil MacGregor, entitled, À monde nouveau, nouveaux musées, (3) This book, now available only in French, contains a series of lectures that the former director of the British Museum delivered in French at the Louvre, Paris. As readers know, MacGregor has been a staunch supporter of the 'universal museum' and has defended the right of the universal museums such as the British Museum, Louvre, and Metropolitan Museum to hold artefacts of others looted or acquired under dubious circumstances. He has been a strong defender of the discredited Declaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museum. (2002). This document was signed by eighteen major museums that declared their holdings of ill-acquired artefacts of others as being held on behalf of humanity and thus protected from claims by deprived States. The document was intended to disarm other States from making claims and to resist Greek demand for restitution of the Parthenon Marbles. The British Museum was not among the museums that signed the Declaration. Still, most of us have no doubt that the document was initiated and drafted by Neil MacGregor and his staff. (4)

The Parthenon Marbles, and the Benin Bronzes, have been

the prime examples of contested artefacts for decades. The British Museum has, among other arguments, stated that it could not restitute the Parthenon Marbles since this would set a precedent for Nigeria to claim the Benin artefacts, and that other States will also follow. This is the so-called flood-gate argument. The British Government that appoints most of the trustees of the British Museum has always acted in tandem with the museum and supported the refusal to restitute contested artefacts.

In his latest book, Neil MacGregor argues that the world has changed, and that the Western governments' unquestioned hegemony and the authority of museums are being challenged everywhere. The nineteenth-century assumptions of Western superiority have been questioned, and the museums must therefore also change their structures and narratives. For a new world, there must be new museums. (À monde nouveau, nouveaux musées). MacGregor refers to the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the removal and destruction of slavery and colonialist statues. The author points out that it is not only the relationships between cultures that are questioned. What is also contested is the legitimacy of the collections that have been built during the period when Europe had a massive economic and military power. Do the museums of Europe have the legal or moral right to hold collections acquired in a context of extreme inequality and violence? For decades, the legitimacy of these acquisitions and their eventual restitution has dominated the public debate on museums. The answer to this question is no longer the responsibility of the museums alone but also of governments. (5)

The duty of museums is to preserve the objects under their control within the legal structure set up. To take out a public property requires an act of parliament. MacGregor applies these suggestions to looted African artefacts in European museums and refers to recent decisions in France, Germany, the Netherlands. He does not refer directly to the Parthenon Marbles, although he mentions that among former colonial powers, only the Government of the United Kingdom does not seem interested in considering the question of restitution. (6)

Even though MacGregor does not examine the case of the Parthenon Marbles, if we apply the primary criterion he uses in the African cases, inequality of power between the holder of the looted object and the deprived, we must reach the same conclusion as in the African cases. At the time of the removal of the Parthenon Marbles from Athens in 1801, Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Empire, which had no legal right to dispose of Greek artefacts. The Ottoman Empire was a colonial occupant in Greece and had no right to transfer or sell cultural objects of the oppressed people.

By MacGregor's criteria, the Parthenon Marbles must be considered in the same category as the Benin artefacts that the British plundered in 1897. This is not to say that the two cases are the same but to argue that the practical solution in both cases is restitution or reunification in the case of the Parthenon Marbles.

Regrettably, the former director of the British Museum refrained

from discussing a case he has in the past often examined. For the unstated tactical reason of avoiding openly adopting a position contrary to all his earlier statements on the Parthenon Marbles, MacGregor does not explicitly take a stance on the restitution of the Marbles to Athens.

He may have wanted to avoid disappointing and disorienting his followers. For some persons, the presence of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum is evidence and guarantee that nothing will change radically in the museum world despite recent protests and demonstrations against the continuing holding of artefacts acquired under dubious conditions.

Neil MacGregor may also have avoided discussing the Parthenon Marbles because he wanted to avoid embarrassing his successor at the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, who in January 2019 described the act of Lord Elgin and his men wrenching the Marbles from the Acropolis as a 'creative act.'(7) Readers are undoubtedly aware that 'Elginism' has come to stand for vandalism in the English language.

MacGregor's most recent publication proves beyond all reasonable doubt that he now sees restitution as a logical conclusion of these interminable artefact disputes. He dares not present this new position to his former museum and the British Government. Will this new book, now available only in French, be soon translated into English?

MacGregor's latest publication based on his Louvre lectures appeared to me like that of Macron's famous Ouagadougou Declaration, as miraculous. Could this be the same Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and one of the three founding directors of the Humboldt Forum whose views always irritated me? (8) Here was the Bloomsbury man, saying in French things I could accept. He is advising the universal museums to adapt to a world in which European supremacy and the European model of the museum are not unquestionably accepted. Even European Museum architecture has been replaced in some cases by models inspired by non- European culture.

Macron made his famous speech as a young politician, president of France, conscious of his powers: Je veux, Je ne peux pas tolérer. He went straight to the point, unburdened by the history of the French law on restitution, and declared there should be conditions for restitution in five years.

MacGregor, on the other hand, a retired public servant, conscious of the difficulties on the way to the position he considers desirable, does not even consider the British situation. He examines the Belgian, Dutch, French, and German efforts and concludes that the recent discussions take a similar route.

MacGregor substantiates his points of view with rich information, displaying his vast knowledge of European art history.

Unlike Neil MacGregor, the Times of London, which has always supported the negative position held by the British Museum, The British Government and Neil MacGregor, that the Parthenon Marbles are rightfully held in London and should not be returned to Athens, made a complete direct reversal of position. On 11 January, the Times published a leading article, entitled The case for returning the Elgin Marbles to Athens has become compelling.

The treatment of the Parthenon in past centuries has long been used as a reason to deny Greece the sculptures' return.

The Elgin Marbles are sublime in their depiction of the human form and the impression of movement. Millions have marvelled at these sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon and for the past two centuries have reposed in the British Museum, among the most beautiful of all its holdings.

For more than 50 years, artists and politicians have argued that artefacts so fundamental to a nation's cultural identity should return to Greece. The museum and the British Government, supported by The Times, have resisted the pressure. But times and circumstances change. The sculptures belong in Athens. They should now return.

The immediate precedent is the agreement by Italy to lend Greece a marble fragment of the goddess Artemis which was taken, like the Parthenon sculptures, from Ottoman-controlled Athens in the early 19th century, and later sold to the University of Palermo. In return, Italy will receive an ancient statue of Athena and an amphora. The deal is similar to one proposed to the British Museum several years ago. In exchange for the return of the sculptures, Greece would send London a rotating exhibition of some of its finest classical artefacts not on permanent display.

The proposal came close to agreement. It fell through because of an argument over ownership of the Parthenon sculptures. Britain insisted they had been bought, not looted, and must remain the property of the British Museum. Greece argued that the Ottoman Empire had no right to dispose of artefacts made in Greece almost two millennia before the Ottoman conquest. The museum and the Government have tossed the decision back and forth. Such bureaucratic absurdity can be swiftly resolved. Let the sculptures be sold back at cost price. An act of parliament awarded Lord Elgin's purchases to the museum. Let parliament, therefore, sanction their return.

Britain has advanced other arguments for continued possession. Rising air pollution in Athens has taken a toll on much of the Parthenon, whereas the Elgin Marbles have been kept in almost pristine condition in a clean, safe environment. This argument no longer holds. Not only have the Elgin Marbles already been damaged by inappropriate cleaning but Greece has built a magnificent museum next to the Acropolis, safe and accessible, where the original sculptures are now kept, and where the marbles would complete the frieze.

A more compelling argument has been made by Neil MacGregor, the former British Museum director, on the future of all museums. Can any continue to hold possessions bought, stolen or taken from other countries in the past? Looted objects, such as the Benin Bronzes, have rightly been returned. But can museums remain centres of global culture and heritage if permitted to hold only what originated within today's political boundaries?' (9)

The Times statement, abridged above, also refers to efforts at restitution that have been made in other European countries and refers to an opinion of MacGregor on the future of all museums without specifying where the reader could find the information. We assume this is a reference to the latest book of MacGregor.

Will the opinion of the Times and Neil MacGregor's view move the British Museum and the British Government to change the untenable negative position on restitution of artefacts acquired under dubious circumstances? We would not like to play the role of the prophet in a debate which has been going on since 1830 when Greece obtained independence from the Ottoman oppressor. Nor shall we attempt to assess the arguments for and against the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles. Scholars such as Tom Flynn and Christopher Hitchins have produced excellent examination of the pros and cons. (10)

When the Germans start returning hundreds of Benin artefacts, and the Dutch also return other treasures whilst the Belgians return Congolese objects from the Africa Museum, the British Museum, and the British Government will experience enormous pressure to reconsider their negative position on restitution. The all-party parliamentary group (APPG) chaired by Bell Ribeiro-Addy, MP for Streatham, will assume immense importance in its examination of the restitution of African artefacts looted during colonial rule. Will this committee study the issue of restitution in a great depth as the Belgians have done, showing the intrinsic links between colonialism, racism and looting of artefacts? (11)

Many British universities and institutions have either returned Benin artefacts or intend to do so. British public opinion polls are in favour of returning looted artefacts. (12)

Austria has recently set up a panel of experts to evaluate restitution claims for artefacts acquired during the colonial era and to report early next year. (13)

Although not a colonial power, Austria derived immense benefit from the colonial system, including purchasing artefacts from British auction dealers. Could the British remain unconcerned by Austrian examination of the colonial past? Could Britain afford to appear as uninvolved, indifferent, and disinterested in the question of colonial artefacts whilst a country such as Austria that did not have an African colony is busy examining the issue? So far, Britain is the only former colonial power that has not produced a complete and detailed report on the issue.

Can the British Government that attaches importance to the Commonwealth continue to remain deaf to the pleas of Nigeria and Ghana to return their artefacts looted under the colonial regime?

Ghanaians will renew the call for the restitution of their gold artefacts looted by the British Army in the invasion of Kumasi in 1874 and are now in the Wallace Collection, British Museum, and in the Victoria and Albert Museum. After the restitution of Benin bronzes, comes the demand for the restitution of Asante gold.

Refusal to restore looted artefacts amounts to unwillingness to accept the right to an independent cultural development. Such a refusal demonstrates beyond doubt a determination to deny cultural diversity and an assumption of a right to determine the disposition of the cultural property of others. Echoes of the doctrines of the British Empire resurface. Neil Macgregor should tell the British Government and the British Museum, in plain English, that the age of empire is long gone and that our time no longer accepts the negative stance in restitution.

The year 2022 may prove to be the year of restitution in which many Western museums and institutions will return looted artefacts or objects acquired under dubious circumstances. On Restitution Day,10 November, there will be more calls for Western museums to return finally the looted African artefacts they have been holding for more than hundred years. Will the British Government and the British Museum accept the recent recommendation of UNESCO that Britain should return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece? (14)

Will the supporters of the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles still lament with the poet?

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (15)

Kwame Opoku.

NOTES
1.Melina's speech at Oxford Union http://www.parthenon.newmentor.net/speech.htm

K. Opoku, 'To loan or not to Loan: British Museum did discuss with Greece Parthenon Marbles loan' https://www.modernghana.com/news/586481/to-loan-or-not-to-loan-british-museum-did-discuss.html

2. K. Opoku, 'Are we receiving the restitution we seek?'

https://www.modernghana.com/news/1123962/are-we-receiving-the-restitution-we-seek.html

3. Neil MacGregor, À monde nouveau, nouveaux musées-Les musées, les monuments et la communauté réinventée, Editions Hazan, Paris, 2021.

4. K. Opoku,' Declaration on the Importance and value of Universal Museums: Singular Failure of an Arrogant Imperialist Project.'

https://www.modernghana.com/news/441891/declaration-on-the-importance-and-value-of-univers.html

5. MacGregor, op.cit. pp.191-193.
6. Ibid. p.199

7. Artnet news, The British Museum Says It will Never return the Elgin Marbles, Defending their Removal as a 'Creative Act'.https://news.artnet.com/art-world/british-museum-wont-return-elgin-marbles-1449919

8. K. Opoku, 'British Museum Director Defends Once More Retention Of Parthenon Marbles'https://www.modernghana.com/news/580881/1/british-museum-director-defends-once-more-retentio.htmld

K. Opoku, 'A History Of The World With 100 Looted Objects Of Others: Global Intoxication?'https://www.modernghana.com/news/262643/1/history-of-the-world-with-100-looted-objects-of-.html9

9. The Times View on the Elgin Marbles: Uniting Greece's Heritage The case for returning the Elgin Marbles to Athens has become compelling.https://www.thetimes....bles-uniting-greeces-heritage-spdz5vz6k

10. Tom Flynn, The Parthenon Marbles: Refuting the Arguments. http://www.acropolisofathens.gr/aoa/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Tom-Flynn_2.pdf.

Christopher Hitchens, The Parthenon Marbles, The Case for Reunification, Preface by Nadine Gordimer, with essays by Robert Browning and Charalambos Bouras, Verso, London, 2008.

11. You Gov https://yougov.co.uk/topics/travel/survey-results/daily/2021/11/23/9b053/2

12 .ASF Press release: Publication of the expert report on Belgian colonial past...

13. Österreichische Bundesmuseen im kolonialen Kontext: Staatssekretärin

Mayer richtet Fachgremium ein

Members of the Austrian Committee on Colonial artefacts are:

  • Dr. Jonathan Fine, Director, Weltmuseum Wien, Austria (Chairperson)
  • Golda Ha-Eiros, MA, Chief Curator, Anthropological Collections, National Museum of Namibia, Windhoek, Namibia.
  • Dr. Emmanuel Kasarhérou, Président, Musée du Quai-Branly, Paris, France.
  • Dr. Henrietta Lidchi, Chief Curator, Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Rotterdam, Netherlands.
  • Prof. Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner, Director, Museum at Rothenbaum – Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK), Hamburg, Germany.
  • Prof. Dr. Walter Sauer, Institute of Economic and Social History, University of Vienna, Austria.
  • Dr. Anna Schmid, Director, Museum der Kulturen, Basel, Schweiz
  • Dr. Katrin Vohland, Director-General, Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria.
  • Prof. Dr. iur. Miloš Vec, Institute of Legal and Constitutional Law History, University of Vienna, Austria.

14.ARTnews, UNESCO Advisory Board Urges British Museum to return Parthenon Marbles.

15. Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, e n.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elgin Marbles Lord Byron expressed in this stinging verse his objection to the removal of the Parthenon Marbles from Greece by Elgin.

Parthenon Marbles, East Pediment, British Museum, London.Parthenon Marbles, East Pediment, British Museum, London.

Melina Mercouri, Greek Culture Minister 1981-89,1993-94 speaking to Boris Johnson in 1986 before her Oxford Union speech. Johnson was then passionately in favour of returning the Parthenon Marbles to Athens. Photograph: Brian SmithReutersMelina Mercouri, Greek Culture Minister (1981-89,1993-94) speaking to Boris Johnson in 1986 before her Oxford Union speech. Johnson was then passionately in favour of returning the Parthenon Marbles to Athens. Photograph: Brian Smith/Reuters

Headless statue of the Greek river god Ilissos, Athens, Greece, loaned by the British Museum to Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.Headless statue of the Greek river god Ilissos, Athens, Greece, loaned by the British Museum to Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Queen-Mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.Queen-Mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Gold mask, 20 cm in height, weighing 1.36 kg of pure gold, seized by the British from Kumasi, Ghana, in 1874 and now in the Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom.Gold mask, 20 cm in height, weighing 1.36 kg of pure gold, seized by the British from Kumasi, Ghana, in 1874 and now in the Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom.

Pectoral disc. Kumasi, Ghana, now in Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom.Pectoral disc. Kumasi, Ghana, now in Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Asante gold head-dress or ceremonial hat, Kumasi, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.Asante gold head-dress or ceremonial hat, Kumasi, Ghana, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Asante gold trophy head taken from King Kofi Karkari91837-1884 by British soldiers in Anglo-Asante war 1873-74 now in Royal Trust Collection'2 April 1874 the queen recorded in her Journal that she 'looked at some gold ornaments, huge gold masks, rings, bracelets  other ornaments brought from Coomassie Kumasi, all of pure gold, by officers  others, sent in as an indemnity. They are being sold for the benefit of the Army  I have bought some.' Royal Trust Collection https:www.rct.ukcollection62901trophy-headAsante gold trophy head taken from King Kofi Karkari91837-1884) by British soldiers in Anglo-Asante war 1873-74 now in Royal Trust Collection

'2 April 1874 the queen recorded in her Journal that she 'looked at some gold ornaments, huge gold masks, rings, bracelets & other ornaments brought from Coomassie [Kumasi], (all of pure gold), by officers & others, sent in as an indemnity. They are being sold for the benefit of the Army & I have bought some.' Royal Trust Collection https://www.rct.uk/collection/62901/trophy-head

Krobonkye cap with gold strips, usually worn by state sword bearers and important officials. Looted in 1874 invasion of Kumasi by British Army, now in Royal Trust Collection. Among the loot of thousand objects from Asantehene Kofi Karkari.Krobonkye cap with gold strips, usually worn by state sword bearers and important officials. Looted in 1874 invasion of Kumasi by British Army, now in Royal Trust Collection. Among the loot of thousand objects from Asantehene Kofi Karkari.

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