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20.07.2008 Feature Article

“culture Knows No Political Borders”: Illusion Or Deception On The Location Of Stolen/looted Cultural Property?

Commemorative Head of a King, Benin, Ethnology Museum BerlinOne of the thousands of Benin artefacts stolen by the British in 1897,now on exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.Commemorative Head of a King, Benin, Ethnology Museum BerlinOne of the thousands of Benin artefacts stolen by the British in 1897,now on exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.
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The article entitled Culture knows no political borders which is an interview with James Cuno, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, by Tiffany Jenkins in the Spectator, must be critically examined. Many persons in the United Kingdom would tell you that once you cross the Channel, everything changes: language, food, mode of dressing, political system, in some cases, religion and sometimes, even the faces of the people. So what is one trying to achieve with this misleading title? Only to reach the conclusion that it does not matter where the Rosetta Stone, the bust of Nefertiti, the Benin bronzes, Asante Gold and Regalia and all the other stolen or looted artefacts are. It is the same as the sweeping generalization of Cuno that all those claiming the return of their cultural objects are “retentionist nationalists.” This confounds nationalists, communists, liberals, monarchists, democrats and dictators.

A simple question would show that the slogan is just plainly wrong. Why does each State have its own budget for culture? This is like the slogan that the “British Museum is for all mankind”. Whether we like it or not, we are living in a world organized on political basis in the form of States.

The statement that Cuno presents “a thoughtful case about the importance of preserving and giving people access to antiquities” is equally misleading. Cuno is not thoughtful of preserving archaeological sites where much knowledge about the past can be extracted by archaeologists and not plunderers. Nor does Cuno seem to care for the many people in the countries which have lost their artefacts to the Western museums. These people have surely no access to the antiquities that have been horded in Western museums which are often complaining about lack of space.

Is it seriously being suggested, with respect to the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles which Greece has been claiming over a very long period, that Great Britain has an equal affiliation to the ancient Greeks as the modern Greeks or even a greater affiliation?
This is a very serious allegation which is better left to the Hellenic scholars. Or is this based on a view similar to the statement attributed to Viscount Eccles who said, inter alia, “Like others, I salute the ancient Greeks for their wonderful history, but the Greeks of the twentieth century should know that we, too, have a history. Part of our history is expressed in our admiration for their art.” (1)

To suggest or allege that those who challenge Cuno's unfounded ideas have a static view of identity and culture is a gross misrepresentation of facts. No one will argue that the British of today have the same culture or identity as the British of the Middle Ages or earlier times. But does this in any way reduce Britain's right to artefacts and other cultural monuments in the British Isles? Could all of us come from abroad and take our share of Stonehenge? The right of modern States to control antiquities found within their territories is enshrined in Article 4 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Cuno, of course, does not pay attention to such international agreements since he thinks the whole system of the United Nations and UNESCO are seriously flawed and need to be re-examined.

There should be no confusion of the case of those claiming reparation for past injustices with that of those who are claiming the return of stolen or looted artefacts. The two cases are not the same even though under colonialism they often went together. The one case deals with past wrongs whilst the other deals with present and continuing wrong-doing. Reparation for colonialism and slavery is one important demand but this must not, and is not, to be confused with the continuing and constant violation of the rights of others to keep their own cultural icons. A refusal to return cultural property is a violation of the right of countries and peoples to develop their culture as they wish. Most of the stolen cultural objects in the British Museum, including the Rosetta Stone, the Ethiopian crosses and manuscripts as well as the Benin bronzes should have been returned to their owners when they gained Independence from Britain. The withholding of their cultural goods constitutes a violation of their right to self-determination and freedom to determine their own cultural development.

The current dispute is not only between archaeologists and museum directors but between those who believe museums should not purchase antiquities of doubtful provenance and those who believe museums should be free to purchase antiquities without hindrance. Most archaeologists belong to the first group and many museum directors, including Cuno, belong to the second group. The main argument of the archaeologists seems to be that once the plunderers have removed the artefacts from their contexts, from the excavation sites, a lot of valuable information is lost for ever. This loss of information and the consequent damage done are irreparable. Plundering, it is argued, would cease or at any rate be considerably reduced, if there were no market for such artefacts of dubious provenance, i.e., if the museums would stop buying such artefacts. Cuno thinks there would always be plundering and that museums should be allowed to acquire excellent artefacts however dubious their provenance may be. The moral implications here do not seem to bother him that much. The archaeologists have the support of many jurists and others who believe there should be respect for the laws of the so-called source countries and the UNESCO Convention which forbid illegal exportation and illegal importation of antiquities of dubious provenance.

Colin Renfrew, one of the leading British archaeologists has this to say:

“The world's archaeological resource, which through the practice of archaeology is our principal source of knowledge about the early human past, is being destroyed at a formidable and increasing rate. It is destroyed by looters in order to serve the lucrative market in illicit artefacts through which private collectors and alas, some of the major museums of the world, fulfil their desire to accumulate antiquities. Such unprovenanced antiquities, ripped from their archaeological context without record (and without any hope of publication), can tell us little that is new. The opportunity is thereby lost for them to add to our understanding of the past history and prehistory of the regions from which they come, or to our perception of the early development of human society”. (2)

The devastating effect of plunder in West Africa, especially in Mali and in Nigeria, makes one wonder whether Cuno and others who seem tolerant towards the acquisition of artefacts without clear provenance know what they are doing when they present the archaeologists as somehow being manipulated by governments seeking to discourage plunder. Much of the valuable information that could have been obtained about the ancient African civilizations that produced terracotta in Nigeria and Mali have been lost due to the action of plunderers who supplied European and American museums and private collectors with those pieces.

The Art Institute of Chicago where Cuno is Director is currently hosting the exhibition Benin Kings and Rituals: court Arts from Nigeria. The Nigerian authorities and the people of Benin have repeatedly asked for the restitution of the Benin bronzes which the British Punitive Force looted in 1897. The British sold the Benin artefacts to other Europeans and Americans. The British Museum has allegedly 280 pieces, the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, 600, Ethnology Museum, Vienna, 167, The Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts has a certain number including, a Queen-Mother Idia hip mask, The Art Institute of Chicago has, according to Cuno, some half-dozen pieces and the Field Museum, Chicago has 400 pieces. (3) Practically every European and American museum, university or city has a collection of Benin bronzes whereas Nigeria has very few. There are in Hamburg 196, Dresden 182, Leipzig 87, Stuttgart 80, Cologne 73, Frankfurt 51, and in Leiden 98 pieces.
It would be interesting to see how Cuno deals with the demand for the restitution of the Benin bronzes made at the opening of the Benin exhibition in Chicago. He is reported to have said he would give any request for restitution a serious consideration.

The British Museum has in the past sold some of the Benin artefacts but was unwilling to lend to Nigeria, the hip-mask depicting Queen-Mother Idia which is the official mascot of FESTAC 77, the all African cultural Festival.

Many Americans and Europeans talk about the “Heritage of Mankind” but in practice they refuse to return stolen African art objects or even “lend” them to the African countries. Egypt has recently asked the British Museum to “lend” the Rosetta Stone which was originally removed from Egypt by the French and the British. It would be interesting if the British acceded to such a request whereas the Germans have in the past refused to “lend” to Egypt the bust of Nefertiti which is in the Berlin, Altes Museum.

It seems for Europeans and Americans the heritage of mankind does not extend to European objects. There is not a single major European or American art work in Africa whereas all the best African cultural icons are in European and American museums as well as in private collection.

When Cuno and others talk about antiquities not knowing any political borders, they think of only one way traffic: to the United States and to the United Kingdom.

For those interested in pursuing this debate, there are interesting articles at Looting Matters.


1) See Jeanette Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures, Third Edition, Cambridge, 2007, p. 108.

2) Colin Renfrew, Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology, Duckworth, London, 2006, p.9.

3) The homepage of the Field Museum states that the museum has 400 Benin pieces and that “Except for a few recent ethnographic objects, the entire collection dates to the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897”.

Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Kwame Opoku, Dr., © 2008

The author has 275 publications published on ModernGhana.Column: KwameOpoku

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