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30.09.2008 Feature Article

Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues

Opoku challenges Universal Collection arguments

In a wickedly elegant and well argued essay, tireless campaigner Dr Kwame Opoku raises a number of extremely pertinent points about the accusations thrown out by the Universal Collection advocates who oppose the repatriation of cultural property taken under dubious circumstances from other countries. In particular he cites the recent provocative book Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage by James Cuno, the publication of which has emboldened a few wannabe clones in the collecting world to join their voices to the clamour against “retentionist nationalism” and the policies lying behind the 1970 UNESCO convention.

The “universal collectors” see the nationalism in their own culture as benign while in foreign source countries it is dangerous, needing to be eradicated. The concept of nation-State:
gives countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon a certain amount of control over their own resources and cultural artefacts. These opponents of nationalism turn out almost invariably to be persons who would like to see the world governed by the forces in place. They would like to have a free-for-all situation where the stronger get what they want and the weaker ones can go to hell with their complaints.

Opoku notes that none of those playing the “Universalism” card offers:
any evidence that nationalism has any deleterious effect on restitution or on culture except that it prevents the large museums from continuing their old practice of taking objects from wherever they want. It also appears that they resort to accusations of nationalism only when there is a discussion on restitution of stolen or looted cultural objects that are in the so-called “universal museums” in the western world. We are still awaiting their explanation why nationalism in the case of claimants is somehow less respectable but not in the case of the western retentionists who are hanging onto stolen or looted property […] Cuno and his supporters should bring evidence why “retentionist nationalists” in some countries - Egypt, China, Turkey, Greece, Italy and Nigeria - are to be suspected in their motives for demanding restitution but “retentionist nationalists” in USA, Great Britain, Germany and France are not to be questioned in their motives for holding on to looted or stolen cultural artefacts.
He concludes that

With the hope of having contributed to clearing away this diversionary accusation of nationalism, the retentionists of the western museums should now offer more solid arguments, if they have any, for holding on to stolen or looted cultural objects from other countries. They should not present us arguments that do not help in understanding or solving the issue of restitution of stolen or looted cultural objects that are in the European and American museums. Their untenable contentions obscure the issues rather than enlighten us on the asymmetric nature of power in the colonial and imperialist system that made such illegal and unjustified robberies possible. The unresolved problems arising from colonialism will not simply disappear and the earlier serious efforts are made to reach acceptable solutions, the better for all of us

The whole article is well worth reading in its entirity, and it will be interesting to see whether the Universal Collectors reply with anything more than embarrassed silence...

PAUL BARFORD
PAUL BARFORD, © 2008

This author has authored 1 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: PAULBARFORD

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