Is The Declaration On The Value And Importance Of The “universal Museums” Now Worthless? Comments On Imperialist ,museology
| “If museums were capable of helping to devise and communicate a universal perspective on cultural values which achieves credibility and currency outside western cultural elites, they would indeed make an invaluable contribution to global society.” |
Mark O' Neil (1)
“Such repatriations perhaps demonstrate the flawed thinking behind the "Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums".
Has the time come for these major museums to review their policies? Is the declaration now worthless?” (2)
The Declaration was signed in December 2002 by 18 major museums including Art Institute of Chicago, State Museums, Berlin, Cleveland Museum of Art, J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Louvre Museum, Paris, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The British Museum initiated the project, seeking to gather support to counteract the increasing political sympathy that Greece was gaining with regard to the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. Although the British Museum did not sign the Declaration, it issued a press release to support the statement and carried the document on its website, stating that “Eighteen of the world's great museums and galleries have signed a statement supporting the idea of the universal museum. The statement was drafted at their last meeting in Munich last October, and presented to the British Museum for publication”. (3) One may wonder why a group of leading museums meeting in Munich would present their statement to the British Museum for publication. This reveals the division of labour between the British Museum which needed support and the signatories of the Declaration. Moreover, the document bears the marks of the British Museum. The well-drafted clear language which hides more than it reveals, the great emphasis on Greek civilization and the role of the museums in making it possible for the public to appreciate Greek art, all point to the influence of the museum in Bloomsbury. Readers know that the director of the British Museum often speaks and writes as if he had “discovered” or “invented” Greece. Indeed, he has gone so far as to declare: “But it is perhaps only in the British Museum that the full measure of the Greek achievement can be grasped. Walking through the galleries you can see how the Greek reinvention of the human form changed sculpture from Turkey to India, as well as providing the visual vocabulary for the entire Roman Empire”.(4) The press release of the British Museum served as preface to the Declaration. The museum did not sign the document because it looks better if a statement strongly supporting it is not signed by the beneficiary itself.
Can the major museums and their directors ever learn in the matter of restitution? One may doubt their willingness. If we look at the cases of the restitutions to Italy, they have been made under pressure and threats of legal action. Indeed a senior US curator had to stand trial in Italy for criminal offences in connection with acquisitions for her museum. There has been no indication or demonstration of willingness to return looted objects. On the contrary, Neil MacGregor, James Cuno and Philippe de Montebello have been preaching with evangelical fervour in support of the retention of looted artefacts by the museums. The statement that each case of restitution will be judged individually is an indication of the unwillingness of the major museums to recognize and accept the need for general restitution of looted artefacts or objects acquired under dubious circumstances. The method proposed by the Declaration would secure for the museums a delay of thousand years.
The very fact that in 2002 a group of directors of major museums could issue such a Declaration indicates that they have not understood the general movement of history: the ever increasing desire and determination of former colonies and States dominated by the Western powers to seek more and more freedom to organize their own affairs. This movement necessarily implies the re-possession of the cultural objects that had been looted as symbols of authority or trophies of war. No wonder then that a few years after the Declaration it became apparent that its major objective of securing immunity against all restitutions had woefully failed. It should have been possible to recognize in 2002 the non-viability of the proposed immunity. Interested parties or offenders cannot escape the obligation to return unlawfully acquired objects by simply proclaiming immunity for themselves. Italy which had not been the primary object of the Declaration decisively attacked the American institutions holding looted objects. A declaration seeking to confer Immunity could have come from a constituted political authority with legislative or quasi legislative authority such as the UNESCO or the United Nations. But the major museums have been in defiance of the UN and UNESCO which have in resolution after resolution insisted on the need to return cultural artefacts to their countries of origin and have supported Greece in its claims for the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. One could consider the Declaration as an attempt by major museums that are not politically constituted bodies to legislate. The signatories pretended to be speaking on behalf of the international museum community even though they did not consult the museums in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Moreover, we have an international organization that speaks for museums, International Council of Museums (ICOM), that was also not consulted. The Declaration is in most aspects contrary to various United Nations resolutions and UNESCO Conventions.
Whilst proclaiming themselves ”Universal Museums”, the major museums were not thinking at all of acting in the interest of all. This has been confirmed by their practice in every aspect of restitution disputes. In all important issues, they have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that they act only on behalf of a few, as dictated by the motivation behind the Declaration. At no time since 2002 has the British Museum manifested any serious interest in a fruitful dialogue with Greece over the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. On the contrary, it has insisted that before discussions could begin, Greece must recognize the legal ownership of the museum. (5) The museum has even criticized the Greeks for not asking for a loan of the marbles instead of claiming ownership. At times, the museum has insulted the Greeks by comments such as that they were imitating Lord Elgin by placing the remaining marbles in the splendid New Acropolis Museum. To add insult to injury, at the completion of the new museum, the Director of the British Museum proclaimed that the location of the marbles was never an issue. What mattered now was how the Greeks and the British could make it possible for the Africans and Chinese to view the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. (6)
Again, if we look at the restitution claims made by Egypt there have been on the whole delaying tactics and unserious reaction from the British Museum. Zahi Hawass, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (Egypt) who had started by asking for a loan of the Rosetta Stone for the opening of the Grand Museum in Giza in 2013 was so exasperated by insulting comments regarding the ability of Egypt to look properly after the object and doubts about its return that he now insists on its return. Similarly, the Germans have been resorting to the usual arguments about the fragility of the bust of Nefertiti to travel from the Neues Museum to Cairo, although it is well-known that the object has been moved several times from one museum to another in Berlin. They have also claimed legal ownership of the bust. It must be said to the credit of France that it returned to Egypt some stolen Egyptian frescoes even if only after threats by Hawass to cut off all relations with Louvre. France has also returned two looted artefacts to Nigeria. Considering the number of Egyptian artefacts in British, French, German and American museums, do Westerners not feel ashamed to be arguing over Rosetta Stone or the bust of Nefertiti with the Egyptians? (7)
Rosetta Stone, Egypt, now in the British Museum, London, United Kingdom
If we consider the issue of the restitution of the Benin Bronzes which the British looted in 1897 after a military invasion of Benin, the museums have behaved very badly. None of the museums that hold Benin Bronzes - British Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York - has indicated in any serious way that they are interested in coming to some amicable settlement with the Oba of Benin and the Nigerian Government.(8) When the major museums recognize that acting on behalf of all implies allowing others to have some of the objects, they will realize that the thousands of Benin bronzes and other cultural objects languishing in their depots do not serve humankind in anyway. They may then be willing to share with others and thereby serve humanity. They may consider, for example, sharing with the people of Benin the Benin artefacts. Sofar, requests for restitution have been ignored and indeed, many of the museums do not bother to acknowledge the existence of such demands even if they come from the Benin Royal Family. (9) This disdainful and arrogant attitude of Western museum directors will not go unnoticed by many Africans and Asians. The British Museum and others pretend there has been no demand for the restitution of the Benin bronzes. There is, of course, no rule of International Law or Municipal Law that requires owners of looted artefacts to make a formal demand for restitution.
If we consider the case of Ethiopian artefacts looted by the British at Maqdala in 1868, there is the same arrogance and lack of sensitivity for the feelings of others. Ethiopians are told the stolen crosses, crowns, jewels, paintings and manuscripts are better off in Britain where they receive greater care. The very brutal nature of the British assault should surely lead to some reflection, especially when we consider the role of the British Museum in the invasion and the extent of the loot. (10)
Those that claim to be holding objects on behalf of all should be the last to make baseless obviously aimed at keeping the artefacts where they are currently. It is abundantly clear that the signatories of the infamous Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museums act in their own interest and not in the interest of all as they pretend:
“…we should acknowledge that museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation”
Crown of Tewodros II, Ethiopia, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom. Looted during the invasion of Magdala in 1868 by a British Punitive Expedition army. The crown is labled at the Victoria and Albert as the "Crown of the Archbishop Abune Selam.” With typical colonialist and imperialist arrogance, this 18 karat gold crown was described as “barbaric” but still kept by the British.
The contradictions between the claims of the signatories of the Declaration and their actual practice have been pointed out by many museum specialists and
scholars. As soon as the Declaration was issued, it faced attacks from many quarters. George Abundu, former Director General of the National Museums of Kenya, wrote:
“It seems to me that the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums is signed principally by a group of large museums who want to create a different pedigree of museum, largely due to fears that materials held in their collections of which the ownership is contested, will face claims for repatriation. It is a way of refusing to engage in dialogue around the issue of repatriation. If the signatories of the Declaration are trying to create the idea that their collections are held in trust for all of humanity, then why do they still call themselves by their original names? Why not “Universal Museum in Britain” rather than British Museum?” (11)
Nefertiti, Egypt, now in Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany
Geoffrey Lewis, then Chairman, ICOM Ethics Committee declared
“The real purpose of the Declaration was, however, to establish a higher degree of immunity from claims for the repatriation of objects from the collections of these museums. The presumption that a museum with universally defined objectives may be considered exempt from such demands is specious. The Declaration is a statement of self-interest, made by a group representing some of the world's richest museums; they do not, as they imply, speak for the “international museum community”. The debate today is not about the desirability of “universal museums” but about the ability of a people to present their cultural heritage in their own territory”. (12)
Mark O'Neill, Head of Museums and Galleries, Glasgow, exposed in an excellent article the contradictions and inconsistencies in the practice of those supporting the notion of “universal museums” and concluded that:” Truly universal institutions would grapple with the possibility that, in the words of Michael Ignatieff 'the central importance of human rights in the history of human progress' is that it 'has abolished the hierarchy of civilizations and cultures' .. Only when museums embrace this as their core ethic and epistemology will they realize their potential to help create a more humane world and achieve some sort of universality.” (13)
In a brilliant article, Tom Flynn examined the historical sources of the idea of “universal museum” and declared:
“The British Museum's recent energetic revival of its Enlightenment origins as a universal museum can be interpreted not only as an elaborate act of birthday self-congratulation, but also as a coordinated attempt to counter increasingly frequent claims for the repatriation of key objects in its collections.
The Enlightenment carries a particularly persuasive cultural charge for it is to this historical reference point that we ascribe the source of our modern day ideals of free citizenship, social justice and
rational inquiry, all perceived as central to the museum's purpose as a didactic institution. During the nineteenth century, those same imperatives came to underpin the scientific and industrial aspirations of the European colonial powers, who believed themselves to be embarking upon a 'civilising mission.”(14)
Even though there have been a number of criticisms of the Declaration, there does not seem to have been any organized or co-ordinated response to the extraordinary statement. We could have expected the Africans and Asians to join forces with Greece to resist the obvious strategy of the British Museum and the other major museums to settle the question of restitution by simply deciding the issue in their own favour through a unilateral declaration on which they were not consulted. One wonders why apart from George Abundu, the African museum specialists did not express any view on the Declaration. Could this perhaps be due to the influence of the Western museums on their African counterparts who often depend on Western institutions for financial support for the implementation of basic museum projects? Why did the Nigerians, for example, not express their reservations to the Declaration initiated by the British museum? Some of the signatories of the 2002 Declaration, such as the Berlin State Museums (Museum of Ethnology), and the Art Institute of Chicago, organized with Nigeria a Benin exhibition in 2007-2008 in which many of the looted Benin objects were shown together for the first time since 1897. (15) What does this imply? That despite the arrogant and unjust refusal to even recognize the need for restitution, Nigeria and the other African States are still willing to continue cooperation with those who deny their rights? How are the African public and indeed, the world to understand this?
Parthenon Marbles, Greece, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom
Is the Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museum, now to be regarded as worthless? This discredited document did not serve the purpose intended by the signatories and from that point of view may be considered as useless. On the other hand, the document is extremely important since we have no other modern document which spells out so well the selfishness and arrogance of the major museums, their desire to put themselves above morality and justice, their desire to take hold of the narratives concerning the cultural objects of others and to browbeat others into meek submission. The Declaration contains in clear terms and language what the major museums and their directors conceive to be their relationships with other museums, especially those in Africa and Asia. Underlying all this is a singular lack of respect for the intelligence and feelings of those who seek the recovery of looted or stolen objects. There is here a definite attempt to discourage claims for restitution by invoking a superior status for the so-called universal museum and to emphasize alleged functions for humanity which should put them above all principles of morality and legality.
It is remarkable that whenever there is discussion about restitution of looted artefacts, the supporters of the major museums turn to the past and urge the deprived owners not to seek to undo past events and not to judge the past by present standards. The Declaration resorts to this dubious argument: “We should, however, recognize that objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era. The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones.”
When one claims restitution of looted cultural objects, one is not looking into the past but at present situation which constitutes a continuing and persistent violation of the rights of others. Admittedly, the looting took place in the past ignominious period of colonialism and imperialism. However, one is looking at the present situation where a lot of the treasures of Africa and Asia are kept in museums in Europe and America. One is not judging actors of the past with present-day standards. One is judging contemporaries with contemporary standards. They cannot distance themselves from events of the past and retain the fruits of the past. Restitutionists indict the present but retentionists advance the past as defence and immediately urge the former not to look at the past or try to re-write history. The one speaks of the present but the other prefers to explain the past.
The supporters of the universal museum are very quick to inflate any demand for the return of an artefact into a desire to dismantle the collections of the major museum. The British Museum in its press release refers to “threat to the integrity of universal collections posed by demands for the restitution of objects to their countries of origin.” This fear is the foundation of the Declaration but it is unfounded since none of those supporting repatriation is calling for a wholesale dismemberment of the major museums. Tom Flynn has correctly stated: “Few critics of the universal museum wish to see major collections dispersed or are seeking the return of all cultural objects to their countries of origin. Such aims would be unnecessary and damaging and this perhaps explains why conservative museum directors persist in falsely ascribing those aims to museum reformists.” (16)
The “universal museums”, in the sense of the Declaration, are by no means lacking in support. Neil MaCgregor, James Cuno, Phillipe de Montebello have in their publications attempted to gather support for this concept which, in my view, violates so many elementary rules of morality, justice and law that, in the long run, it is bound to create more problems than provide solutions to the questions of restitution. The Declaration and its supporters have made discussions on restitution more acrimonious by supporting ideas that have been negated by the independence of the African countries and are contrary to the basic principles of the United Nations: equality of races, peoples and cultures. One cannot help but agree with the assessment by Jennifer Neils of the views of one of the main propagators of “universal museum: “Cuno is a museum director whose writ is clearly to defend the acquisition practices of the major western museums in light of increasing pressure to refrain from purchasing objects of dubious or no provenance. The public might be better served by less atavistic museum professionals, ones who could address our changing times and evolving ethical standards and offer creative solutions for the enjoyment of our collective past”. (17) It does not seem that the supporters of this outdated conception are about to give up the fight. On the contrary, they are actively trying to gather public support, as exemplified by the massive publicity and propaganda surrounding the recent British Museum/BBC project, A History of the World in 100 Objects. (18) The project is an affirmation of the determination of the British Museum and its director to impose their conception of world history. They are so intolerant that they cannot envisage that others might want to tell their own history and not leave it to an imperialist museum to tell stories. MacGregor has even declared that the history of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles as part of Parthenon in Athens is over. (19) He has often repeated that the cultures of other countries and peoples can only be properly appreciated from London. Clearly, this is an epistemological postulate that is flawed from the beginning.
Can the signatories of the Declaration at least re-examine their policies in the light of the experience gained since 2002? A change of policy or practice cannot be expected in the near future from the so-called universal museums. The Declaration was formulated to announce to the rest of the world, the understanding of those museums as to their role in cultural development and their relationship to other museums. They cannot change their basic policies without abandoning the underlying ideology of superiority. A change can only come when external pressure is brought on the museum directors. So far there is no sign of this. If China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Italy, Nigeria and other States with restitution claims succeed in co-ordinating their policies and strategies, the “universal museums” would be obliged to abandon or at least modify their policies. The conference proposed by Zahi Hawass may be the beginning of this process. (20)
In the end, the supposed defenders of the West would be seen to have done a great disservice to the interests of the West and the rest of the world. They are fighting on the bases of the worst qualities of the West in its encounter with others: violence, selfishness, disrespect of the rights of others, and a determination to subject others to its will. They are fighting to hold on to cultural objects of others stolen or looted with violence. They espouse in effect an ideology of superiority not very different from that of the colonialists and imperialists. The difference here is that one group was living in the nineteenth century whereas the other has been acting in the twenty-first century. (21)
The Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museums has failed in its primary objective of seeking immunity for the major museums from the claims of others but as a historical document evidencing the attitude of the few rich and powerful museums against the rest, there is no other contemporary document that so accurately reflects the basic asymmetric relationships that exist between the Western world and the rest of the world.
Kwame Opoku. 24 February, 2010.
“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 snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!”
Lord Byron (22)
Altar group honouring Oba Akenzua I, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Germany.
1. Mark O'Neill, “Enlightenment museum - universal or merely global?” http://www.le.ac.uk/ms/
2. David Gill, “The Universal Museum: time for rethink? lootingmatters.blogspot.com
3. Press Release, British Museum, cited in Lyndel V.Prott, (Ed.), Witness to History, UNESCO, 2009, p118.
4. Tom Flynn, The Parthenon Marbles: Time to litigate? http://tom-flynn.blogspot.com
5. MacGregor is reported in Timesonline as having expressed this view point: “The difficulty at the moment is that the Greek Government has formally, and recently, refused to acknowledge that the trustees are the owners of the objects.” He said the Greek Government had never officially asked to borrow the treasures. “The issue has always been about the permanent removal of all the Parthenon material in the BM collection to Athens,” he said. http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk
6. K. Opoku, “The Amazing Director of the British Museum: Gratuitous Insults as Currency of Cultural Diplomacy?” http://www.modernghana.com
7. K. Opoku, “Return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt: Limits to the Greed of the self-styled Universal Museums.” http://www.modernghana.com
8. List of some of the museums holding Benin Bronzes.
Chicago - Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400.
Cologne - Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Hamburg - Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
Dresden - Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig - Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden - Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London - British Museum 700.
New York - Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford - Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.
Stuttgart - Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.
Vienna - Museum für Völkerkunde 167..
9. See Annex II below.
10. The extent of the British loot and the role of the British Museum have been well described by Adrian Cooper: “British troops arrive on East African soil armed with rifles and cannons; they employ locals as guides and elephants to carry their freight. A vicious battle ensues in the rift valley highlands of Magdala in central Ethiopia. Spears and shields are no defence against the British weaponry. A bloodbath follows, culminating in the Emperor's suicide on 13 April 1868.
Soon, according to HM Stanley, writing for the New York Times, thousands of ancient Biblical manuscripts and the largest amount of gold bullion and jewellery ever collected by an Ethiopian emperor cover "the whole surface of the rock citadel, the slopes of the hill, and of the entire road to the British camp two mile off". Two days later the loot is auctioned off to raise prize money for the troops. Enter the Royal Librarian, Sir Richard Holmes, who outbids the gathering of civilians and officers, all eager for souvenirs in this surreal scene on an East African plain. With ample funds supplied by the British Museum, Holmes secures and takes back home the booty.
Four years later, in 1872, the extent of the looting and the intrinsic importance of the icons to Ethiopia moves the British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, to say Britain was "never at war with the people or churches of Abyssinia", and, "deeply regretting" their removal, he suggests the artefacts be returned.
One hundred and thirty years after the Battle of Magdala, two questions remain unanswered: exactly what heritage did Ethiopia lose, and where has all of it gone? We do know that contained in crates, aboard British steamer ships, were ancient Ethiopian Bibles, written in the sacred language of Ge'ez, with theological treatises and laws, Biblical commentaries depicting the lives of saints, documents of civil law, history, medicine and chronology, even lists of land sales, marriages, property, court decisions, and tax records: texts that are the very foundation of Ethiopian Christianity and culture. The gold and jewellery included a crown and chalice dug from a grave belonging to Abuna, head of the Ethiopian church”. “Arts & Artefacts: Raiders of the lost ark”,
The Independent, 11April, 1998. http://www.independent.co.uk
11. ICOM News, No. 1. 2004 http://icom.museum/universal
13. Mark O'Neill, “Enlightenment museum - universal or merely global?” http://www.le.ac.uk/ms/
14. Tom Flynn, “The Universal Museum: a valid model for the 21st century?”
15. Barbara Plankensteiner (Ed), Benin: Kings and Rituals - Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck, 2007.
16. Tom Flynn, “The Universal Museum: a valid model for the 21st century?
17. Jennifer Neils, “Looters”, American Scientist, http://www.americanscientist.
18. British Museum, http://www.britishmuseum.org, http://entertainment.timesonline , Tom Flynn, “A History of the World in Looted Objects”, http://tom-flynn.blogspot.com, K.Opoku, “A History of the World with 100 Looted Objects of Others: Global Intoxication?” http://www.modernghana.com
19. "The life of these objects [the Parthenon Marbles] as part of the story of the Parthenon is over, „ British Museum Director Neil MacGregor remarked some months ago.“They can't go back to the Parthenon. They are now part of another story." cited in http://tom-flynn.blogspot.com The possessive attitude regarding the Parthenon/ Elgin Marbles is extended to cover Greek culture and history. This recalls the attitude that the illegitimate possession of cultural objects of others somehow authorizes one to determine conditions of good governance in that country. So if there is corruption in Nigeria, one feels justified in not returning the Benin Bronzes even though in the period when there was no corruption one also did not feel like returning them. Similarly, one would only r loan the Cyrus Cylinder when conditions of security in Iran are satisfactory as determined by the holder of the object. See “Another Delay for the Cyrus Cylinder, http://safecorner.savingantiquities.org
20. Egypt to hold conference on the return of antiquities, http://www.blogcatalog.com
21. K. Opoku. Do Present-Day Egyptians Eat the same Food as Tutankhamun? Review of James Cuno's Who Owns Antiquity?
http://www.blogcatalog.com David Gill has a list of reviews of Cuno's book, Who Owns Antiquity? Princeton University Press, 2008.
22. Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elgin_Marbles Lord Byron expressed in this stinging verse his objection to the removal of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles from Greece by Elgin
The international museum community shares the conviction that illegal traffic in archaeological, artistic and ethnic objects must be firmly discouraged. We should, however, recognize that objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era. The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones.
Over time, objects so acquired—whether by purchase, gift, or partage—have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them. Today we are especially sensitive to the subject of a work's original context, but we should not lose sight of the fact that museums too provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source.
The universal admiration for ancient civilizations would not be so deeply established today were it not for the influence exercised by the artifacts of these cultures, widely available to an international public in major museums. Indeed, the sculpture of classical Greece, to take but one example, is an excellent illustration of this point and of the importance of public collecting. The centuries-long history of appreciation of Greek art began in antiquity, was renewed in Renaissance Italy, and subsequently spread through the rest of Europe and to the Americas. Its accession into the collections of public museums throughout the world marked the significance of Greek sculpture for mankind as a whole and its enduring value for the contemporary world. Moreover, the distinctly Greek aesthetic of these works appears all the more strongly as the result of their being seen and studied in direct proximity to products of other great civilizations.
Calls to repatriate objects that have belonged to museum collections for many years have become an important issue for museums. Although each case has to be judged individually, we should acknowledge that museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.
Museums are agents in the development of culture, whose mission is to foster knowledge by a continuous process of reinterpretation. Each object contributes to that process. To narrow the focus of museums whose collections are diverse and multifaceted would therefore be a disservice to all visitors.
Signed by the Directors of:
The Art Institute of Chicago
Bavarian State Museum, Munich (Alte Pinakothek,
State Museums, Berlin
Cleveland Museum of Art
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Louvre Museum, Paris
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Prado Museum, Madrid
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
LETTER ON BEHALF OF THE OBA OF BENIN TO HOLDERS OF BENIN BRONZES
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