The decision by the Turkish Government to stop loans of artefacts to museums
with which it has disputes regarding artefacts has hit the British Museum, London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The British Museum had wanted a number of Turkish artefacts for its current exhibition, “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam”. Apparently Turkish museums were prepared to loan the requested objects but the Ministry of Culture stepped in and opposed the decision to loan. The Metropolitan Museum had also wanted objects for its exhibition "Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition" which opens this month.
Turkey is insisting that the British Museum returns a carved stele said to have been bought in 1911 by the archaeologist Leonard Woolley with the permission of the Ottoman authorities and later sold to the British Museum.
King Antiochus I of Commagene shaking hands with Heracles.
The Victoria and Albert Museum also faces similar difficulties over its future exhibition, “The Ottomans” scheduled to open in 2014.
The Turkish decision may have taken some by surprise but it is part of a determined campaign by Turkey to recover its artefacts acquired under dubious circumstances by major museums and institutions in the Western world.
No matter what one may think of this decision, it has the merit of concentrating the mind on the basic issues of restitution. It is also one of the rare demonstrations of determination by a government to follow logically its statements on restitution with clear and decisive action. Far too often, governments and institutions from countries with restitution claims have made claims which are not followed or accompanied by any effective action. For example, at the height of the dispute concerning a proposed auction by Sotheby's of a looted Benin mask of Queen-Mother Idia, the Nigerian authorities announced, inter alia, their intention of setting up a body to recover all looted/stolen Nigerian artefacts abroad. Up to today, there is no indication that any concrete action has been taken to implement this announcement. This leads many readers and institutions to wonder whether there is a genuine desire to recover the national heritage or whether this was simply propaganda to satisfy certain sections of their population.
The Turkish decision also contributes to clarifying the relations between the museums and the claiming States and the understanding of the two sides as regards cooperation between museums. It is clear to all that the existing attitude of the major museums as regards restitution and cooperation cannot and should not continue for long. This attitude that may be characterized as “Mine is mine but yours is ours” displays a conception of cooperation that is not only cynical but also selfish.
The major Western Museums seem to be only interested in co-operation when it serves their interest. When they need artefacts for exhibitions they cooperate with source States like Turkey, Egypt or Nigeria to obtain the desired objects. Nigeria has cooperated with the British Museum, the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, the Ethnology Museum Vienna, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée du Quai Branly to mount exhibitions such, “Benin - Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria” and “Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa,” 2010, but when Nigeria requests the return of some of the Benin bronzes, the request is met by arrogance, utter disrespect, cynicism and useless arguments.
Reaction to Turkey's demand for restitution of the carved stele of Antiochus I shaking hands with Heracles, is a good example of this disrespect. A spokeswoman of the British Museum is reported to have declared; “The museum would be willing to discuss a loan of the stele subject to the usual conditions. The trustees cannot consent to the transfer of ownership and firmly believe that it should remain part of the museum's collection, where it can be seen in a world context by a global audience”.
This statement, typical of the British Museum whenever other countries request return of their artefacts, indicates nothing but contempt for the claimants. It reminds one of similar response to Greece regarding the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. Can one party seriously inform the other who is claiming ownership of an artefact that they would be ready to discuss a loan? It clearly shows there is no good will to discuss the issue of ownership and an answer is given that is more likely to annoy the other, aggravate matters and thus hinder a reasonable settlement of the matter. This cannot be the best answer to those whom one wants to cooperate with. Moreover, the phrase thrown in: “ where it can be seen in a world context by a global audience”, reduces the Turkish museums to museums of limited importance, non-world institutions with a monocultural audience. This phrase is a reflection of the self-appointed role of the British Museum as “universal museum”.
It has become evident that the major Western museums are still operating on the basis of the principles contained in the infamous Declaration on the Value and Importance of the Universal Museum. Though that document is hardly ever mentioned these days, the conduct of the major museums follows the principles and tactics mentioned there: they are not willing to give up voluntarily artefacts acquired under dubious circumstances from other countries but that have been long in the museums. Italy was able to secure the return of a large number of looted artefacts from major US-American museums and universities through a combination of threats and legal action.
In view of the above, it appears that the Turkish government has chosen a path that would put the necessary pressure on the museums to start serious discussions. States like Nigeria may finally realize that quiet diplomacy and statements not followed by any concrete actions and measures will not secure the return of any of the looted national heritage now lying in the major museums of the West. We have had enough time to recognize the inefficiency of the approaches followed by many claimant States and it is time to try other approaches.
States such as Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, and Mexico etc should finally coordinate their efforts and adopt measures that are likely to persuade the major museums and their governments that it is time to resolve the questions of restitution that have been lingering on for decades.
Some of the major museums that have come to symbolize powerful dens of incredible iniquities may in the end find to their surprise that their own peoples and governments do not support them wholeheartedly in their dubious arguments.
Kwame Opoku, 11 March, 2012.