Respect And Disrespect In Restitution Of Cultural Artefacts
“Culture is the soul of a nation. The illicit removal or destruction of cultural property deprives peoples of their history and tradition. Restitution is the only means that can restore damage and reinstate a sense of dignity”.
Anastassis Mitsialis, Permanent Representative of Greece to the United Nations. (1)
Paul Barford recently drew attention to a paragraph in an article by Jason Felch who was commenting on the controversial views of Hugh Eakin on recent restitutions by American museums:
“What motivates repatriation claims from source countries is not a desire for a few more pieces of ancient art. The basements of their museums overflow with the stuff. What they want is respect.” (2) Barford asks whether the source countries are getting enough respect from Western museums and scholars. (3)
We have in various articles pointed out the lack of respect that some Western museums and scholars seem to have for source countries, especially, African countries, when they dare demand the restitution of their looted/stolen cultural artefacts. We are therefore happy that others have also seen a need for a change of attitude on the part of Western museums and scholars.
We shall not deal here with restitution of human remains since they do not fall under the category of artefacts. Suffice to mention that in the handling of human remains, many Western museums and other institutions have until recently treated human remains with disrespect and humiliation; they have desecrated human remains and subjected them to treatments and conditions that are better not mentioned. Often these remains were kept for hundred years in institutions under the pretext of scientific investigations and studies. We recall the disgraceful case of the South African lady, Sara Baartmann whose body was stuffed and exhibited in Paris after her death in 1815. It took the intervention of Nelson Mandela and others to secure her return to South Africa for proper burial in 2002.
When Prof. Tunde Babawale wrote to Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, for the restitution of the hip-mask of Queen-Mother Idia, looted by the British in the nefarious Benin invasion of 1879, he received an answer that can be mildly described as insulting. Babawale, Director of the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBACC), Lagos wrote on 16 February, 2008, in connection with the Commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of FESTAC '77: “The essence of this letter is to request that the British Museum, safely return/hand over the original 16th century ivory mask which was last worn by King Ovonramwen Nogbasi of the ancient Benin Empire in 1897 before he was exiled by Britain”.
MacGregor replied with a letter that did not even mention the mask which Babawale stated was the essence of his letter: “Let me assure you that the British Museum appreciates the significance of the Benin material in the collections for Nigeria, Africa and the world, and wishes to make it better understood and more accessible in Africa and worldwide. To this end, we are currently engaged in a new dialogue with the National Commission on Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. We have been invited by NCMM to offer our assistance and advice on the development of the Lagos Museum through a programme of museum development, training, professional exchanges, and capacity building for which we are seeking international backing. We are currently also involved with NCMM in a project together with the University of Frankfurt, Germany, on the material culture of Ife.”(4) This deliberate insult is clearly a manifestation of the lack of respect that the museum director in London has for the Nigerian professor sitting in Lagos. From the former imperial capital to a former colonial capital, some may not find it easy to internalize the changes since Independence in 1960 but must this come out in this crass manner?
With regard to restitution of Benin artefacts, the same director of the British Museum had in response to Ligali, Pan-Africanist Organization, advanced the argument that the British Museum was prevented by its governing law from decommissioning artefacts in the museum. The director also added that there had been no formal demand for the return of the looted artefacts. (5) The British Museum director wrote this knowing well that the Benin Royal Family had sent a petition in 2002 to the British Parliament which is in the records of that august body. (6)
Another example of this attempt to deny there has been a request for an artefact can be seen in the difficulties Zahi Hawass had with the Germans regarding the restitution of the bust of Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen the Germans call the oldest “Berlinerin”. Even though there is abundant evidence to show that the Egyptians have been asking for the return of Nefertiti ever since she was surreptitiously sneaked out of Egypt by Ludwig Borchardt in 1933, the Germans have kept repeating that there has been no formal demand. When a new formal demand was sent by Zahi Hawass, then Secretary-General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, they said the demand should have come from a Cabinet Minister, such as Minister of Culture. When Hawass himself became a Cabinet Minister and sent another request, the Germans said it should have com from the President or Prime Minister of Egypt. (7) Were the Germans serious or only playing for time?
Nefertiti, Egypt, now in Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany.
The argument based on the absence of request or formal request by source countries even at the very moment they are shouting for their return has, been supported by scholars such as Prof. John Picton with regard to Benin: “Yet there has been no formal request by a competent authority for the repatriation and no attempt at diplomatic negotiation, or even litigation.” (8) A persistent determination not to hear or recognize pleas from those brutally deprived of their cultural artefacts is, in my opinion, worse than an insult. It is a deliberate attempt to underestimate the intelligence of the people concerned.
Insulting claimants because of their request for restitution appears well-established in British tradition. One recalls the disgraceful behaviour of Macgregor's predecessor at the British Museum when the unforgettable Melina Mercouri, then Greek Minister for Culture, came to London in connection with the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and sought to visit the museum. David Wilson, then Director of the British Museum declared that it was not usual to allow burglars 'to case the joint' in advance. He also described as fascists and nationalists those who supported restitution. (9) How must we evaluate this type of behaviour from the director of the leading museum in a country known for politeness in every-day life?
But Wilson's insulting manner has, at least once, been emulated by his successor, Neil MacGregor. After the Greeks had constructed the ultra-modern New Acropolis Museum, largely in response to decades-old British argument that there was no fit place for the marbles in Athens, MacGregor had the audacity to say that the Greeks had imitated Elgin in moving artefacts to the new museum. He was fully aware of what Elginism had come to signify. He also stated that there was never a question about the location of the Parthenon/Elgin marbles and that what was now necessary was how to give the Chinese and Africans the opportunity to view the marbles. It makes one sometimes wonder. (10)
Another example of disrespectful behaviour in restitution matters has been the reaction of Dr.James Cuno, then Director of the Chicago Art Institute and now President of the J, Paul Getty Foundation, Los Angeles. During the opening of the exhibition, Benin-Kings and Ritual Arts from Nigeria, in Chicago, in his own institute, Cuno stated that if a request were made for the restitution of the Benin bronzes in his museum, he would give it serious consideration. (11) On the basis of this statement, a letter dated 9 September, 2008 from the Benin Royal Family was hand carried by a princess to both the Chicago Institute of Art and the Field Museum. Chicago. (12) Up to now, there has not even been an acknowledgement of the letter. Is that how royal requests are to be treated? Would Cuno or the Field Museum act this way if the request had come from a reigning European monarch or family?
A more recent example of lack of respect for source countries claiming restitution of their artefacts can be seen in the case of acquisition through donation of Benin artefacts by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. When the Royal Family of Benin and the Nigerian Commission on Monuments (NCMM) requested that the museum return the looted artefacts, the Boston museum argued, inter alia, that more people will see the artefacts in Boston than in Nigeria; the museum also added that there had been no challenge to their acquisition. It is only on the basis of lack of respect that one can dare to say to a people who have lost their artefacts in a brutal invasion that more people would see the objects in Boston. (13)
Disrespect for source countries and their representatives may also lead to inability to seize golden opportunities for reaching compromises acceptable to both sides in a matter which can only be resolved through compromise. A good example of this occurred during the International Seminar organized in connection with the opening of the exhibition, Benin Kings and Rituals from Nigeria (2006). During the discussions, the Benin delegate declared that if each of the museums holding Benin artefacts returned each, an artefact, the Benin people would be satisfied. My heart sank to the bottom. I was shocked as I have never been in my life. Thinking about the thousands of Benin bronzes that are in Western museums, I thought this was not wise and would offer the Western museums an easy way out. I thought I should try to offer an interpretation that would cancel the offer we had just heard. But what was the response from the Western representatives that were there? Only the Austrian Director of the Museum of Ethnology, Prof. Christian Feest spoke. He flatly stated there could be no question of restitution and gave several grounds none of which was convincing. Among others, he said the Benin artefacts had acquired extra value in Europe. I told the Director in no uncertain terms what I thought of his arguments. (14)
It seems for many of our Western contemporaries; it is enough for a source country to be guilty of all sorts of things once it requests restitution of its looted/stolen artefacts. As soon as Turkey announced a new policy as regards recovery of Turkish artefacts in museums in the USA and Europe, many felt authorized to use very uncomplimentary language regarding this claimant for what Hugh Eakin termed “raft of extravagant new claims against museums — backed by menacing legal threats.” (15)
In the same article, Eakin declared: “Meanwhile, Turkish officials have declared an all-out war on Western museums. Claiming a long list of works from the Getty, the Met, the British Museum, the Louvre and the Victoria and Albert Museum — some of them acquired in the 19th century and some from countries other than Turkey — the Turkish government has cut off ties to the offending institutions until they give them up. “All loans have been stopped; all cooperation suspended,” said Neil MacGregor, the British Museum's director. “This is a kind of behavior that is really unprecedented.” (16)
Eakin obviously has some support. We read from “A Short Message about Museums and Antiquities” by Judith Dobrzynski (http://www.artsjournal.com/) that those who are reclaiming their stolen or looted cultural artefacts are committing extortion. Can the author really mean that a government such as that of Turkey, by stating that it would not loan artefacts to those museum holding illegally Turkish artefacts, is committing extortion?
At another site we read that “Turkey is following an increasingly aggressive policy of getting top museums around the world to return its heritage”. http://www.freerepublic.com/home.htm and that “Egypt and Greece are another two countries that are ungrateful bastards Turkey is unstable and cannot assure that radical morons will not take power and pulverize these artifacts. There is no one in that country who can say that with credibility. Therefore, the empirical fact is, Turkey must be found to be unfit to be the guardian of antiquities. ”http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/575720/posts?page=82#82
For many, Turkey became”aggressive” or was pursuing an “aggressive policy” by declaring that she was not going to approve loans of artefacts to museums such as the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Harvard University Museum, Museum of Fine Art, Boston if they did not return looted Turkish artefacts in their possession. (17) But since when is it an act of aggression to refuse to make a loan to someone who is already holding on to your property and refuses to return it?
The consistency with which Turkey is pursuing its policy (to be contrasted with the lame approach of other countries) alarmed many:
It makes sense, of course, that the Turks would seek restitution of their heritage, as any country would. What is surprising in this case, however, is the vehemence and strong-arming tactics with which they are attempting to do it, and the belligerence of the country's Cultural Minister, Ertegrul Günay, who has described the private owners of some Turkish artifacts he claims were stolen as “unscrupulous”, and whose tactics include blackmailing countries who contest his demands by refusing museum loans and, worse, revoking archaeological permits”. (18)
Some who have reason to worry about the Turkish policy have accused the Turks of playing politics, whatever that may mean in this context. The New York Times reported as follows:
“The Turks are engaging in polemics and nasty politics,” said Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the Pergamon. “They should be careful about making moral claims when their museums are full of looted treasures” acquired, he said, by the Ottomans in their centuries ruling parts of the Middle East and southeast Europe” (19)
This type of reaction and language can also to be found at apparently scholarly sites. The International Journal of Legal Information provides some interesting examples. (20)
In an article titled “Who Owns the Past? Turkey's Role in the Loss and
Repatriation of Antiquities” by Kathleen Price we read: Although Turkey's soil has yielded layers of civilizations, these are not necessarily cultures related to today's Turks whose ancestors were part of marauding bands that swept into the country from Central Asia in the 13th Century. (p.203)
Referring to Zahi Hawass the writer states: “He pursues this course even as cultural and historic treasures sit in the basement of the Cairo museum without necessary air conditioning, proper preservation, or patrons to visit them. Unfortunately, it seems that modern Egyptians have little cultural affinity to the pyramid builders and little current interest in non-Islamic art. (p.208)
As unsuccessful as Egypt's Zahi Hawass' aggressive demands and
flamboyant pronouncements have been in securing the return of that country's
cultural objects from the Louvre and other museums in Europe and the US,
the Turks have successfully used patience and diplomacy to recover many high profile objects”. (p.209)
Referring to the major museums, British Museum, Louvre etc, the article states
“They also face persistent criticism from less well-endowed
peers in their own countries as well as UNESCO-inspired foreigners who
have accepted the notion promulgated in the Hague Convention that cultural property belongs to all”.
It is remarkable that a State that requests the return of its looted/stolen artefacts is immediately qualified as “aggressive” by some members of the States holding those properties. What about those museums that have known for years that many of these objects were looted or could only have been looted and still purchased or acquired them? Would it not be more appropriate to describe those who stubbornly refuse to surrender looted property as “aggressive?” Their refusal is ultimately based on the belief and knowledge that they have behind them powerful supporters. It is an aggressive stance that does not need to express itself verbally but is implied and understood.
One effect of the demand of restitution by source countries is that writers in the holding States start disputing the demander's ability to protect its cultural objects. The museums there are said to be small, inadequate, saying more or less that the artefacts deserve better conditions that are available in the holding countries. Such an insulting argument has been applied as a matter of routine to African States. In the case of Nigeria, there are writings in which the corruption of Nigerians is advanced as argument for not returning looted/stolen artefacts. The insult of this argument seems to escape a lot of persons. (21)
The inadequacy argument was applied for years by the British Museum and its supporters to Greece until an ultra-modern museum was built in Athens-the New Acropolis Museum. At that point, the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor had the audacity to state that the location of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles was never an issue. According to the honourable director, the important issue now is how to enable Africans and Chinese to see the marbles. (22)
Gold pendant of a goddess with a child, Turkey, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.
Barbara Newsom echoes this inadequacy argument in an article in The New York Times:
“If the governments of Italy, Greece, Egypt, Cambodia and the rest put so little store by their heritage that indigenous pothunters could dig it up and sell it off, it is all the more to the credit of foreign buyers — and the diligent archaeologists who helped to find and excavate the artifacts — that they are now preserved and most of them available for study and display.
The Elgin marbles probably would not have survived without the care they have been given in the British Museum, and the same is true of much of the remains from Egyptian tombs, Greek temples and the monasteries of Spain honored by institutions that know their value.
As Mr. Eakin points out, our museums make a mistake by giving up these artifacts. The governments that so carelessly let them go should be grateful that these things have been kept intact.” (23) That the argument based on efficiency does not go to the root of the dispute, the ownership of the object, does not seem to bother many writers.
Neil Macgregor's denial that the location of the Parthenon/ Elgin Marbles was ever an issue is a direct insult to the Greeks and also disrespect for the intelligence and memory of all of us who have followed the debate and discussions on whether the Marbles should be reunited in Athens or be kept in the British Museum.
The Cross of Emperor Tewodros II looted at Maqdala, Ethiopia, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
The general lack of respect exhibited by museum directors of the holding States and their supporters has of course rendered acrimonious restitution discussions that seem interminable and insoluble. A step forward to solving disputes in this area would be a more respectful approach by all concerned. But would this be sufficient to settle existing disputes on restitution? I doubt very much.
Apparently, those who insult foreigners for daring to demand the return of their looted/stolen artefacts or artefacts acquired under dubious circumstances, tend not to respect their own people. Despite all the insults and negative propaganda against the Greeks by certain British circles, the overwhelming majority of the British people support the Greeks in their efforts to secure the return of the Parthenon Marbles. Several opinion polls conducted in Britain indicate that the vast majority of the British population support returning the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. But the British Museum and the British Government, in their infinite wisdom and in accordance with their understanding of democracy, have chosen to ignore the views and wishes of their own people.
The perception that museums in source countries have an abundance of artefacts may probably apply to Greece, Turkey, and Italy. But clearly does not apply to many museums on the African continent, except perhaps Egypt, where the West has plundered a lot. Regarding the possession of abundance of artefacts, we believe this would apply most appropriately to the major museums in the West such as the British Museum, Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and others. According to a BBC report, the British Museum has 8 million objects most of which cannot be displayed for lack of space. (24).These museums have often complained of lack of space.
The Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin alone has some 100,000 pieces. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki. Does that museum need so many Egyptian objects? Indeed, do the major museums really need so many artefacts?
We must also ask why despite some 500 or more years of contact between Europe and the rest of the world, the museums act as if they had just discovered the existence of other cultures, different from European culture?
The development of modern technology - DVDs, videos, television, live transmissions and the availability of easy air travels should surely reduce the need for so many artefacts. And why are the major museums averse to replicas even though they sometimes recommend them to source countries in lieu of the original looted or stolen object which the museums insist on keeping?
Even in source countries where there may be abundance of artefacts, there is the question of quality. Major Western museums now hold some of the best artefacts from most source countries. Thus museums in source countries, even if amply provided with objects, may feel the need to request the return of iconic objects in the major museums. As has often been said, you can see more of the best African artefacts in the West rather than in Africa itself. Clearly, a redistribution of a kind between the West and Africa must take place.
We must also bear in mind that there is a category of artefacts that source countries cannot simply leave to Western museums. These are some of the artefacts that are so closely related to the history of those countries that they cannot be left in foreign hands. Nefertiti and Queen-mother Idia come to mind. These two queens, like many others , are so linked to the respective histories of the countries that it would be unconscious to expect Egypt and Nigeria to simply give them up. The Germans may admire Nefertiti for her beauty but the Egyptians appreciate not only her beauty but also her importance in their history. Despite all attempts by the Germans to present the Egyptian Queen as the oldest “Berlinerin”, she remains undoubtedly Egyptian; she played no role in German history except as having been surreptitiously whisked out of Egypt by the German archaeologist, Ludwig Borchardt. (25) We should point out that Queen-Mother Idia who has been in Berlin longer than Nefertiti is not presented as the oldest “Berlinerin”. She is presumably too dark for many Germanic persons.
At one point, the Egyptians were ready to offer the Germans other sculptures in exchange for the bust of Nefertiti. The Germans, including James Simon who financed the Amman excavations, were prepared to accept the exchange offer. Later however, Adolf Hitler, developing fantasies for a Germania museum with the Egyptian Queen as centre piece, said “Nein.” Ever since then, the Germans have followed the Hitler line and not James Simon's.
The manner in which some artefacts were acquired, especially those symbolizing the defeat of the political rulers of the country through imperialist violence must not be ignored. The violent attack of the British against Benin which enabled them to carry away thousands of artefacts renders it difficult to suggest that the Oba of Benin could easily leave some of the objects with the British and the Germans who bought them from the former. A difficult compromise is required here but attempts by some contemporary writers to suggest that the so-called Punitive Expedition was justified make matters worse.
Gold mask, 20 cm in height seized by the British from Kumasi, Ghana, in 1874 and now in the Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom.
Nor can the Asantes (Ghana) easily give up their claim to the golden head the British stole when they invaded Kumase (Ghana) in 1874 and carried away more than a thousand objects including many regalia of the Asante monarchy. (26)
The Ethiopians cannot give up their rights to recover the various Christian crosses, gold and brass crosses, textiles and other silver and gold objects the British stole in 1868 when they invaded Ethiopia and drove the Emperor Tewodros, in the face of imminent defeat, to commit suicide with a pistol that was a gift from the British Queen Victoria. The various valuable manuscripts that record Ethiopian history and the 350 illustrated manuscripts must clearly be returned to the Ethiopians and not be kept in Oxford, Cambridge, London and Edinburgh where they do not belong. The tabots or slabs of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church must also be returned. These tabots are supposed to be seen only by designated members of the church and the story from the British Museum that nobody, not even the director of the museum has ever looked at them will not convince anybody and is, in any case irrelevant. (27)
These sculptures of a rat head and a rabbit head were among the objects looted in 1860 when French and British soldiers under the command of Lord Elgin
sacked the imperial palace. The eighth Lord Elgin was the son of the seventh Lord Elgin, who removed the Parthenon Marbles from Athens.
Clearly, the imperialist invasion and attack on the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860 makes it impossible for the Chinese to regard the various objects stolen by
the French and the British as simple artefacts. This loss represents for the Chinese a national humiliation they cannot afford to ignore. Perhaps the Governments that planned and executed the invasion may wish to organize the return of the objects, some of which are now in private possession in the Western world. This wish was expressed by Victor Hugo in a famous statement:
“One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the Summer Palace was accomplished by the two victors acting jointly. Mixed up in all this is the name of Elgin, which inevitably calls to mind the Parthenon. What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace, more thoroughly and better, so that nothing of it should be left. All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewellery. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits”.
At the end of the statement Victor Hugo expresses a wish that still needs to be implemented:
“Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England. But I protest, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity! the crimes of those who lead are not the fault of those who are led; Governments are sometimes bandits, peoples never.
The French empire has pocketed half of this victory, and today with a kind of proprietorial naivety it displays the splendid bric-a-brac of the Summer Palace. I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China.
Meanwhile, there is a theft and two thieves.” (28)
Another important factor that should be remembered is that the long restitution debates link certain artefacts to the prestige of the source country to such an extent that one can hardly envisage any self-respecting government simply renouncing their rights to have them back. This would apply, for instance, to the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. The great Melina Mercouri explained the significance of the Parthenon Marbles for the Greeks thus:
“You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are the supreme symbol of nobility. They are a tribute to democratic philosophy. They are our aspiration and our name. They are the essence of Greekness.”(29) Do the Marbles have any deep significance for British culture apart from the statement from a member of the British House of Lords that admiration for Greek culture is also part of British culture?
Into this category of objects related to the exercise of power, comes
Montezuma's Crown. Whether the feather crown was ever used by the Aztec king or not is really not relevant. It has become a significant symbol of the Mexican national identity. (30)
Montezuma's Feather Crown, Mexico, now in Ethnology Museum, Vienna, Austria.
But apart from the famous objects, it should be possible to find an amicable solution to restitutions relating to many artefacts. We have often suggested that in the case of the Benin artefacts for example, there is no reason, except the selfishness and overweening arrogance of some Westerners, why a settlement could not be reached with the Benin Royal Family and Nigerian government on one hand, and British Museum and the British Government on the other. Similarly, the Ethnology Museum Berlin and the Nigerians could reach a fairly acceptable solution.
The Ethnology Museum, Berlin has, 580 Benin artefacts. Is there any valid reason why the museum should not be able to hand over some 400 pieces to the Benin Royal Family and the Nigerians? Do the Germans need the Benin artefacts more than the people of Benin City?
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 labelled 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.
We do not know how many Benin artefacts the British Museum has since it refuses to give any figures. We presume 700 would be safe to assume unless the venerable museum has in the meanwhile sold a few more pieces (31)
If there is ever going to be any reasonable settlement of the many restitution issues, the present Western holders of the artefacts would have to move from their position of arrogance and constant insulting attitude. Museums could play a useful role in intercultural relations.
Fiona-Rose-Greenland has accurately stated the changes that some Westerners, especially museum directors and critics do not want to understand or accept:
“Since the early 20th century, when officials in Rome lamented the exodus of Italian art works to the Americans, the field of antiquities collecting has been characterized by submissive source countries and dominant destination countries.
That Italy, Turkey and Greece have increasingly asserted their ownership of antiquities in the past decade is indicative of a decisive change in the power dynamics of this field, a change that mirrors shifting geopolitical relations more broadly. “Americans' access to the ancient world” may well have to take a back seat to the Italians' (or Turks' or Greeks') access. “(32)
Future changes in the relations between the West and the rest of the world would lead to more demands for restitution. African States would soon be making more demands than hitherto has been the case. Those States that have hitherto adopted a rather lukewarm approach to restitution would, after an unfruitful period, learn from Egypt and Turkey. They would no doubt be described as “aggressive”. But these States cannot be guilty of any aggression as the Western States were when they descended upon Africa and appropriated natural, human and cultural resources. A minimum of respect for descendants of victims of Western colonialism and imperialism would improve restitution discussions and negotiations.
The impolite and rude behaviour of Westerners towards those who dare ask for the restitution of their cultural artefacts must be studied and explained by specialists. My explanation, based on my experience and observation of Westerners, is that the rudeness and unfriendly behaviour of senior persons in the area of culture are deliberately assumed with a purpose in mind. Their rudeness has method: to avoid discussing seriously with the claimants the issues raised by the demand for restitution. The holders of looted/stolen artefacts realize they have no valid arguments and would prefer not to discuss the demand. If prior to discussions, the demander is sufficiently insulted, it is very likely there would be no discussions. Thus when Athens demands, as of right, the restitution of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and is told by the British Museum that the legality of the British possession must be recognized before any discussion, this prior requirement ensures that there will be no discussions. Or when the director of the British Museum states that in bringing the Parthenon marbles to the New Acropolis Museum, the Greeks were imitating Elgin this ensures there will be no discussion. In the meanwhile, the Marbles stay in the British Museum. Similarly, when Cuno did not even bother to acknowledge the request by the Benin Royal Family for the restitution of Benin artefacts, the objects remained in Chicago. Insulting the claimants thus becomes a much cheaper way of dealing with the demand for restitution. We have no other explanation for the disrespect shown to restitution demanders in countries that set high standards of politeness in everyday life.
Our contemporaries should remember that every second or minute that the cultural artefacts of another nation are detained is a violation of individual human right and collective right to free cultural and religious development.
Our contemporaries are not responsible for the deeds and misdeeds of their ancestors. But to condemn past evils of colonialism and imperialism and still refuse to return objects seized in colonial adventures places our contemporaries in a worse position than their ancestors; whereas one can understand their predecessors, their motivations and actions, our contemporaries have no valid excuse for not returning ill-gotten cultural artefacts.
Tristram Besterman has pointed out correctly the need for change in the attitude of the museums that pretend to be above the socio-economic realities underlying the relations between the West and the rest of the world:
“The vast imbalance between those who benefit from the exploitation of the finite natural and cultural capital of the world and those who suffer its consequences fuels resentment towards the West and gives a moral edge to the politics of sustainability. It is unsustainable, I argue, for Western museums to act as though they are above the maelstrom: they are part of it and should act as beacons of cultural equity to mitigate the deep division in society that they may otherwise represent.” Tristram Besterman. (33)
Kwame Opoku, 21 February, 2013
1. Presentation by Ambassador by Anastassis Mitsialis, Permanent Representative of Greece to the United Nations, of the Resolution titled, “Return or restitution of cultural property to the country of origin “A/RES/67/80, 12 Dec. 2012.
2. Jason Felch, 'Decoding Eakin: Behind 'Extortion' Claim, Fear the Floodgates Have Opened', January 29 2013.
3. Cultural Property Repatriation Issues http://paul-barford.blogspot.co.at/2013/01/cultural-property-repatriation-issues.html
4. K. Opoku, “Reflections on the Abortive Queen-Mother Idia Mask Auction: Tactical Withdrawal or Decision of Principle?” http://www.modernghana.coml
5. K. Opoku, “Once in the British Museum Always in the British Museum: Is the De-Accession Policy of the British Museum a Farce?“
6. Appendix 21, Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmselect/cmc
7. K. Opoku, “Nefertiti in Absurdity: How often must the Egyptians Ask for the Return of the Egyptian Queen?” http://www.modernghana.com
8. K. Opoku, “Compromise on the Restitution of Benin Bronzes? Comments on Article by John Ficton on Restitution of Benin Artefacts“, http://www.modernghana.com9.
9. Readers may forgive me from quoting this long passage from Christopher Hitchens, The Parthenon Marbles, Verso, 2008,pp. 97-99. I found in this useful book, a report on an interview said to have been given by David Wilson, then Director of the British Museum who threw the accusation of “nationalism” and “fascism” at the supporters of restitution. His statements are so remarkable in their violence and lack of logic that I feel everyone should read them:
“In a BBC television discussion on 15 June 1985, Sir David Wilson, Director of the British Museum, was invited to contrast his opinions with those of Melina Mercouri. Sir David had already exhibited a certain lack of gallantry when, on an earlier visit to London, Mrs. Mercouri had expressed a wish to visit the Museum and view the marbles. On that occasion he had said publicly that it was not usual to allow burglars 'to case the joint' in advance. But once before the cameras he easily improved on this ill-mannered exaggeration. 'To rip the Elgin Marbles from the walls of the British Museum' he said, 'is a much greater disaster than the threat of blowing up the Parthenon'. This might have been thought hyperbolic, if Sir David had not gone on to say, in response to a mild question about the feasibility of restitution:
Oh, anything can be done. That's what Hitler said, that's what Mussolini
said when he got Italian trains to run on time
The interviewer, David Lomax, broke in to say:
You are not seriously suggesting there's a parallel between…
Sir David was unrepentant:
Yes, I am. I think this is cultural fascism. It's nationalism and it's cultural danger. Enormous cultural danger. If you start to destroy great intellectual institutions, you are culturally fascist.
LOMAX: What do you mean by cultural fascist?
WILSON: You are destroying the whole fabric of intellectual achievement. You are starting to erode it. I can't say you are destroying, you are starting to erode. I think it's a very, very serious, thing to do. It's a thing you ought to think of very careful, it's like burning books. That's what Hitler did, I think you've to be very careful about that.
LOMAX: But are you seriously suggesting that the people who want the Elgin Marbles to go back to Greece, who feel there's an overwhelming moral case that they should go back, are guilty of cultural fascism?
WILSON: I think not the people who are wanting the Elgin Marbles to go back to Greece if they are Greek. But I think that the world opinion and the people in this country who want the Elgin Marbles to go back to Greece are actually guilty of something very much approaching it, it is censoring the British Museum. And I think that this is a bad thing to do. It is as bad as burning books”.
This is an extraordinary performance by a Director of the British Museum. One can sympathize with his desperation in face of the mounting pressure to return the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles to Athens and the great presence of the unforgettable Melina Mercouri in London. But can anyone excuse his shameful performance?
10. K, Opoku, “The Amazing Director of the British Museum: Gratuitous Insults as Currency of Cultural Diplomacy?” http://www.modernghana.,com
11. K. Opoku, “Benin Exhibition in Chicago: Cuno Agrees to Consider Request for Restitution of Benin Bronzes”,
12'. K. Opoku, “The Amazing Director of the British Museum” http://www.modernghana.,com
13.. K. Opoku, “Blood Antiquities in Respectable Havens: Looted Benin Artefacts Donated to American Museum,” http://www.modernghana.com
14. K. Opoku, “Report and Comments of the exhibition Benin-Kings and Ritual Court Arts from Nigeria,” Elginism, http://www.elginism.com
It is noticeable that there has been no report from the organizers of the International Symposium that was organized in Vienna, in 2007 in connection with the opening of this important exhibition at the Ethnology Museum, Vienna that was a success by all standards. Considering the quality of the artefacts displayed, the high calibre of the experts that spoke, the high level of the delegation sent by the Benin Royal Family, this is surprising. The catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Barbara Plankensteiner, Benin: Kings and Rituals - Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck, 2007, set high standards for Benin studies that will be hard to beat.See also, “Fauler Apfel in Paradies” Christian Feest, Gottfried Fliedl, Kwame Opoku and Emmanuel Desveaux Falter, 26 July, 2007, pp. 60-61.
15. Hugh Eakin, “The Great Giveback” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/sunday-review/the-great-giveback.html?pagewanted=all
16. Eakin, ibid.
17. For a detailed analysis of Eakin's article, see Chasing Aphrodite Decoding Eakin: Behind 'Extortion' Claim, Fear the Floodgates Have Opened
18. Blouinartifo http://www.artinfo.com/
19. New York Times, Dan Bilefsky, “Seeking Return of Art, Turkey Jolts Museums” http://www.nytimes.com/
20. International Journal of Legal Information
the Official Journal of the International Association of Law Libraries
Volume 38 Issue 2 Summer 2010 Article 12 7-1-2010.
See also Chasing Aphrodite, 'Exclusive: Turkey Seeks The Return of 18 Objects From The Metropolitan Museum of Art', Chasing Aphrodite blog, March 20, 2012.
Benjamin Sutton, 'More Antiquities Woes for U.S. Museums Loom, As Turkey Demands 18 Artifacts From the Metropolitan Museum', ArtInfo, march 20th 2012.
Art World Intelligence http://artworldintelligence.blogspot.co.at/ In economics, tourism and the art market serve as sources of revenue for nations. The potential for museums to draw tourism motivates nations to aggressively pursue repatriation of cultural property))
21. K. Opoku, “Would Western Museum Return Looted Objects If Nigeria and other African Countries Were Ruled by Angels? Restitution and Corruption. “ http://www.modernghana.com
22. K. Opoku, “The Amazing Director of the British Museum” http://www.modernghana.,com
23. Barbara Y. Newsom, New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/pages/opinion/index.html
24. “The 99% of the British Museum not on show,”
25. K, Opoku, Nefertiti. Idia and Other African Icons in European Museums: The Thin Edge of European Morality”
26. K. Opoku, “When Will Britain Return Looted Golden Ghanaian Artefacts?; A History of British Looting of more than 100 Objects.” http://www.modernghana.com
27, K. Opoku “Ethiopian President Shows the Way in Demand for Restitution of African Artefacts,” http://www.modernghana.com
28.K. Opoku, “Is It Not Time to Fulfil Victor Hugo's Wish? Cocmments on Chinese Claim to Looted Chinese Artefacts on Sale at Christie's” http://www.modernghana.com/author/KwameOpoku
30. K. Opoku “Has Mexico Renounced her Claim to Montezuma's Feather Crown in the Vienna Ethnology Museum?” http://www.modernghana.com
33. Tristram Besterman. “Cultural equity in the sustainable museum,” in
(Ed) Janet Marstine The Routeledge Companion to Museum Ethics- Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum. pp. 239-255Routeledge, London, 2011.
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