Monday, February 11, 2008

Culture wars: Who owns the world's art?

There’s an interesting debate simmering in the art world as museums from mostly rich countries are being asked to return artifacts and art once looted from mostly poorer and militarily weaker countries. Lee Rosenbaum, an editor at Art in America, claims that these countries should keep ownership of this illegally appropriated art, but “loan” the pieces back to the galleries that bought them so they can be disseminated and enjoyed by a wide audience. Thus, the ownership of the art will change, but its location will not.

She continues in the Los Angeles Times:

The fact is that source countries, possessing more high-quality artifacts from their ancient pasts than they can adequately display, don't need to get everything back. The Met's senior research associate, Heidi King, organizer of that museum's upcoming show "Featherwork in Ancient Peru," said that Peruvian museums already own ceramics of far greater quality than the pieces that Yale University recently agreed to relinquish from a collection acquired in the early 1900s from the Machu Picchu expedition led by Yale scholar Hiram Bingham III. And it could be argued that the "context" Yale provided these objects for 100 years -- through scholarship and public display -- makes it worth preserving them "in situ" in New Haven.

Aside from being magnanimous lenders, source countries should allow some legally excavated antiquities to be bought and sold. Lesser objects could be marketed to collectors, dealers and museums, with the proceeds benefiting archaeological projects. Enabling citizens of other countries to appreciate and acquire selected pieces of Italy's, Greece's, Egypt's or China's past is a game that, if played by the rules, can have no losers.

It’s an argument that doesn’t sit well with Kwame Opoku, who wrote this in

Those holding stolen items and illegally acquired objects may be in “possession” of them but they are surely not the “owners.” When she writes about “art lovers everywhere”, she is, like Phillipe de Montebello, only thinking of art lovers in London, Paris and New York. Art lovers in Bamako, Lagos, Accra and Dakar are not considered. They can travel thousands of miles to New York and London.

Rosenbaum has not said a word about compensation for those whose cultural objects have been detained by the rich museums; she writes about loans but does not indicate whether these are loans with no costs involved. Would these loans be retroactive or not? What does she offer the countries seeking restitution? Or does she think having our cultural objects displayed in New York, London, Paris and Berlin constitute sufficient compensation? Maybe she has not reached that point yet as has been suggested.

Many persons recognize now that there is a need for fundamental changes in relations between western countries and the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America with regard to the thousands of cultural objects illegally acquired or stolen. Proposals on this issue should be seen to be fair to all sides and above all, be seen to make amends for the past injustices or al least not to continue in the same line. But can western commentators make the paradigmatic change required? Rosenbaum and others could also make a useful contribution in this respect. If only they think of the feelings and interests of others outside Europe and the United States.

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