Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Get your hands off my artifact: The debate over the ownership of antiquities

Ok, I’ll jump again. Once again, debate has broken out regarding the responsibility of museums that have purchased “stolen” or “appropriated” antiquities. On one hand, the new regulations against plunder and illegal sales of antiquities in many “source countries” – a term employed by Drake Bennett in a recent story in the Boston Globe – is seen as a threat to (another term from the story) the “great ‘encyclopaedic” museums like the MFA or Metropolitan Museum, “that provide a unique opportunity to see the full breadth and diversity of the world’s cultural history in one place.”

Basically, the argument goes, the forced return of these “antiquities” should be halted and these pieces should remain part of the collections of the great museums and enjoyed by people from all over the world. It shouldn’t go unnoticed that these source countries in question are mostly poor – although Italy and Turkey are also involved in this fight to protect antiquities – while the “encyclopaedic museums” reside in mostly rich countries.

Like the previous debate posted here, left out of the debate is the method which the great museums originally acquired the piece of art; what is now important is how will the museum treat and exhibit the antiquity? For museums in the western world, they are “cosmopolitan institutions where the age-old interpenetration of cultures is brought into relief.” On the other hand, the repatriated pieces could find themselves ghettoized into the collections of poor countries, which could end up “restricting [the pieces] to more homogenous national museums.” (This all from arguments within the Boston Globe piece.)

"We should recognize that a great deal of knowledge, cross-fertilization, and exchange can come from objects moving across borders," Philippe de Montebello wrote in an essay, "Whose Culture Is It?," published in the Berlin Journal last fall.

Kwame Opoku, who I quoted during the last round, comes to a strident defense of African, and third world, interests. This time he is writing in AfricaAvenir, and having none of these arguments.

Who appointed the museums of New York, London, Paris and Berlin as guardians of the “world’s culture” with the right to keep the cultures of others? When these objects were being removed nobody saw any danger to the cultures of those countries. Now that they demand the return of their cultural objects, western museum directors see danger to the “world’s culture”. Are those countries not part of the “world’s culture”? Why should the repossession of their own cultural goods be a damage to “world’s culture” when the initial, often violent, removal was not? Would any museum director dare to tell the people of Ethiopia or Benin such a story?

There’s another problem. It may be true that these “encyclopedic museums” attract great crowds. It’s also very difficult for many Africans to travel to the Western world.

When the museums in New York, London, Paris and Berlin pretend to provide an opportunity for all to see the world’s culture at one place, they are thinking of westerners mainly. They are not thinking of Africans or others who have the greatest difficulties in obtaining visas to visit western countries. Are we not part of this world? A man living in Lagos, Bamako, Benin City and Yaounde surely will not agree that he can see at one place “the full breadth and diversity of the world’s cultural history in one place”. He definitely cannot go to the European embassies in his country requesting visa because he wants to see the African artefacts in Europe. The embassies will throw him out.

This Boston Globe piece fuses in another argument, which I think is a bit tangential to the whole manner, but interesting nonetheless. It goes like this: An artifact from an ancient civilization which once resided in what now is, say, Afghanistan may share very few, if any, cultural, religious or aesthetic and ethnic links with the modern state that is now Afghanistan. In fact, Afghanistan is often brought up as a poor proprietor of cultural heritage because in 2001 the Taliban infamously destroyed two standing Buddha statues that predated Islam. (Of course, making any example out of the Taliban is hardly fair.) But there are other attempts where “modern” societies have attempted to erase its links with the past. Think of Communist China and its disdain toward long-standing civilization that rose before it. This is a little off topic, but you could also make the argument that some societies have attempted to forge faux links between its present incarnation and the past. Think of Nicolae Ceauşecu attempting to forge Romania with the civilization of ancient Rome.

Father, what is art?
Another issue involved in this debate relates to the new stringent laws that make it difficult for any artifact to leave a source country. Some argue these laws actually fuel the black market trade by making even legitimate trades illicit. From the Boston Globe:

The problem with these seemingly laudable efforts, according to [Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, James] Cuno, is that they're not really about the artifacts, but about politics. The young governments of Greece and Turkey, he points out, used their antiquities, and the laws restricting their export, as a way of forging a national political identity. The Greek government's dogged campaign to recover the Elgin Marbles is one example. The Turkish government's claim of ownership over the relics of ancient Kurdish culture found within its national borders - objects that, if owned by the Kurds themselves, might fuel their separatist ambitions - is another.

Understandably, Africans are very worried about the whereabouts of the art that was pilfered from their ancestors. As the number of stories in the press belies, the Americans and other Westerners are also worried over what happens when they give these pieces back. It reminds me of a criticism from Chinua Achebe who claimed that while critics called his novels as culturally narrow, he questioned how Westerners began believing their culture was universal. (A bad paraphrase, but you get the point.) The same argument can be made here: How can these museums claim to understand a culture better than its inhabitants?

1 comment:

DEG said...

Not a bad review of the stewardship argument, however, I think you're missing two important elements.
First, on the topic of repatriation, you have two classes of object- those taken from living populations (e.g. masks, granary doors) and those taken from archaeological sites (e.g. terracottas, Nok heads). The issues of rights around these two classes are different, especially since many of the former were "sold" by their "owners."
As for the archaeological material in particular, part of the problem is that virtually all antiquities were looted from archaeological sites: only one major terracotta has a solid provenience. The rest have been basically ripped out of the ground (if you visit Thial- where Chirac's notorious terracotta was from- the site looks like it's been bombed). Without context on ancient artifacts, no one, African or Western, can ever really understand the societies that produced them.