Museums are home to millions of artworks and cultural artifacts, some of which have made their way to these institutions through unjust means. Some argue that these objects should be repatriated (i.e., returned to their country, culture, or owner of origin). However, these arguments face a series of philosophical challenges. In particular, repatriation, even if justified, is often portrayed as contrary to the aims and values of museums. However, in this paper, I argue that some of the very considerations museums appeal to in order to oppose repatriation claims can be turned on their heads and marshaled in favor of the practice. In addition to defending against objections to repatriation, this argument yields the surprising conclusion that the redistribution of cultural goods should be much more radical than is typically supposed.
An interesting argument, and it sounds to me like he is making a case for cultural justice.
Ben Quinn’s piece in the Guardian sheds light on an interesting forthcoming conference which hopes to “establish a permanent display” of Benin material in Nigeria. The Benin bronzes are in many museums in the West, and viewing them gives me to very different reactions. On the one hand, they are terrific to look at, with wonderful detail. But on the other, many of these objects were seized by the British Empire during an 1897 Punitive Campaign. That campaign was as bad as it sounds. To give a brief overview, a British official and his advisors were sent to uncover whether there was ritual human sacrifice taking place in the Kingdom of Benin. When the official and his advisors were killed by the King of Benin, the British responded by destroying the city, and looting as many as 900 of the Benin bronzes to compensate for the costs of the exhibition. Many of these objects were purchased by museums.
Nigeria has requested the return of much of this material, but the museums and collectors who currently possess them have often refused to enter into a dialogue. These negotiations for the return of material can be difficult and contentious, but they do not have to be. Here is hoping the meeting, which will take place in the Netherlands’ National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden will lead to a productive dialogue in the same way that Yale’s return of material to Peru or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act operates.
Quinn’s story highlights the ethical case driving the dialogue, but also some of the challenges:
“I think that among this generation of curators there is an eagerness to find ways towards reconciliation,” said Dr Michael Barrett, senior curator at Stockholm’s Världskulturmuseet. “We are one of the smaller participants in this and it is very early but we are eager to continue with discussions.”
Among the issues still to be resolved are insurance costs and security arrangements. European curators and their west African counterparts are also keen to establish a legal framework that would guarantee the artefacts immunity from seizure in Nigeria.
John Picton, a professor at Soas University of London (formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies) and a former curator of the National Museum in Lagos, said: “The moral case is indisputable. Those antiquities were lifted from Benin City and you can argue that they ought to go back. On the other hand, the rival story is that it is part of world art history and you do not want to take away African antiquity from somewhere like the museums in Paris or London, because that leaves Africa without its proper record of antiquity.”
Sara Ross, a Ph.D. candidate at Osgoode Hall Law has published an article in the American Indian Law Journal titled: “Res Extra Commercium and the Barriers Faced When Seeking the Repatriation and Return of Potent Cultural Objects: A Transsystemic Critical Post-Colonial Approach”. From the abstract:
The repatriation and return of objects of cultural value are often linked to decolonization projects and efforts to repair past wrongs suffered as a result of colonialism. Yet significant barriers hinder these efforts. These barriers primarily take the shape of time limitations, diverging conceptions of property and ownership, the high costs involved, and the domestic export and cultural heritage laws of both the source country and the destination country. I argue that these barriers are relics of colonialism that replicate and perpetuate the continued imposition of Eurocentric and Western legal notions and values on subaltern source countries and source indigenous groups. In order to truly move beyond the remaining relics of colonialism into a context where the culture and values of all groups are accorded equal respect, it is important that these barriers be removed.
Italy and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek art museum in Copenhagen on Tuesday announced an agreement for the return of antiquities taken illegally from Italy.
Objects repatriated include the contents of a tomb from near Fara north of Rome. Those objects had allegedly passed through Robert Hecht, a familiar name to those who follow illicit antiquities. Hecht passed away in 2012, and had been the subject of a criminal trial in Rome in 2005, allegedly for dealing in illicit antiquities.
Robert Hecht described buying the Etruscan chariot from Giacomo Medici:
The Art Newspaper reported last week after examining EU documents, that Italy has been stripped of €151m in culture funding next year because regions have failed to spend funds allocated. This includes the loss of funding for Aidone, which is the village near the ancient site of Morgantina:
The EU rejected a request for €2.4m from the Archaeological Museum of Aidone to renovate its galleries because of incomplete documentation and the lack of an “economic framework”. The museum was due to welcome back the Head of Hades (400-300BC), a Hellenistic terracotta fragment that was restored to Sicily by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in January. But the sculpture, thought to have been illegally excavated from a sanctuary at Morgantina in the 1970s, remains in limbo in Palermo, partly because the Aidone museum has not prepared a suitable display for it.
This is a really sad development. It seems now very difficult to square the argument that works of art must be returned when the requesting nation cannot properly manage funding that is available. The step here needs to be capacity building for these smaller museums and regions to properly instruct the employees the expectations of grant requests and the expectations.
There may be another side to this story. The English-language reporting of happenings in Italy often have a Northern-European bias. But its hard to put a positive spin on such wasted resources.
We’ll hopefully be in Aidone and Morgantina in a week’s time—we are able to sneak away from my cultural heritage law course in Valletta, Malta. I hope to have some images and thoughts on the site and museum in Aidone soon.
With 2016 marking the 200th anniversary of the acquisition of the Parthenon sculptures by Parliament from Lord Elgin, there will likely be a lot of attention paid to the long-running dispute. The Guardian reported yesterday on a legal summary authored by Geoffrey Robertson, Norman Palmer, and Amal Clooney. The possibility of bringing a claim before the ICJ, raising public support, and continuing to generate goodwill towards reunification of the monument in Athens are the major themes of the 141 page summary, available via the Guardian. But the major focus of the claim now seems to be a call for justice for the sculptures, an argument I’ve made as well building on the well-established principle of environmental justice.
The reporting by Helena Smith focuses on the work by advocates in Athens:
As campaigners prepare to mark the 200th anniversary of the antiquities’ “captivity” in London, Athens is working at forging alliances that would further empower its longstanding battle to retrieve the sculptures.
“We are trying to develop alliances which we hope would eventually lead to an international body like the United Nations to come with us against the British Museum,” the country’s culture minister, Aristides Baltas, revealed in an interview.
“If the UN represents all nations of the world and all nations of the world say ‘the marbles should be returned’ then we’ll go to court because the British Museum would be against humanity,” he said. “We do not regard the Parthenon as exclusively Greek but rather as a heritage of humanity.”
But the politician admitted there was always the risk of courts issuing a negative verdict that would wreck Athens’ chances of having the artworks reunited with the magnificent monument they once adorned.
“Courts do not by definition regard [any] issue at the level of history or morality or humanity-at-large. They look at the laws,” said Baltas, an academic and philosopher who played a pivotal role in founding Syriza, Greece’s governing leftist party. “As there are no hard and fast rules regarding the issue of returning treasures taken away from various countries, there is no indisputable legal basis.”
An Athenian cultural association has brought a claim before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg seeking the return of the Parthenon Sculptures held by the British Museum. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Parliament’s decision to purchase sculptures stripped from the Parthenon from Lord Elgin. At present most of the surviving sculptures rest in London at the British Museum.
cultural identity as an aspect of «the right to respect for private life» (Article 8 of ECHR);
cultural identity as an aspect of «the freedom of conscience» (Article 9 of ECHR);
the right to access cultural information, as an aspect of «the freedom of expression» (Article 10 of ECHR);
the «right to an effective remedy» (Article 13 of ECHR); and
the right to property, in the sense of integral public access to the monument (Article 1 of the Additional Protocol to ECHR).
The Athenians’ Association, which has existed since 1895, argues in a statement that it hopes to “raise international public awareness and to have justice rendered” and “hopes that the truth will prevail, that the monument will be restored and that history and tradition will shine forth for the good of mankind”.
I’ve laid out my argument as well, that cultural justice demands the reunification of this work of art.