Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Africa, lost 95 percent of its cultural heritages and treasures to the developed world

Africa, a continent that has been labeled as "dark" and "poor" for years could have never seen its current status of the "rising continent," without its immense treasures and natural resources. Nevertheless, resources have been a curse in most instances because of the developed world's incessant tendency of coming in and taking a piece. As a result, the continent is believed to have lost 95 percent of its cultural heritages and treasures to the developed world.

Henok Reta, 'Ethiopia: The Battle for History and Heritage', All Africa 29 March 2014.

The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels and the Colonial Perspective

The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels is at the centre of a debate about how to present the complex legacy of the colonial past and the ethics of cultural ownership ('The plunder years: culture and the colony', Irish Times Mar 25, 2014). The country’s Royal Museum of Central Africa is closing for a three-year renovation, precipitating discussions about the redisplay of the items it contains:
The grand, neoclassical building was built on the outskirts of Brussels by King Leopold II in the late 19th century as a monument to the Belgian Congo. The project was originally intended to be temporary – the Brussels International Exhibition of 1897 was designed to celebrate the newly acquired empire in the Congo, with real-life African villagers brought to Belgium for the event. But a permanent museum to the Congo was built on the site, and its collection gradually increased as the Belgian colony expanded. The packed boats that docked in Antwerp provided a constant provision of treasures and plunders from the Congo. Even by 1910, the Belgian empire was attracting international criticism, albeit by countries that were themselves involved in colonisation. Leopold II had edged into the “great game” of European expansion in Africa in the late 1870s, anxious to put the relatively new country of Belgium on the map. At huge personal expense, the king engaged a number of individuals to navigate the competitive field of international diplomacy to stake his claim to the yet unclaimed wild landscape in central Africa. Figures such as journalist-cum-explorer Henry Morton Stanley, whose discovery of Dr David Livingstone propelled him to stardom, helped Leopold tame a territory that soon spanned an area 80 times the size of Belgium. Leopold never visited the colony. Congo’s extensive rubber resources were the driving force of the colony’s expansion, with slave labour enforced on the native Congolese. A failure to fulfil rubber quotas led to murder and mutilation, with the severing of hands becoming a horrific symbol of the Belgian project. Some estimates put the death toll at up to 10 million.
The Museum of Central Africa maps the history of this period of Belgium’s past and the presentation of the objects still reflect the original colonial perspective. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Native Americans ask German museum to return human scalps in its display

Ojibwe reservations (Wikipedia)
A group of Native Americans has asked a German museum to return some human scalps in its display. The   Ojibwe Nation said the display at the Karl May Museum is 'insensitive' and 'not culturally appropriate':
Members of Native American tribes are involved in a dispute with a German Wild West museum over human scalps in its exhibition.  [...] The Karl May Museum in Radebeul, outside Dresden, has been criticised for displaying the scalps, some of which are decorated with braided hair and beads. [...] The museum, named after adventure writer Karl May, acquired the scalps from the Austrian Ernst Tobis, as part of a huge collection of Native American artefacts he bequeathed to the museum in 1926.

Antonia Molloy, 'Native Americans ask German museum to return human scalps in its display ' The Independent Online Monday 24 March 2014 .

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The growing backlash against the trade in Tribal Art

Brief and rather sketchy piece in the Economist (Feb 8th): "Masks and magic: The growing backlash against the trade in tribal art"
Tribal art began gaining recognition in the late 19th century when exhibitions, such as MoMA’s “Africa Negro Art” show, new ethnographic museums, such as the Palais du Trocadéro in Paris, and the enthusiasm of modernist artists like Pablo Picasso gave the West a taste for the exotic. But growing cultural sensitivity is restricting the market. Museums are increasingly required to return cultural items to the descendants or tribe they belong to. [...] Australia, New Zealand and countries in Central and South America are also demanding the return of sensitive art work from dealers and auction houses directly. [...] Prices are going up as important pieces become scarcer.
Masks meant to be worn and danced not displayed in a foreign museum (Wikipedia)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Results of Guadian Poll: 88% are for Repatriation

Elginism, 'Guardian Poll shows that more than 17 out of every 20 people support return of Marbles', February 17, 2014
There have been many polls about the Parthenon Marbles in recent years and only a few have shows anything other than a high level of support for their return. The Guardian recently ran a poll, following the publicity from George Clooney’s statements about the sculptures. The results speak for themselves – but the end of the two day poll, the web page attracted over 2,500 comments, and the end result of the poll itself showed that 88% of those who took part were in favour of the sculptures being returned. Politicians have a tendency to state that the marbles are a complex issue and that the country is deeply divided over them – the reality though is that nearly everyone supports return – so why can’t they listen to this and respond sensibly to it, by entering into serious negotiations to resolve it? 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Should Britain return the Parthenon marbles?

Should Britain return the Parthenon marbles? While promoting his new film Monuments Men, about returning art taken by the Nazis to its rightful owners, George Clooney has said that the UK should give the Parthenon marbles back to Greece. Are you with him? Guardian poll, closes at midnight on Saturday. At the moment there is an overwhelming majority (88%) in favour of returning the fragments but disappointingly there seem to be a lot of British nationalists represented in the comments.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Denver Museum Repatriates Vigango

Three of the Denver objects
The long, slender wooden East African memorial totems known as vigango (pronounced vee-GON-go; the singular form is kigango) are creating a ethical crisis  for American museums. 
Some 20 institutions in the United States own about 400 of the totems, according to Monica L. Udvardy, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky and an expert on Kenyan culture who has studied and tracked vigango for 30 years. She said that Kenyans believe that vigango are invested with divine powers and should never have been removed from their sites and treated as global art commodities. Kenyan officials have made constant pleas to have the objects sent back. But repatriating them takes far more than addressing a parcel. No federal or international laws prevent Americans from owning the totems, while Kenyan law does not forbid their sale. And the Kenyan government says that finding which village or family consecrated a specific kigango is arduous, given that many were taken more than 30 years ago and that agricultural smallholders in Kenya are often nomadic. The result is that museum trustees seeking legally to relinquish, or deaccession, their vigango have no rightful owners to hand them to.
Vigango are carved from a termite-resistant wood by members of the Mijikenda people of Kenya and erected to commemorate relatives and important village headmen. Notched and round-headed, they vary in length from four to nine feet and are dressed, served food and tended as living icons. Hundreds of vigango were bought or donated to museums in the 1980s and 1990s by collectors of African art, including some Hollywood luminaries.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science  received 30 vigango  as donations in 1990 from two Hollywood collectors, the actor Gene Hackman and the film producer Art Linson, bought from .  Now they are trying to give them back. 
“The process is often complicated, expensive and never straightforward,” said Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, the museum’s curator of anthropology. “But just because a museum is not legally required to return cultural property does not mean it lacks an ethical obligation to do so.”The museum this month will deliver its 30 vigango [...] to the National Museums of Kenya. Officials there will choose whether to display the objects, hunt through the nation’s hinterlands for their true owners and original sites, or allow them to decay slowly and ceremoniously, as was intended by their consecrators. Whatever they opt to do, Kenyan officials say, sovereignty over the objects should be theirs and not in the hands of foreign museums. (The details of the transfer are still being negotiated.)[...] The Denver museum “passionately values” such objects, Mr. Colwell-Chanthaphonh said, but added,  “Collections should not come at the price of a source community’s dignity and well-being.”
These are quite valuable objects in the 'tribal art' trade. Vigango sold for perhaps $1,500 apiece in the 1980s, but they are now valued at upward of $5,000 and one fetched $9,500 at auction in Paris in 2012. The Denver Museum's vigango had come from the United States’ foremost dealer in vigango and other East African artifacts, Ernie Wolfe III of Los Angeles.
A brash, boar-hunting devotee of Africa, Mr. Wolfe has long acknowledged that he was a pivotal figure in making a market for vigango in the United States. He said in a telephone interview that the objects became popular in Hollywood in the 1980s. Along with Mr. Hackman and Mr. Linson, aficionados have included the actors Powers Boothe, Linda Evans and Shelley Hack. Mr. Wolfe stoutly defends collecting, selling and exhibiting the objects, saying he rescued them after they had spent their spiritual powers — been “deactivated,” as he puts it — and had been abandoned by their consecrators. He also said that Kenyan officials applauded his first presentation of vigango in the United States, at the Smithsonian Institution in 1979.
To date, only two vigango have been returned by American museums, one each by the Illinois State University Museum in Springfield and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia.

I would be very interested to know, looking at these posts, just what the original buyers saw in them, and what they did with them when they were in their homes.  Did the buy them for their artistic expressiveness (of what)? Or did they buy them as trophy pieces, or to brag about, or just because they were the fad of the time. And what made them give them up? 

 Tom Mashberg, Sending Artworks Home, but to Whom?', New York Times, January 3, 2014