Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Not About Culture but Money

There are a series of objections to the proposed sale by the Borough of Northampton of the ancient statue of Sekhemka from the town's museum. The statue was donated 'in perpetuity' to the Northampton Museum over 100 years ago  by Lord Northampton’s family. The museum's governing body however seems determined to betray the trust placed in it and want to sell the statue. It is reported that a deal has been reached whereby the present Lord Northampton will receive 45% of the proceeds of the sale, with Northampton Borough Council receiving 55% .
Sniping xenophobe collectors and their lobbyists object to Egypt's new Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh El-Damati  expressing disapproval of the sale They miss the point entirely. The Minister's statement indicates an extreme shift of policy.
El-Damati has denounced the decision made by Northampton Museum, claiming that it is against the values of museums world wide as they should act as vessels to spread culture, rather than businesses searching for a profit.
This is totally at odds with the policies publicly expressed by previous Ministers which demanded iconic objects and others be returned to Egypt. Collectors claim that antiquity collecting is all about spreading culture, but their notion of that is through private possession of trophy objects like this one, which is why on their websites and forums they simply ignore this important shift.
Mr El-Damati has called on the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to stop the sale on the grounds that it goes against the council’s ethics. Ali Ahmed, head of the ministry’s stolen antiquities section, said the Sekhemka statue was given to Northampton Museum at the end of the 18th century by an Ottoman sultan and has been a part of the museum’s collection on display since 1849. But a spokeswoman for Northampton Borough Council said Eqypt had no right to reclaim the statue and this had been confirmed after an investigation. The spokeswoman said: “We contacted the Egyptian Government two years ago regarding our plans to sell Sekhemka. “According to UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, Egypt has no right to claim the recovery of the statue, as the statue left Egypt before this convention was put in place and this was confirmed by the Egyptian Government on June 15.”
I doubt it was "given" by an Ottoman sultan - no documentation of such a gift has ever been produced. The spokeswoman is simply wrong. There is nothing exclusive about the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Of course Egypt has a right to ask for the return of something taken out of Egypt in the past which is no longer wanted by those who hold it in trust. What she means is there is nothing in the Convention (or international or local law) which would oblige Northampton to comply. That is a totally different matter. If Northampton do not want to continue to look after this statue, and no other public collection in the UK will take on this role, then it should be offered back to Egypt.  
Sources: 'Egyptian government launches last-minute legal bid to stop sale of Sekhemka by Northampton Borough Council', Northampton Chronicle and Echo  7th July 2014.
'Egypt threatens legal action to stop UK museum selling ancient statue', Al Arabiya News Tuesday, 8 July 2014.
Northampton residents have formed a Save Sekhemka Action Group. Sign the petition now, just two days left to convince the Borough's footwear philistines they are doing wrong.  To Councillor David Mackintosh, Leader of Northampton Borough Council STOP the Sale of Sekhemka by Northampton Council.

Vignette: The contested statue.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Sweden Returns Ancient Andean Textiles to Peru

I mentioned these textiles on this blog earlier, it seems a resolution has been reached (Ralph Blumental, 'Sweden Returns Ancient Andean Textiles to Peru', ArtsBeat - New York Times Blog, June 5, 2014).
A mummy’s cloak with tiles of animals that appear to signify time periods or the seasons.One of the world’s most precious troves of looted antiquities — brilliantly colored burial shrouds from an Andean civilization that flourished a thousand years before Columbus — is on its way back to Peru for a ceremonial handover in Lima. The 89 embroidered textiles, named for the Paracas peninsula where they were unearthed around 1930 and then smuggled out by the Swedish consul, ended up in possession of the city of Gothenburg and were displayed there in the National Museum of World Culture. Gothenburg has never disputed that the textiles, some dating back nearly 3,000 years, were “illegally exported” and has long been in talks with Peru for their return. Now, said Peru’s vice minister of cultural patrimony, Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, the mayor of Gothenburg is delivering four of them on June 18. One, Mr. Castillo Butters said, is a woven mummy’s cloak, about 40 by 60 centimeters, with tiles of animals that appear to signify time periods or the seasons. Mr. Castillo Butters said he viewed it as, “the most important textile from Peru and one of the most important in the world.” Several other Paracas textiles remain in other museums. Because the textiles are extremely fragile and require delicate handling, the last pieces from Sweden won’t arrive until 2021, he said.  
UPDATE 9th June 2014
Donna Yates, 'Sacking the Necropolis: how 100 Peruvian mummy textiles ended up in Sweden',  Anonymous Swiss Collector 9 June 2014.

WA Aboriginal leaders retrieve secret sacred items taken a century ago

A group of Aboriginal elders from northern WA travelled south to collect sacred objects taken by explorers or researchers more 100 years ago. They're human remains and sacred objects that were seized as souvenirs or research material since the late 1800's, some of the latter are so sacred they cannot be described to outsiders or seen by women or children. This is just the latest in a stream of returns being made to Aboriginal groups around Australia under a state funded repatriation programme. Much of the activity has been occurring in WA's north, where the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre has been helping traditional owners negotiate with museums and universities. Australian institutions have come a long way in how they view Indigenous artefacts and are working hard to right the wrongs of the past, particularly in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural property, where those relationships weren't necessarily on an equal footing, and where there were situations where people were either coerced or forced to surrender items, or these things were acquired without their knowledge. This repatriation program attempts to address those issues to some degree. It's not just Australian institutions involved. There are a lot of remains still in institutions overseas: in America, Germany, France, Poland, England, South Africa.

Source: Erin Parke, 'WA Aboriginal leaders retrieve secret sacred items taken a century ago',  Friday, June 6, 2014

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)