Friday, March 25, 2011

Kwame Opoku on the Recent Looting in Egypt and the Repatriation Debate

Kwame Opoku has a well-argued response (Restitution and Recent Upheavals in Egypt, March 24, 2011) to the comments of the antiquity dealers and collectors lobbyists alleging that the recent looting in Egypt shows what a bad idea restitution of scattered cultural heritage to their source countries is. Those who are against restitution will use the present situation as an excuse for rejecting the restitution of certain items.

Opoku argues that the disorder, revolt or revolution in Egypt does not change the nature of the debate on restitution nor does it provide any convincing excuse for the retentionists in the Western world. The determination of some museums and collectors not to return certain items to Egypt has never been based on the security or insecurity in Egypt. In all the previous thirty years in which Hosni
Mubarak ruled Egypt there were no reported major disturbances, but still the "cultural property retentionists" refused to return some of the Egyptian artefacts as requested by Zahi Hawass.
If we look at the other cases of restitution, for example, the Benin bronzes, we note that there is no revolution in Nigeria and yet for more than hundred years, including the period when Nigeria was a British colony, the British Museum refused to return the bronzes though the venerable museum has at times been very willing to sell these objects even to Nigeria. [...] Similarly, the British have been unwilling to return the golden Asante regalia they looted from Asante (Ghana) in 1874 even though the country which was British colony until 1957 has been peaceful without any major civil unrest [...]. Again, if we consider the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, there is no disorder in Athens but the British Museum is not considering the return of the marbles to Athens. Clearly, those who argue against returning artefacts to Egypt are using a very convenient but unconvincing argument. They will not convince anyone who has carefully followed the debates on the issue in the last years.

Opoku then turns his attention to the person who has done more than anyone to raise awareness of these issues in the past years:
Many Western museum directors may be rejoicing at the resignation and departure of Zahi Hawass from the position of the Secretary-General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. Let them rejoice for the period of respite they have unexpectedly gained will be shorter than they wish. The question of restitution was there before Hawass came and will remain after his departure and after all of us are gone if attitudes in the West do not change. Whatever happens to Hawass in the post Mubarak period, one must acknowledge that the celebrated archaeologist has rendered to Egypt and to Africa immense services which many others envy. He has made the issue of restitution known to a broader public in the world. Which other archaeologist is as well-known as the famous Egyptian archaeologist? He has made archaeology a lively subject for many persons. He has restored to Egypt, Egyptology, a science dominated for too long by Westerners. Westerners can no longer go to Egypt as if they were going to an archaeological supermarket to take whatever they want. They have to seek permission which may be refused and they may be asked to leave the country. One may not always like his style and tactics but there is no gainsaying that Hawass has been more successful with his approach than many others. The dedication and enthusiasm he brought to the issue of restitution deserve the admiration of all honest people. [...] How many people can bring such energy and dedication to their work? We wish other countries had such worthy and energetic representatives who speak out clearly in the cultural field. The West, of course, has never liked intellectuals and representatives of non-Western peoples who know their work and articulate their positions boldly. A man like Hawass who mastered modern media and used them effectively was a thorn in the flesh of many. [...] One undoubted achievement of Zahi Hawass was his success in bringing together states with restitution claims in April 2010 to the Cairo Conference on restitution - Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage - in Cairo, on April 7 and 8, 2010. For the first time, States with restitution claims met for two days to discuss common problems and to develop
strategies for recovering/stolen/looted cultural artefacts. In addition to emphasizing that ownership of cultural heritage by the country of origin does not expire, nor does it face prescription, the communique issued at the end of the conference added that the efforts initiated in Cairo should be pursued and expanded upon and there should be continued consultations among the participants as well as with other countries and institutions.
The dismemberment of the SCA which was to liaise with other delegations for the preparation of the next meeting and outlining the future activities of the Conference leaves the future of the initiative difficult to predict, but the very fact that it took place was an important step.

Opoku concludes:
The recent events in Egypt may be analysed and assessed differently but it would clearly be illegitimate to argue that the temporary disorder in that country offers a valid reason for not returning artefacts illegally taken from Egypt. Certainly, we do not expect anybody to return artefacts in the midst of revolts and public disorder. This situation however will improve soon and the retentionists in the West will be exposed for their dishonest arguments which are based on grounds other than the present disorder.
Indeed, now the (initial) anti-government demonstrations are over, the main source of danger to antiquities in Egypt is continuing theft from sites and museum stores which Opoku is right to link with the appetite of the foreign antiquities markets, he quotes the view of Prof. Barry Kemp:
The most useful thing the international community can do about this is to examine its conscience. The looting of sites is done to satisfy the market in antiquities, which continues to flourish in Europe and the US. It is now a reasonable assumption that any Egyptian piece that is for sale is either fake or was looted.

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