Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The obligation to repatriate

There is an opinion piece in the Daily Princetonian by Lily Yu (is an English major from West Windsor, N.J.). She had previously been an intern at Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities in 2009. It is replying to a retentionist article by Aaron Applebaum in the paper a week earlier:
In his column last Tuesday, Aaron Applbaum argued for keeping antiquities in European and American museums regardless of how they got there. Looting should be eliminated, he wrote, but “the returning of already acquired artifacts should not be expected.” [....]

Applbaum is incorrect in claiming that repatriating antiquities would mean removing them from museums and reducing public access to them. Many of the countries requesting repatriation, including Mexico, Egypt, Turkey, Italy and China, have excellent museums of their own. His description of these countries as “geographical and cultural ghettos” is condescending and inaccurate. Repatriation requests are often motivated by a country’s desire to make its cultural heritage available to its own people. In most countries that have suffered and continue to suffer extensive cultural theft, relatively few people can afford to travel to the American and European museums where major pieces of their heritage are on display. In 2010 the per-capita gross domestic product of Great Britain, where the Rosetta Stone is displayed, was $35,000; in Egypt, it was $6,200. The plane ticket between these countries is likely to be more affordable in one than the other. A long-term loan of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt would permit, without loss to the British Museum, millions of Egyptians to view a cornerstone of their history for the first time.

One of the stronger arguments against repatriation is that the security and means for preservation in the requesting countries are sometimes subpar. During the recent revolts in Egypt, archaeological sites and magazines at Saqqara, Abusir and Memphis were looted, and several museums in Cairo were attacked. But our responsibility to these security failures should not be to pat ourselves on the back for wisely refusing to return their antiquities. It is easy to approach the problem of preservation from a paternalistic point of view. But it is better to offer freely, when and where it is needed, our help in safeguarding a country’s museums and archaeological sites, by monitoring the traffic of antiquities over national borders, donating security systems and equipment or sending experts in conservation. By doing so we would discourage looting, improve cultural institutions around the globe, strengthen our relations with other countries and contribute to the maintenance of our world’s cultural heritage.

In this postcolonial world, we must recognize the sovereignty of other states not only in self-government but also in the management of their cultural patrimonies. While recognizing the importance of the legal acquisition of antiquities by museums, we cannot forget our obligations to those countries that have been plundered of their pasts, and we ought, where it is legally or ethically required of us, to repatriate — to render unto Egypt what is Egypt’s.

Some good points here to counter those of the cultural property retentionists who would like to see the world's heritage split up and scattered - as long as a goodly proportion of it is in "universal" museums in their own country.

Photo: General Sir Francis Reginald Wingate, 1st Baronet GCB GCVO GBE KCMG DSO TD
(1861-1953) Governor-General of the Sudan, British High Commissioner in Egypt

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