Monday, January 30, 2012

The Return of Cultural and Historical Treasures: the Case of the Netherlands

Jos van Beurden is a Dutch research journalist who has published extensively on the protection and endangerment of cultural and historical treasures. He has just published a book: "The Return of Cultural and Historical Treasures: The Case of the Netherlands". This analyses 34 cases in which the Dutch state and Dutch heritage institutions have handed over cultural and historical treasures that were acquired in colonial times and more recently. He investigates the dynamics of their return practice and gives his analysis extra depth by including cases in which return has not materialized.
The shrinking divisions between a poor South and a rich North, colonizer and colonized, and source countries and art and antique market countries impact our thinking about return. How do Dutch heritage institutions deal with this new reality, when the return of their objects or collections comes under discussion? That is the central question in this critical book.
The book seems a useful addition to the literature about the return of colonial trophies, Nazi-spoliated art and human remains.

Monday, January 23, 2012

France returns 20 Maori heads to New Zealand

Since 2003, New Zealand has been engaged in an ambitious program of collecting back Maori heads (mokomokai) and skeletal remains from museums around the world. On Monday, authorities in received 20 ancestral heads of Maori ethnic people once held in several French museums as a cultural curiosity. French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand and New Zealand's ambassador presided over a solemn ceremony at Quai Branly museum in Paris. The heads were encased in a box.
Some Maori heads, with intricate tattoos, were traditionally kept as trophies from tribal warfare. But once Westerners began offering prized goods in exchange for them, men were in danger of being killed simply for their tattoos, French museum officials have said. [...] The practice of preserving heads was begun by Maori as a way of remembering dead ancestors. In the decades after Europeans arrived, the heads became a curiosity and sought-after trade item, prompting Maori to ramp up their production levels.
Associated Press, 'France returns 20 Maori heads to New Zealand', January 23, 2012

Vignette: mokomokai from Roen

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Future of Egyptian Repatriation Efforts?

David Nelson's short article ('Egyptologists still digging up past, even with uncertain future', Medill Reports* Jan 19, 2012) has a few words on repatriation of ancient Egyptian objects taken out of the country pre-1970 which might be of interest. Among his those he talked to was Kathleen Scott, director of publications at the San Antonio chapter of the American Research Center, and Emily Teeter, a research associate at the Oriental Institute, at the University of Chicago:
For Egyptians, the ancient civilization their ancestors established along the life-giving Nile River and beyond is still a sense of national pride.[...] Tied to the revolution is the question of repatriation of ancient artifacts. In recent years some native Egyptologists have requested the return of such items as the bust of Queen Nefertiti, now in the Neues Museum in Berlin, and also the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum in London. [...] But with current situation in Egypt, historical materials are even less likely to be returned.

“Zahi Hawass loved to bring this topic up every now and then,” Scott said, referring to the former minister of antiquities. The appointee of Mubarak, often sporting an Indiana Jones-like fedora, Hawass frequently demanded the return of objects in foreign hands. “In certain circles, it was popular. The truth is, the Rosetta was part of a treaty in the early 1800s, it’s nothing that the British Museum is going to relinquish," Scott said.

“Hawass’s job was to keep Egypt in the news,” Teeter said of the flamboyant now-retired minister, “and he did a good job of that.” However, most don’t put much stock in the sometimes controversial debate. “There are very specific laws that if a good case is made, then an artifact should go back,” Teeter said. “But there are things that have been out of the country for hundreds of years and have no legal basis for repatriation."

Scott said it is unlikely any famous artifacts will be returned. “Unless they were illegally obtained somehow," she said. "But for the most part they were obtained as gifts or through international treaties. It’s a difficult political discussion.”

Of course one reason why "famous artefacts" might go back is so that the museum displays of the 'source country' can give a much more complete picture. For example we could take the case of the bust of Nefertiti. If at some future date a prestigious, super-modern site museum was to be set up at Amarna with many of the premier pieces of Amarna art from the site displayed alongside each other attempting to give a holistic picture of the period and place. Should this iconic piece then be allowed to remain in far-off Berlin as, let us be honest, a piece of trophy art, rather than taking its place and serving a function among the other items produced in Egypt at a specific place and time, a place and time which precisely this one work epitomises so well? (The same goes of course for the Parthenon Marbles.)

*Medill Reports is written and produced by graduate journalism students at Northwestern University’s Medill school. Nefertiti bust from Wikicommons.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Stanford Symposium on the Ethics and Legal Issues in Collecting "African Art"

Since 2003, the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University has been holding an annual symposium on the 'Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas'. This one (Sat Jan 21st) has the title: "Cultural Heritage and African Art: Negotiating the Rise of Ethical and Legal Collecting Concerns". The blurb says:
In recent decades, the media and academic circles have given great attention to the protection of cultural property from looting and the sale and collection of archaeological materials. More recently, collectors, scholars and curators of African art have been increasingly confronted with ethical dilemmas and legal ambiguities in the collection of non-archaeological arts from Africa.

This day-long symposium focuses on identifying the ideological concerns and practical solutions surrounding the legal and ethical considerations of collecting African art made in the last 500 years.[...]Speakers are:

• George Okello Abungu, Ph.D., founding director, Okello Abungu Heritage Consultants, Nairobi, Kenya
Derek Fincham, J.D., Ph.D., assistant professor, South Texas College of Law, Houston
Kate Fitz Gibbon, J.D., attorney, Kate Fitz Gibbon Law Office, Santa Fe, N.M.
Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University
John Henry Merryman, J.D., LL.M., professor of law emeritus and affiliated professor emeritus in the Department of Art, Stanford University
Sylvester Okwunodo Ogbechie, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara
[...][my hyperlinks]

Discussions of collecting and international movement of cultural property these days tend to focus on the issue of dugup (archaeological) material. An equally contentious area is the collecting of ethnographic material. There is here too the same range of ethical problems as with the appropriation by individuals of the cultural property of an 'Other' for personal entertainment and profit and all the issues that involves. Perhaps the problems are greater in the sense that some of this material has freshly been removed from its social functions and context of living memory, while archaeological material has been through the stage of being 'forgotten'. I would argue too as indigenous societies undergo transformation, there is a context destroyed too when items are removed from one cultural context to serve as trophy "art" or "collectables" in another without adequate documentation. It is rather sad therefore to see that the issue is represented rather one-sidedly - several of the participants are connected with the "art" side of the issues of collecting of African ethnographic items, but no anthropologist or ethnographer will be on the panel. The concentration in this panel alongside the representative of the arts world of known pro-collecting advocates Merriman, Fincham and Fitz-Gibbon is striking. That they'll not be recommending "sending it all back" is my guess.

Also one is struck by the terms used, ethical and legal considerations are to be "negotiated" rather than guide actions. One almost gets the impression that this panel will be working on the premise that private collecting of African ethnographic items should go on unabated, but collectors, scholars and curators of "African art" should be learning to "negotiate" the ethical issues and the legal constraints.

It would be useful if this meeting resulted in a publication for those who cannot be in the audience in person.

In addition, I think one valuable first step to aiding "negotiating" the underlying question of concern to collectors (of legal origins) would be if somebody would gather together for collectors of such items a compilation of all the relevant cultural property legislation of the 54 recognised African states (65 territories) concerning the ownership, transfer of ownership and in particular export of collectable items, so anyone thinking of buying a piece can see at a glance what the legal, at least, criteria by which in doing their 'due diligence' they should be applying. There are translations of the legislation of individual countries available on the Internet (several such databases listed in the left sidebar of my main blog), but they are not complete or systematically compiled, so absence of legislation for a given country could be due to that country having a free-for-all on its cultural property, or the fact that the compilers have not yet found the relevant acts in a form that they can incorporate into their database. It is a notable circumstance that as far as I can see, not a single US dealer in "Tribal Art" includes even links to such resources, let alone lay out what the various pieces of legislation on export of cultural property relate to the items they have on sale, which ones need (and in their stock have) export licences, and which do not require export licences and why.

Vignette: Fundamental ethical issue to be "negotiated", making African cultural property accessible to all, including future generations in Africa.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Russian Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev: U.S. claims to Schneerson library provocative

The "Schneerson Library" is a collection of old Jewish books and manuscripts, put together by rabbis of the Chabad Jewish community in the late 18th century in what is now Belarus. Part of the collection amassed by Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson (Lubavitchers are adherents of one of the Hasidic movements), was nationalized by Bolsheviks in 1918 and ended up at the Russian State Library. The other part was taken out of the Soviet Union by Schneerson, who emigrated in the 1930s. Added to the collection were about 25,000 pages of manuscripts which had got into the hands of the Nazis. These were later seized by the Red Army and handed over to the Russian State Military Archive. Since the 1980s, the US Chabad Jewish community have sought the rendering of the part of the Schneerson collection held abroad to them. Amazingly, on August 6, 2010, a federal judge in Washington, Royce Lamberth, ruled that the Hasids had proven the legitimacy of their claims to the ancient Jewish books and manuscripts, which, in his definition, are kept at the Russian State Library and the Russian Military Archive "illegally" (eh?). He ordered Russia to "return" (sic) them to the American group. The Russian Foreign Ministry [has] challenged the judgment.

Russian Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev has said that the manuscripts held in the Russian state archives are today part of the country's unalienable property and a reflection of the diverse and multicultural history of the region. "The library forms part of the Russian library reserve and is inalienable. The history of its claiming by U.S. plaintiffs appears to us provocative," Avdeyev told a press conference on Friday. He accuses the U.S. plaintiffs of aiming to spoil the bilateral relations between the two countries. Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle has assured Russian officials that the 2010 U.S. court ruling will not lead to a seizure of Russian cultural property loaned to the United States for exhibition.

Interfax, 'U.S. claims to Schneerson library provocative - Avdeyev, Moscow, January 13 2012.

Juliet Torome on "Africa’s Stolen History"

Juliet Torome, a Kenyan writer and documentary filmmaker now living in California reflects on a party that she attended recently. The rich American host was proudly showing his guests around showing off his collection of paintings and sculptures. One object caught the journalist's eye: animal skin stretched and decorated with colored beads, and framed behind glass. The beads were the same kind that my people, the Maasai, use, but the dominant color was blue, not our preferred red. “Where is that from?” I asked, pointing at the piece on the wall. “That is from Zimbabwe,” our host replied. “It’s a wedding skirt that was worn in a Ndebele royal wedding in 1931.”

For an African away from home, finding even the most insignificant African object on display can make you happy. When I see Kenyan or Ethiopian coffee for sale in New York or Paris, for example, it makes me proud that there are Americans and Europeans who consider a product from my homeland valuable. Learning that a wealthy American had found a traditional African skirt worthy of a place in his home triggered the same feeling. But our host’s next remark erased it instantly.

He boasted that he had acquired the skirt illegally through a friend who had “paid” a Zimbabwean government official to smuggle it out of the country. My friend and I looked at each other, trying hard not to show our disapproval. “I’m so disgusted,” my friend said a moment later. “Let’s leave before I get drunk and say something inappropriate to this guy.”

We left the party. On the way home, we ranted angrily about what we had witnessed. But our contempt was driven more by the West’s role in supporting corruption in Africa than by the fate of the specific Zimbabwean artifact we had seen.
The writer recounts that it was only later when she "heard that Yale had returned the Peruvian objects" that she "began to think about African artifacts as culturally and historically important". As she points out the many African artefacts that have ended up in foreign museums or in the hands of foreign private collectors "are largely the loot that Europeans pillaged from Africa during the slave trade and the colonial period". When on display, African art often gives details about each piece’s origins, which are often tied to a specific African kingdom or polity. There is rarely such expansiveness about the artefact's journey out of Africa, she says - citing the New York Times account of the exhibition of the famous Bangwa Queen last year in which it merely said that the sculpture had been owned by many famous collectors “since she left her Cameroonian royal shrine in the late nineteenth century”. This left unsaid anything about the role of Gustav Conrau, a German colonial explorer who later gave the statue to a museum in his home country.
Peru’s reclamation of its cultural heritage made me wish the same for Africa’s looted artifacts. But Peru is fundamentally different from any African country. Its demand reflected a reverence for its past. To Peruvians, the artifacts are a reminder of the great Inca civilization that European conquerors destroyed. Africans, on the other hand, tend to discount their past. To some extent, Africans appear to have internalized the condescending colonialist idea that Africa was primitive and needed to be civilized. We don’t treasure our historical artifacts, because they remind us of our rich civilizations’ supposed inferiority. It is no wonder that an object as culturally important as a royal wedding skirt can be smuggled out of a country without anyone noticing. Until Africans recognize the value of their history, their cultures’ artistic output will continue to be up for grabs.
In other words collectors' continued acquisition of such cultural items, far from helping to perpetuate cross cultural understanding as they so often claim, merely perpetuate the patterns of dominance and submission as a legacy of the colonial era.

Juliet Torome, 'Africa’s Stolen History', Project Syndicate 13th Jan 2012.