Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Trophy-Mining Ancient Monuments in Turkey

John Leonard ('The looting of Sardis', Athens News 24 May 2012) discusses the background to the removal of a shipload of artefacts from ancient Sardis, in western Asia Minor by American excavators in 1921-1922. According to Leonard, the action was:
symptomatic of a larger trend in which rapacious European and American individuals and institutions sought to take advantage of the late 19th- and early 20th-century decline of the Ottoman Empire to enrich private collections and national museums. Prominent among those figures advocating the removal of Greco-Roman and other antiquities from Ottoman lands were two Princeton professors, Howard Crosby Butler, Sardis’ first excavator, and Edward Capps, chair of the managing committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA)".

Archaeologist Fikret Yegul, discussed these events in a 2010 article, and:
The question that seems to lie at the heart of the looting of Anatolian archaeological sites in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Yegul, is whether the moribund Ottoman Empire had any right to the rich cultural heritage that lay within its boundaries. “To cast the followers of Mohammed,” Yegul writes, “in the role of caretakers of classical culture - a culture all European nation states claimed as their own, with similar noises coming from across the [Atlantic] - was an anathema.” Indeed, the Ottomans’ “exotic” eastern empire “was seen as an illegitimate and barbaric power, especially as concerned dominion over the Greco-Roman heritage of Western Anatolia and Christian Jerusalem”. 
One might note that nothing much seems to have altered, American collectors and dealers still today voice such opinions in justification of their own no-questions-asked dealings with dugup artefacts from other people's territories. Leonard considers though that these artefact hunters: "may simply have been exploiting the Ottomans’ laxity, systemic corruption or current political troubles as an opportunity to benefit themselves, their employers or their favourite museums". There had been a long history of the mining of sites in Anatolia for displayable trophies for western museums:
The Ottomans’ revised antiquities law of 1884, which prohibited all cultural materials from leaving the country, had been a reaction to a host of past offences committed on a grand scale across western Asia Minor. As early as 1841 the English traveller Charles Fellows had shipped an entire Classical temple-tomb, the Nereid Monument from the southwestern town Xanthos, to the British Museum. Briton Charles Newton plundered the decorative sculpture of the 4th century BC Mausoleum of Halicarnassus for the same museum in the 1850s. Shortly after, in 1863, John Wood, an English engineer, removed whatever he could find of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, leaving only a gaping hole. Then, in the 1870s, Carl Humann spirited away to Berlin the bulky, intricately carved remains of the Hellenistic Altar of Zeus at Pergamon. The passage of the 1884 Ottoman antiquities law was perceived as a bothersome development by foreign excavators and collectors, but it did not stop them from continuing to export their archaeological discoveries. They simply found ways to circumvent the law, even - like David Hogarth at Priene in 1905 - appearing surprised that the new regulations applied to them. Exportations carried on, with Theodor Wiegand, director of the German Archaeological Institute at Istanbul, removing the entire Agora Gate at Miletus in 1908. The Austrians, too, led by Otto Bendorf, in the years 1896-1906, packed off to Vienna nearly everything they unearthed at Ephesus. 
 Excavations by foreign missions in the region were brought to a halt by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, but when it ended, the digging gradually resumed, as did illegal exportation. According to Leonard, finds were taken to American museums from the Harvard University excavations at Colophon and Sardis in 1922. From the latter site the removed artefacts were enough to fill 56 crates ("enough to fill three railroad cars").
Upon learning of the clandestine shipment, the cultural authorities of the newly established Republic of Turkey immediately stopped the Americans’ excavation permit for Sardis and for all other Anatolian sites. A diplomatic resolution was finally reached after 53 of the original crates - including the 30 gold coins and 122 silver coins - were shipped back to Turkey in 1924, where they were inspected and divided up. Ultimately, 12 crates containing various artefacts and four gold coins arrived back in New York by the end of August 1925 - a “gift” from Turkey.
Thus ended "an era when Anatolian antiquities were regularly used by both Turks and foreigners as currency with which one could purchase fame, professional success and political favour". The antiquities authorities of the new Turkish state struggled to compensate for centuries of Ottoman neglect of the region’s cultural heritage, between 1923 and 1926 they built seven new archaeological museums. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Queen-Mother 'Oo?

"Ya what?"
are probably the three most common answers you'd get from people exiting the British Museum to the simple question posed by Kwame Opoku's most recent article on the topic of the Benin loot kept there ('Do They Know Queen-Mother Idia?' May 27th 2012).
A recent visit to the British Museum confirmed what we have observed in previous years: many Western visitors to the museum have no specific interest in any particular Benin object, even if they visit the Sainsbury Gallery and look at the Benin Bronzes. They are mostly unaware of the looted Queen-Mother-Idia(“Iyoba”) ivory mask. Have the hundred years of illegal retention of this mask had any effect on the knowledge and interest of the average Western visitor to the museum? It seems hardly any European visitor is even aware that the mask represents an important personality in Benin history. Most Western visitors are certainly unaware of her important and decisive role and influence in stabilizing the Kingdom of Benin during the civil war at the end of the 15th Century, a crucial period in Benin history. 
He goes on:
Contrary to the propaganda of the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, Benin culture has not become part of European heritage and culture even though Benin artefacts have been [...] detained in Western museums for more than hundred years. [...]  Queen-Mother Idia clearly plays no role in the culture, imagination and thinking of Westerners. So why keep her captive in London when she would be a subject of veneration and reverence in her homeland Benin, Nigeria? Why do the British Museum and the British Government still insist on keeping in Britain cultural artefacts of others, against the will of the owners? So far, we have not come across any reasonable justification for such an attitude.
 Opoku concludes that the only real reason that the Brits hang on to stuff like this is to cling to the relics of their own imperial 'glory'. Meanwhile another part of the Post-Enlightenment British Museum:

 Greek tragedy in the British Museum (Portableantiquities photostream on Flickr)

As ian Richardson reports, apparently approvingly ('Medieval Late at the British Museum), the Post-Enlightemnent today relies on edutaining gimmicks:
The Mausoleum of Halikarnassos gallery (Room 2) with its two specially-lit colossal statues formed the stage for a young acting troupe’s twist on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was seen by an overflowing crowd of onlookers. Even a presentation on the art of medieval hairdressing for film and theatre was given a dramatic location in front of the Nereid Monument in Room 17.
So I suppose this is the cultural mix-and-match of the Universal Museum in practice. Most "enlightening" I am sure. Was this what these sculted stones were transported across an entire continent to London for? To provide a "cultcheral-innit" backdrop to some tomfoolery that could have been done equally artistically in a shopping mall? What does the bloke with a cycling helmet on his head add to anyone's appreciation of the statues from Halicarnassus. That is Bodrum, Turkey. Maybe they should go back too to where they might be subjected to fewer indignities than they do in the BM's peculiar brand of dumb-down "outreach".

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ecuador to US Museum: Stop Hiding Our Treasures

Excavations at Cerro de Hojas-Jaboncillo, an archaeological site discovered by American explorer Marshall Saville in 1906, are now housed in a storeroom of a Washington museum. The site in the damp coastal region of the country covers some 3,500 hectares and is one of the largest in Ecuador. The  pre-Columbian inhabitants of the site belonged to the Manteño culture (which had its era of splendor between the 9th and 14th centuries, roughly parallel to the rise of the Incas in Peru). Here they practiced intensive agriculture, and excavated subterranean silos for crop storage.  The treasure includes monumental stone stelae and "seats of power," stone chairs used by hierarchs of the Manteño culture, and  only three seats of this kind remain in Ecuador.The finds of the 1906 excavations were removed legally.
Now there are calls from the government in Quito for the US museum to actually display the more than 3000 finds they hold in storage  so people can have a better appreciation of Ecuador's history.

"This is the largest collection of Manteño culture" in existence, the Cerro de Hojas-Jaboncillo project director Jorge Marcos told Efe. [...] "We were familiar with the scholarly papers about the pieces and we knew that the National Museum of the American Indian had an important Ecuadorian archaeological collection, but we didn't know how much or what its value was," Heritage Minister Maria Fernanda Espinosa said in a press conference Monday. Knowledge of these works was limited to published references and the reports of a handful of Ecuadorian archaeologists who were able to see them including Marcos, who examined them in their original boxes in a New York warehouse in 1971 when he was studying at the University of Illinois. Last week he saw them again together with Espinosa in the conservation rooms of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
"What we found there is of the very finest quality," the minister said, adding that some of the pieces are absolutely unique and of greater value than any in Ecuador.[...] For now, Ecuador has chosen to cooperate with the U.S. museum, though Espinosa did not rule out that in the future her country might ask for "part of that collection."

Fox News, Latino, 'Ecuador to US Museum: Stop Hiding Our Treasures', May 15, 2012

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Observer on The Parthenon Marbles


Henry Porter ('The Greeks gave us the Olympics. Let them have their marbles', Observer 20 May 2012) thinks the Parthenon Marbles should go back to Greece.  On a recent visit to the Duveen gallery which houses these sawn-off bits of an Athens building he notes that:
The only allusion to the controversy of the continued presence in this country that I could find in the museum was a notice near the entrance to the Duveen Gallery. "Elgin's removal of the sculptures from the ruins of the building has always been a matter for discussion," it says with a dry little cough before briskly moving on. "But one thing is certain – his actions spared them further damage by vandalism, weathering and pollution."[...] it's hard to fathom a logic that suggests that the advantages of this order of pillage include saving the sculptures from vandalism. That would justify cutting a section of Botticelli's Birth of Venus from its frame to preserve it from any future vandals. 
But this "rescuing the past" excuse is so often used by artefact hunters and collectors everywhere, and regardless of the true facts, to justify what they do - however dubious that is from other points of view. The Parthenon marbles "represent the core of Greek civilisation, and they are the beating heart of modern Greek identity" says Porter:
And, as important, the sculptures really represent half the building that was constructed between 447BC and 432BC to mark the defeat of the Persians by Athens. If you ask the people who argue passionately for retention when they last went to see the marbles, it is striking how few have been in the past five years. It seems to be simply a matter of patriotic possession to them, rather than any great love of art. And talking of possession, they always tend to forget that the sculptures were prised from the Parthenon when the Turks ruled the Greeks, and they could not defend the emblems of their glorious past. [...] To weigh the issue, you need only ask yourself if Elgin's behaviour would be acceptable today. Of course it wouldn't, and nor would we expect to keep the result of such looting. So why do we hold on to these ill-gotten sculptures now? [...] we should begin to address a simple truth: the Parthenon marbles are not ours to keep.
Photo:  The British Museum's marbles as a setting for Children's play. Photograph: Richard Baker/Corbis.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Turkey's Cultural Property Repatriation Drive

The Economist looks at Turkey’s cultural ambitions as it "launches a new culture war" and "gets tough with foreign museums" holding  stuff looted from Turkey ('Of Marbles and Men', May 19th 2012): 

The mildly Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, led by the Justice and Development (AK) party, likes to think of itself as the heir of the Ottoman sultans. The Turkish authorities have recently launched a wave of cultural expansionism, building new museums, repairing Ottoman remains, licensing fresh archaeological excavations and spending more on the arts. A grand museum in the capital, Ankara, is due to open in time for the centenary of the Turkish republic in 2023. “It will be the biggest museum in Turkey, one of the largest in Europe; an encyclopedic museum like the Metropolitan or the British Museum (BM),” boasts an aide to Ertugrul Gunay, the culture and tourism minister. “It’s his baby, his most precious project.” Turkey’s cultural plans at home are coupled with an unprecedentedly bold campaign to bring back treasures that it believes were stolen, which now sit in Western museums. These plans enjoy political support across the spectrum and the backing of all Turkey’s museum directors. The campaign targets many more objects and museums than the government has so far let on. “We are not waging a battle,” says Mr Gunay. “But this is definitely a struggle in the field of culture. And we are determined to boost our efforts in a more determined and more persistent way.”
It would be interesting to see  from the collectors currently decrying Turkey's efforts to repatriate stolen artefacts a reasoned argument why Turkey should not build a Universal Museum. Why should they be restricted to just a few nations ? And maybe Turkey deserves one:
Growing economic power and stalled talks over EU membership make many Turks feel that it is time to turn their backs on the West. Amid the turmoil of the Arab spring Turkey believes it can become the leader of the region.
The Economist's journalist is clearly on the side of the rich western museums and collectors, referring to the fact that stuff was ripped off and ripped up in the nineteenth century saved them:
removed treasures they believed might be at risk from war and insurrection, and gave them to the new European museums. Foreign scholars saved a considerable number of Turkish artefacts from being commercially looted or destroyed by invading armies. This is rarely mentioned in Turkey’s discussions about its archaeological past.
So looting stuff for yourself to "save' the objects from being looted by somebody else? That's the old metal detectorists' argument too. The economist grudgingly points out that "though Turkey passed a law in 1884 (updated in 1906) stating that all antiquities were the property of the state and could not be taken out of the country, this was only loosely enforced" and looters helped themselves to what they fancied. They present it as going back on some form of gentlemen's agreement that the Turkish government today "argues that any object without the correct permissions or with gaps in its provenance has been stolen and so belongs to Turkey".

The article gives its readers some details of some recent demands:
The Weary Hercules (returned to Turkey from BMFA in September 2011)
The Hattusas sphinx sent back after May 2011 from the Pergamon Museum,
Metropolitan Museum of Art (September 2011),

The Samsat Stela in the British Museum,
Turkey has many other museums in its sights. A list of artworks being sought abroad indicates the culture ministry has made similar demands of the Louvre, the Pergamon, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, the Davids Samling Museum in Denmark, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, DC, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Getty. It has also claimed stolen antiquities that have been seized by police in Frankfurt, Florence, Bulgaria, Switzerland and Scotland.
It seems Ertugrul Gunay could soon be taking the place in the Cultural Property Repatriation drive that  was (is?) occupied by Egypt's Zahi Hawass. His ministry is beefing up its anti-smuggling and intelligence bureau, and will soon add criminal and legal units to its task force. Gunay explained: “I wholeheartedly believe that each and every antiquity in any part of the world should eventually go back to its homeland. Even if these objects are made of stone, just as people have souls, so do animals, plants and monuments. Taking a monument away destabilises the world and is disrespectful to history”. It seems his stance has a lot of support in today's Turkey.

The Economist sees a problem for the position of those holding artefacts from Turkey:

Turkey is convinced of the justice of its quest. Moreover the culture ministry lumps together objects that were smuggled out of the country illegally with those that were removed—perhaps legally to a place of greater safety, but not provably so—in an era when ownership was judged in a looser way. For Turkey, all of these objects were stolen. It is determined to get them back. [...] counting any object acquired without a distinct contract as stolen should alarm museums everywhere.

The fact that Turkey seems to be treating cases in the same manner whether they are pre-1970 or post-1970 (which of course is its sovereign right to do - especially in the light of the 1884 law) means that it lays its own museums open to similar claims. During the period of the Ottoman Empire, a number of important antiquities were taken (the Economist suggests they were all "forcibly removed") to central museums in what is now Turkey, and thus taken from their homelands which are today separate countries.

Photo: Ertugrul Gunay, the Turkish culture and tourism minister.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Background to the Benin Punitive Expedition

Michael Yates has written an article on Kunstpedia concerning matters that lead to the removal of the Benin bronzes from the Oba’s palace in the 19th century. He says he has tried to give an objective account without wanting to see events only from a British viewpoint, and indeed his version differs from those traditional in the discussion. What he does however is concentrate on the ambush of 4th January, 1897, rather than the details of the Punitive Expedition, and it is the latter which is in question in discussions of the repatriation issue.

I found the discussion of the BM selling off (deaccessioning) some of the objects rather interesting in the light of their arguments that British law does not allow them to deaccession items from their collections.

See also: Karen Mercury, 'Expansion & Invasion: The Benin Punitive Expedition', Unusual Historicals

Vignette: Harry Rawson, commander of the punitive expedition.