Wednesday, August 29, 2012

V&A's South East Asian Sculptures

Browsing in a second-hand bookshop this morning, I came across a copy of John Guy's (2007) "Indian Temple sculpture" published by the Victoria and Albert Museum, which as the blurb tells us is "illustrated with the V&A’s unrivalled collection of South Asian sculpture". Trouble is I browsed through it pretty thoroughly but it seems there is not a single word anywhere in the book I could see explaining where the bits in the V&A came from, how they became detached from the building, when they arrived in the UK by what means. It is apparently quite unapologetic about that aspect of collecting. Instead we are regaled with the tale that:
"this is the first book to look at Indian temple sculpture within its full context, from religion and ritual to architecture and iconography. John Guy examines the sculpture as an instrument of worship that embodies powerful religious experiences, and considers its cosmological meaning, its origins, the temple setting, and the role of sculpture within it, also revealing the vivid rituals and traditions still in practice today. An excellent introduction to the three traditional religions of the Indian subcontinent—Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism—through the myths and manifestations of the principal deities, Indian Temple Sculpture will fascinate all those interested in Indian culture".
Why though do the bits have to be detached from the building, taken from the subcontinent, housed in South Kensington in order that  someone has to write a book to explain all about their position in the architecture, temple setting? I would have thought that those who actually are "fascinated by Indian culture" (a bit more than just wanting a coffee table book on it) could relatively easily hop on a plane and go and see it first hand.  Perhaps these disparate fragments should go back, and then they can be properly appreciated in that setting which the book tries to recreate for them? India these days is not such a far-off destination for the average Londoner as it would have been when the V&A was founded. London and the V&A however probably are only marginally more accessible to the average Indian villager than they were back then. Surely in these days of easy intercontinental travel, European and North American trophy collections like this made at the expense of stripping a fragile monument the other side of the global village are a damaging anachronism. I did not buy the book, it would have just made me angry.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Not Even the Small Bits

The British Museum has once again reiterated that they would consider loaning the Parthenon Marbles it has, but that "Greece can forget about their return". This was in the context of a recent announcement that it was ready to discuss return of some of the marble pieces:
New Acropolis Museum Director Demetrios Pantermalis said on Aug. 23 that at a UNESCO meeting in June he had suggested the return of small fragments from the famous Parthenon Marbles to Greece, and that talks would be held in Athens in the coming weeks. “I proposed an arrangement to colleagues from the British Museum, involving pieces – hands, heads, legs – that belong to bodies from the Parthenon sculptures and can be reattached,” Pantermalis told SKAI Radio. “The proposal has been accepted in principle, we will have a discussion in the autumn,” he said. British Museum officials denied it, saying they had agreed only to “explore” a research partnership on the detached fragments of the Parthenon sculptures in Athens, London and elsewhere. [...] "The trustees of the British Museum will consider – subject to the usual considerations of condition and fitness to travel — any request for any part of the collection to be borrowed and then returned,” it said.
The British Museum has consistently rejected successive Greek calls for the return of the Marbles ripped off the building in 1801 to 1812, arguing that the sculptures "are part of world heritage and are more accessible to visitors in London". British Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton in 2009 said that "the museum would consider loaning the Marbles to Greece for three months on condition that Athens recognize the museum’s ownership rights to the sculptures". Three MONTHS? That would hardly be worth the packing, cost of transport and insurance would it? What "ownership rights" would those be?

I wonder whether on a par with the finders' rewards the museums of Britain pay artefact hunters, full market value, in order to establish those "owners' rights" the Museum would be willing to pay the Greek government the full market value of every single fragment of the Parthenon Marbles it intends to keep as long as possible. How much would a single Parthenon Metope with good collecting history going back to 1801 to 1812 be worth if it came onto the open market individually? Can Britain afford to pay the actual cost of what it has in effect stolen from the Greeks? Today's value of the £35000 the British Museum paid Lord Elgin for the marbles in 1816 seems to be about £2,090,000. These days that will not even buy a single Roman copper alloy parade helmet.

Andy Dabilis, 'British Museum: No Return of Parthenon Marbles', Greek Reporter August 26, 2012

Friday, August 24, 2012

Australian Efforts to Keep Looted Art

Britain and the 1954 Hague Convention: This is Just Getting Embarrassing

Almost four years ago (Sunday, 28 September 2008) I wrote this post: Half a century on and we're still just talking about it... about the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” and its two protocols. It strikes me that in fact in those four years, nothing much has changed and the DCMS and English Heritage websites say exactly the same thing as four years ago, "we are STILL talking about it". This is just getting embarrassing. So what are heritage professionals in the UK doing to hurry the process along? Anything? Is it possible the UK is waiting for the document's sixtieth anniversary in just 20 months' time before jubilantly announcing to the world, "OK, we'll agree to ratify it now"? Or will they find another excuse? Scandalous.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Trafficking Culture" Online

Trafficking Culture is a research project based at the University of Glasgow, currently funded by the European Research Council from 2012-16, which aims to produce an evidence-based picture of the contemporary global trade in looted cultural objects.

Their new website  includes links to project team members, publications, and an encyclopedia of terminology, methodology, theory and a variety of case studies from around the world. They promise it will be regularly updated. For those who prefer shorter soundbite style 'news' they can also be followed on Twitter @CultureTraffic and on Facebook at

There are short bios of the team members here

An impressive five-page bibliography of texts written by team members to date. There are also details of current projects.

Most of the project seems to be connected with current ongoing looting, rather than repatriation issues, but there is an  online encyclopaedia being created of "case studies, law, theory and methods and terminology" which seems to include pre-1970 issues as well. This has the potential to be very useful when it is more advanced (though may be difficult to navigate without a proper index).

It is worth noting that as of yet there is no definition of either the word "trafficking" or "culture", which seems a pretty fundamental starting point here. What actually is meant by "culture" in this context? Does it include dinosaurs? Still, early days yet, I am sure all will become clearer as the project develops.

Since there are so many sides to these issues and so many viewpoints, would the authors not consider it worthwhile to allow comments to these definitions?

Vignette: the tired old 1970 Convention needs new teeth. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Lord Elgin Loots London

The independent movement for the repatriation of the stolen Greek sculptures and art has produced another thought-provoking presentation, under the title: “If Elgin had been in …”
The series of pictures shows what would have happened if Lord Elgin had not only been to Athens but to plunder other cities of the world as well. The pictures aim at raising awareness among the public and the authorities about the catastrophe Lord Elgin wrought upon the Parthenon. [...] The Greek artists are attempting to compare the Greek monument’s looting to what could have been inflicted on other major sites and statues around the world, if their most treasured possessions had been stolen. The last picture depicts the Parthenon in its current state and the caption reads “…but Elgin went to Athens”.

Source: Stella Tsolakidou, 'If Elgin was in …” Rome, London, New York, Paris, etc.', Greek reporter August 7, 2012

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

International Colloquy. Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles.

The International Colloquy, "Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles" (19-20 June 2012) was held in the Hellenic Centre, and was attended by leading representatives from four continents. It was timed to coincide with the third year anniversary of the opening of the new Acropolis Museum and the occasion of the 2012 London Olympics one month later.

Co-presented by The British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (BCRPM), The American Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures (ACRPS), and The International Organizing Committee -- Australia -- for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles (IOC-A-RPM), the 2012 international colloquy echoed the efforts around the globe to educate and connect people and resources. By forging an open dialogue and coalitions among supporters, the organizing committees hope to further increase the level of awareness and support around the world. The event will be held annually and Sydney (Australia) was announced as the host of the 2013 instance (late October - early November 2013).

Now 17 videos of the 2012 proceedings are available online (the streaming of the Colloquy's proceedings was made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of Mr Peter Magiros and Frutex Australia).

Camera: Laurence Middleton Jones, Actionstream Direct Media, London
Editor: Dennis Tritaris, Orama Communications, Sydney.

Keynote speaker was the world-renowned human rights advocate and author, George Bizos SC, a Member of BCRPM and lawyer to Nelson Mandela, who spoke on issues relating to litigation. Among the other topics presented included the concept of the "Universal Museum", issues of litigation, the Acropolis Museum, archaeological perspectives, and special tributes to Eleni Cubitt, founder of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, and the late journalist, Christopher Hitchens, a friend and supporter of the Committee.

I thought the presentation by Dr Tom Flynn exceptionally good, and would urge all readers to listen to what he says - and how he says it - attentively. Brilliant.

I would advise skipping the long intro from the first minute of these videos, the music gets a bit wearing after the third one...

The first videos on the playlist are introductions from the leaders of the three participating organizations. They set the background to the event and the way the problem is being approached:

Monday, August 6, 2012

I am Greek, I Want to Go Home

The Independent Movement for the Repatriation of Looted Greek Antiquities has produced a video: 'I am Greek and I Want to go Home'

Photography, Concept and Artwork by Ares Kalogeropoulos
Original Music ("Rise") by Ares Kalogeropoulos

It can be seen alongside this one, take a good look at this message to the British:

The British Museum will probably release a statement this morning dismissively calling the producers of the videos "trolls". Help make them go viral.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

African Antiquities and the Trade

There is a good piece in The New York Times about the threat to African archaeology caused by the market for the bits of it which can be considered "art". This leads to the digging up of durable and collectable objects such as terracottas and bronzes and the smuggling of them out of the country to foreign markets. This leads on the one hand to the destruction of the information which could be obtained by excavation of sites like Djenne-Djenno, but also the depletion of the cultural property which is available for appreciation by the inhabitants of the region. The article discusses among other things, the mess made at Djenne-Djenno since the 1970s by looters and the response of the international community (banning smuggled artefacts from sale, trying to reduce interest in the trade), and touches upon the Benin punitive Expedition loot question and the destruction of tombs and other objects in the ongoing conflict in Mali. Worth a read.

Restitution des Oeuvres d'Art, Solutions et Impasses

On MSN is a short review posted by Jos van Beurden of a work on the issue of repatriation: La Restitution des Oeuvres d'Art, Solutions et Impasses (Corinne Herskovitch & Didier Rykner, Hazan, Paris, 2011).
Herskovitch and Rykner discuss quite a number French examples of successful and failed returns, among them three examples of Nigerian Nok statues with three different outcomes, Nazi spoliated art including the role of the Vichy government, and Korean manuscripts that were returned recently. They make it clear that even if the legal path is being used, still political arguments can be decisive. They clearly describe how France and other colonial powers contributed to the museum-infrastructure in their colonies and at the same time amassed, during wars, punitive expeditions, collecting for scientific purposes and collecting by private people, huge quantities of art and antiques from these countries. They also depict the stalemate between the former colonial powers and the source countries, but do not come to a conclusions as how to go on with this.
In the review, the comment is made that the authors of this book "do not understand why source countries, gathered in Egypt in 2010, so much neglected the non-retroactivity of conventions".