Monday, October 1, 2012

Turkey's Claims on Antiquities in New York Times

The New York Times has yet another piece on the efforts of Turkey to get back from US museums what the country says rightfully belongs back in Turkey (Dan Bilefsky, 'Seeking Return of Art, Turkey Jolts Museums', New York Times September 30, 2012). The NYT characterises Turkey's "tactics" as "aggressive" and links them to the country "asserting itself politically in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring" (eh?). Bilefsky says this has "particularly alarmed museums. Officials here are refusing to lend treasures, delaying the licensing of archaeological excavations and publicly shaming museums".He does not explain why Turkey should lend objects to museums that will not recognize their right to other objects and refuse to give them back - if they hand onto what they've already got from Turkey, why should Turkey lend them even more? Why should the Turks allow foreigners free and easy access to Turkish archaeological sites? It is not a "right" to be able to march into a foreign country and dig through its archaeological record at will. Why should we not shame museums who thumb their noses at foreign nations and their concerns? Bilefsky writes: 
An aggressive campaign by Turkey to reclaim antiquities it says were looted has [...] drawn condemnation from some of the world’s largest museums, which call the campaign cultural blackmail. In their latest salvo, Turkish officials this summer filed a criminal complaint in the Turkish court system seeking an investigation into what they say was the illegal excavation of 18 objects that are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Norbert Schimmel collection [...] “We know 100 percent that these objects at the Met are from Anatolia,” the Turkish region known for its ancient ruins, [Turkey’s director-general of cultural heritage and museums, Murat] Suslu, an archaeologist, said in an interview. “We only want back what is rightfully ours.”Turkey’s efforts have spurred an international debate about who owns antiquities after centuries of shifting borders. Museums like the Met, the Getty, the Louvre and the Pergamon in Berlin say their mission to display global art treasures is under siege from Turkey’s tactics. Museum directors say the repatriation drive seeks to alter accepted practices, like a widely embraced Unesco convention that lets museums acquire objects that were outside their countries of origin before 1970.
Well, that's not actually true. Basically if the Norbert Schimmel collection contains items which were illegally excavated, and illegally removed from Turkey, then - "Convention" or no "Convention" - why would the Met WANT to keep them? Becoming party to the Convention surely is an indication of what a given country and its citizens consider right and proper, it contains principles which the act of accession surely indicates that a given state considers to be universal.

Met director, Thomas P. Campbell, said his museum believed the objects sought by Turkey "had been legally acquired by Norbert Schimmel in the European antiquities market in the 1960s before being donated to the museum in 1989, and thus were in compliance with the Unesco accord".
“The Turks are engaging in polemics and nasty politics,” said Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the Pergamon. “They should be careful about making moral claims when their museums are full of looted treasures” acquired, he said, by the Ottomans in their centuries ruling parts of the Middle East and southeast Europe. 
The President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation also complains:“If all Westerners are just thieves and robbers,” he asked, “then who has been restoring their cultural heritage?” I really think this kind of rhetoric does no good, Turkey is not suggesting that ALL WESTERNERS are the problem, just some of their museum curators. I'd say the Prussian "Cultural" Heritage Foundation is not well served by the all-too-public expression of such sentiments.


  1. It is really amazing that when you claim the return of your cultural property with consistency,you are described as aggressive. If Turkey has a right to the artefacts it claims,then the Western museums should get to work in discussing what should be sent and not worry about whether the demand is made in aggressive manner or not. Kwame Opoku.

  2. When you "dare" to ask the Americans to look again at how they got what they've got you are "aggressive".