Sunday, January 27, 2013

Clare Flynn, "Pondering about the Parthenon"

Clare Flynn, sister of a blogging brother has a blog post of her own which is worth a look: "Pondering about the Parthenon" (25th January 2013):
I also felt ambivalent about everything else I saw in today’s brief visit. It all felt a bit too vainglorious. Maybe I find the concept of the universal museum a difficult one to swallow. It feels too diluted, diverse, unfocused, worthy and reminiscent of school trips and the days of the unchallenged hegemony of Pax Britannica. I've never been to the New Acropolis Museum – it was not yet open last time I was in Athens so I can't make a comparison. I did however spend a very happy afternoon wandering awe-struck around the National Archeological Museum there, gaping at the beauty of the sculptures. It's completely dedicated to Greek classical civilization and just makes so much more contextual sense. I am not sure that looking at the Rosetta Stone a few minutes before examining the Greek marbles does anything to increase my enlightenment or understanding of either. But then I'm just a punter not a scholar.
But then is it not the aim of the men in Bloomsbury to interact with those punters?

America's "Great Giveback"

There is a thought-provoking opinion piece by Hugh Eakin in the New York Times  ('The Great Giveback',  NYT January 26, 2013). The topic of the text is that US museums are giving up items they have acquired from foreign countries:
The news has become astonishingly routine: a major American museum announces it is relinquishing extraordinary antiquities because a foreign government claims they were looted and has threatened legal action or other sanctions if it doesn’t get them back.  [...] Since 2006, more than 100 statues, bronzes, vases, mosaics and other works have left public collections in the United States.
This text unexpectedly reveals quite clearly the robber baron attitude of entitlement, hypocrisy, xenophobia and supremecism when it comes to appropriating for their own uses other peoples' cultural property, that underlie the reluctance of collectors to return stolen items.  Note the language of this article, "foreign government claims..." "statue of a Greek goddess was given to Italy", "agreed to send to Turkey...", "responding to trophy hunting from abroad"...

He refers to these developments merely as:
rewarding the hardball tactics of foreign governments and impoverishing Americans’ access to the ancient world.  [...]  in zealously responding to trophy hunting from abroad, museums are [...]  making great art ever less available to their own patrons [...] museums [...] are supposed to be in the business of collecting and preserving art from every era, not giving it away.
Eakin's gripe appears to be that Americans are in some way being 'victimised' here: 
In nearly every case, the museums have not been compelled by any legal ruling to give up the art, nor are they receiving compensation for doing so. And while a few of the returned works have been traced to particular sites or matched with other fragments residing in the claimant country, many of them have no known place of origin. 
He seems disturbed to observe that US museums are caving in, not holding out like the SLAM attempted over that Ka Nefer Nefer mask. They just gave in to the pesky olive-skinned furriners.  Furriners who go so far in their insolence as sometimes to refuse permits to archaeologists from other nations including the USA to dig up the archaeological heritage in their territories in response to them harbouring stolen (I almost feel Eakin would use scare quotes there) antiquities. How dare they? How dare they say who will enter their sovereign territory to do what they like there?  Eakin also warns that by coming to agreements with furriners, US museums:
[...]  have also spurred a raft of extravagant new claims  [..] museums’ relationships with foreign governments have become increasingly contingent upon giving in to unreasonable, and sometimes blatantly extortionary, demands.
Well, I think that is enough of that. The author of this text steadfastly refuses to even hint that the Americans (demonised by "alarming stories of rogue curators and nefarious dealers") might actually be in the wrong here. That the proverbial Truth, Justice and the American Way might here not really being applied at all assiduously. Certainly I think we can all see a serial avoidance of an uncomfortable truth and a warping of a sense of justice in these writings. This is ridiculous, the US is not some banana republic with 80% of the population barely able to write their own name, its a nation that claims to have a responsible and enlightened society, to be a world leader and moral arbiter. Yet in writings like this we time and time again come across the expression of ideas which conflict with the moral stance one would expect from such a country. The stuff is stolen, if it somehow got into the USA and the original owner wants it back, why kick up such a fuss about handing it back, and how about saying "sorry"?

Eakin concedes that "museums themselves are partly to blame", by buying looted stuff in the first place (duh). Skipping somewhat lightly over that topic, he sees the damaging effects somewhere else:
Observing the success of this hardball strategy, other countries have been making threats of their own to retrieve objects from American collections, regardless of how long the object may have been out of the country and how little basis they have for claiming it.
The Cambodian government is threatening to sue the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., to get back a 10th-century statue that has been on display since 1980 and whose ownership has never before been challenged. 
Italian prosecutors have revived efforts to claim the “Getty Bronze,” a statue created in ancient Greece and found in international waters. 
And the United States government is continuing a lawsuit against the Saint Louis Art Museum to help Egypt reclaim an ancient Egyptian mask, despite a ruling by an American judge last March that the government “completely failed to identify” the “established law that was violated” in its acquisition.
Odd though that he omits mention of the all-important question of how each of those items left the source country to end up in America. Then the new antiquitists' bogeyman:
Meanwhile, Turkish officials have declared an all-out war on Western museums. Claiming a long list of works from the Getty, the Met, the British Museum, the Louvre and the Victoria and Albert Museum — some of them acquired in the 19th century and some from countries other than Turkey — the Turkish government has cut off ties to the offending institutions until they give them up. “All loans have been stopped; all cooperation suspended,” said Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s director. “This is a kind of behavior that is really unprecedented.” It was the recent wave of restitution agreements that emboldened foreign governments to make the threats.
"Emboldened" foreign governments to ask the Americans to give back whatdoes not belong to them? How dare they? Eh? The New York Times editor says 'no'. What about the rest of us?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Kwame Opoku on the "Declaration of ... Universal Museums" ten years on

Download Kwame Opoku, "Declaration on ...Universal Museums: Singular Failure of an Arrogant Imperialist Project" on MSN, as usual, hard hitting, copiously annotated and right.
The Declaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museum (DIVUM) of 2002 in now 10 years old. [...] The DIVUM is a very remarkable document that differs essentially from other declarations and documents that include in their title “Universal”, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Whereas the latter aims at uplifting mankind from the miserable and abject conditions into which it has been plunged by unjust and oppressive systems and conditions, DIVUM was aimed at consolidating the results of oppressive systems and preventing the victims from attempting to reverse the results of imperialist adventures. In effect DIVUM was advancing the argument that there should be no attempt to seek to reverse the transfer of artefacts that had been acquired under colonial and other violent and oppressive conditions [...] The British Museum which had engineered the whole project was not one of the signatories but the handwriting of the museum’s officials is all over the document; the language and style of the DIVUM can be traced to Bloomsbury, London.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Anuradhapura style Sandakada Pahana "found" in UK


A carved granite step (Sandakada Pahana - aka a moon stone) from a Hindu temple "featuring a cow and other animals" and similar to those found in the ancient city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka has been "found" in the garden of a Devon bungalow in the UK. Now the "finders" think it is the right thing for them to do is to flog it off at Bonhams, the reasons for the sale are not given. So this piece of thousand-year old translocated Srilankan heritage will be sold on the London antiquities market in Bonhams "Indian and Islamic" sale in London on April 23. This object is neither Indian nor Islamic, the temple step is a feature unique to Sinhalese architecture in Sri Lanka. It is being toted as a "magnificent work of art" rather than a ripped-out piece of an integral work of architecture.  The three-quarters of a ton stone measure eight feet by four feet and is six inches thick, and is one of only six examples known to date from this period, making this discovery the seventh. It is estimated to attract bids in excess of £30,000.

Although the object was "found" in the UK by a member of the public in their garden and is more than 300 years old, it does not feature in Britain's Portable Antiquities database which legitimates "finding" portable antiquities in England and (for the moment) Wales. Sam Tuke of Bonhams in Exeter says of the discovery:
"I met the client when she was collecting an item from our office. She mentioned in passing that she had a large slab of carved granite that had come from her mother's house in Sussex and that she had known and loved it since she was four years old. She loved running her fingers around the animals carved into the stone." "When I saw the photographs and she explained the full story, I knew that it could be of great historical interest and importance. The house in Sussex had been bought from a tea planter in the 1950s and the stone had been moved six times. Her brother had seen similar stones in Sri Lanka while on holiday. She explained that she could not bear to leave the stone behind after her father died and the house was sold. "It has been known affectionately in the family as 'The Pebble' and is currently lying outside the front of their bungalow at the end of a concrete path." 
Note the lack of names. The actual circumstances under which the item left Sri lanka are important, according to the Bonhams provenance, the item first "surfaces" at a date referred to as "in the 1950s" (the owner surely can provide a better date for the purchase of a house whose deeds they had on their father's death) so the export must have taken place before that (rather imprecise date). But when? The importance of this is that before the "in the 1950s" there are two local acts of legislation which have a bearing on the potential legal status of this item:
Sri Lanka  1940  The Antiquities Ordinance, N. 9 of 1940
Sri Lanka1955Antiquities Act N.2
So, how thoroughly have Bonhams actually checked that rather sketchy collecting history beyond the (unverified/ verified?) anecdote about seller as a four year old girl? Note how carefully it is stressed that after the father's death the object was allegedly "moved six times". Did the item leave Sri lanka when Anuradhapura was in a British colony, a Dominion (1948-72), or (despite the alleged collecting history) was independent?

Here is a link to an amateur video of one of the other six that no tea-planter dug up for himself and carted off to England to later dump unwanted in a Sussex garden.

Here's the picture of the carted-off one in a Bonhams press release.  I think we'd all like to see Sri Lanka try and get this ripped-off piece of a Srilankan monument back, and not being flogged off to some wealthy private collector gd-knows-where.
 Art Daily, 'Anuradhapura style Sandakada Pahana found in UK', Sunday Observer (Sri Lanka)  13 January 2013

Photo: Trapit archaeology blog

Hat-tip to MSN

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Turkey: Ertuğrul Günay interviewd

There is an interview in Hürriyet Daily News with Turkey's Culture Minister Ertuğrul Günay. While the most obvious characteristic of the text is ("Fortress Turkey" against the world) national pride (it stresses how the Minister claims that his current policy of attempting to get illicitly obtained antiquities back to Turkey is causing panic in foreign museums), it contains much else besides. Including these two segments:

Turkey is accused of double standards and has been sent the message that it also has archaeological artifacts in its hands that it will need to return.

I have no problem with that. If there is international legislation that says all artifacts are to be exhibited on their original soil, we will return everything. But we are in a different situation. Pieces came from Saida and Sur [in Lebanon] – they were Ottoman lands. We have not stolen them from other countries; we have not exploited a lack of awareness or abused some so-called agreements. Our scientists who went there worked legally, like Osman Hamdi Bey and brought back some artifacts. However, if one day there is an international legislation that says, those artifacts that are from lands that are no longer within your borders, we’ll do it. But if we return 200 [artifacts], then the world will have to return back 20,000 artifacts to Turkey.

So you are committed to remaining strong against the anti-Turkish lobby.

Very much so. Actually this lobby is not only against us but against the awakening of all Eastern Europe and Near Asia. Western museums are very concerned about the establishment of a joint policy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. There is nothing stolen in our museums or in Greece’s museums. But European museums are full of artifacts from Turkey, Greece, Iraq and Syria. That’s why they’re worrying.
There is also passing reference to banning metal detector use, which is unclear.