Thursday, May 30, 2013

Finnish Museum Asked to Return Ancient Artefacts to Iraq

In April, the Iraqi Embassy in Helsinki sent a letter to Helena Edgren, the Director General at National Museum of Finland asking her to return to Iraq six ancient artefacts from its collection. The items include a clay foundation nail inscribed with cuneiform characters and an incantation bowl.
The unusual request led to a thorough investigation of how the artefacts came into the museum's collection that included information from records at the Office of the President and the Urho Kekkonen Museum.  In August 1977, the Amos Anderson art gallery in Helsinki saw the opening of a "Land of Two Rivers" exhibition of ancient art from Iraq. The opening coincided with the visit of an Iraqi delegation that included the country's Information Minister Tariq Aziz, and Iraq's chief state archaeologist.  The Iraqi group met with President Kekkonen both at the opening of the exhibition and at his residence. During the visit to his residence, the delegation presented President Kekkonen with a number of objects as gifts. These same items are those that the Iraqi Embassy has asked to be returned. In the autumn of that same year, President Kekkonen donated the artefacts to the National Museum which added them to its general ethnographic collection. [...] The National Board of Antiquities reviewed applicable laws and international regulations regarding the case, as well its ethical aspects. Both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Culture pointed out that the request was not official, as it did not originate from the Iraqi government. The conclusion reached was that the items were legally obtained and there is nothing legally suspect about their entry into Finland. Early this month, the directors of the National Board of Antiquities decided that there is no need to comply with the request to return the artefacts. 
The Iraqi Embassy has so far refused to discuss the matter with Finnish journalists. I would say the situation is relatively clear-cut and the donation of the items in 1977 makes the Finnish Museum's hanging onto them entirely legitimate (whatever people want to say about the past Iraqi regime). It really looks as if the intention was to share Iraqi antiquities with the people of Finland. The only complication may arise (and there is no word of this here) if the objects had been taken from the inventory of an Iraqi museum collection by a member of the ruling elite in a manner that raises ethical issues. 

'Finland refuses to return ancient artefacts to Iraq', Yle News, 30th May 2013. 
Photo: President Urho Kekkonen attended the opening of the Land of Two Rivers exhibition in Helsinki in August 1977. Also in attendance were ministerial-level guests from Iraq (Image: Amos Andersonin taidemuseon kuva-arkisto). 

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