Sunday, June 30, 2013

Where Are the 400 Benin Bronzes?

 Kwame Opoku asks what might have happened to the 400 Benin treasures which had been looted in the nefarious British invasion of 1897 held in the Field Museum in Chicago some of which had been donated by Captain A. W. F. Fuller and his wife to the museum. He is disconcerted to find that they have disappeared from the museum's webpage "although there was mention of Africa, Angola, Nigeria, Madagascar, Yoruba peoples, Merina, Tanala, and Betsileo".
Many museums in Europe and America are facing a financial crisis and from recent reports, it would not be unreasonable to assume that they may be tempted to sell, loan, transfer, or exchange African artefacts they are illegally holding, such as the Benin bronzes without anybody taking much notice, especially since the museums have several artefacts they never or rarely display in public. How would we know, if they dispose of Benin artefacts when they refuse to inform the public about the number of Benin artefacts they have in their possession? [...] My main worry is with regard to the sale, transfer, using as security or in any way dealing with contested African artefacts that may in future prejudice or affect the rights of claiming African owners.
Dr Opoku suggests we should start formalising the approach to the objects held in foreign collections:
It is high time Nigeria and other States with claims to artefacts in Western museums issued a list or lists of the artefacts they wish to recover from the museums. The Cairo Conference on Restitution had recommended the issuance of such a list. This list would serve as notice to potential purchasers of the artefacts so that in future no one can say they never knew that those objects had been looted or stolen. Any defence of good faith would be excluded.
Kwame Opoku, 'Africa: Where Are the 400 Benin Bronzes?', 27 June 2013.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Looting in Lanka

The Poson Festival, typically held on the first full moon in June (Poson), celebrates the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. On this occasion the Srilankan Sunday Times has an editorial article "Poson reflections: Save our heritage", Sunday, June 23, 2013 devoted to the question of looting and antiquity smuggling and the involvement of criminal gangs in the activity.
There is heightened awareness among these criminal networks about the monetary value of ancient artifacts especially in the international market. Sri Lankan Buddha statues are openly traded on the internet with little or no information about their source. Oriental artifacts are a rave in Western homes. [...]  For the most part, this mania over antiques is a continuation of that European tendency to collect and hoard that has led them to deprive poor nations of their heritage for centuries. Diplomats in the past smuggled out valuable artifacts in their luggage, which passed unchecked through Customs. Much before that, colonialists, notably the British, freely plundered territories under their control. Even today, these governments refuse to return stolen property to their rightful owners.
The article is strangely silent about where the author thinks the items being currently looted are ending up. A recent London sale, ignored by Srilankan authorities there is, however, mentioned:
 The auctioning by Bonham’s of London in April of a “sandakadapahana” or moonstone believed to be of the Anuradhapura period has added to the frenzy at home. Although a Sri Lankan expert based in Britain dismissed the moonstone as a replica, it fetched a massive £553,250 or about Rs. 110 million. Not two months later, a group of robbers “disguised in military clothes” walked into the Herath-Halmillewa Raja Maha Viharaya in Kebetigollewa and spirited away its moonstone after gagging and binding the local guards. This was no random act. Police later claimed to have found its remains, after the robbers had broken it apart to search for treasure. 
 It sounds to me like claiming it was a fake was just an excuse for not taking any action. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Merkel and Putin at exhibition of Disputed Art

The BBC's Steve Evans explains how an exhibition in Moscow of ancient objects, including some taken from German museums in 1945 escalated yesterday into "a bit of a diplomatic incident":
The two countries are in dispute over whether works of art taken by Soviet forces in the war should be returned to Germany, the BBC's Steve Evans reports from Berlin. No-one quite knows how much art was looted from German collections as the Soviet Army closed in on Berlin but it certainly runs into thousands of paintings and sculptures, our correspondent says. One gallery alone in Berlin lost 441 pictures, including works by Rubens and Caravaggio. The new exhibition at the Hermitage Museum includes work previously in German museums. The Russian position has in the past been that the works were paid for with the blood of Soviet soldiers, our correspondent says. Russian officials have also pointed out that Napoleon's troops looted works from Russian collections, works which ended up in the Louvre. Furthermore, Nazi forces destroyed or looted Russian art treasures during the invasion of the USSR.

Russia and Germany Dispute War-Trophy Art

Speeches by Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin at the opening of a major exhibition of Bronze Age treasures were temporarily cancelled because of a long-running disagreement over the looting of art works from territories occupied by the by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War.
The exhibition – Bronze Age, Europe without Borders with more than 1,700 artefacts on display in St Petersburg’s historic Hermitage museum – was supposed to mark the culmination of a Year of Germany in Russia after three years of co-operation between German and Russian curators.[...] But when it emerged that the German leader intended to use her museum speech to insist on the return of hundreds of art works that Germany claims were looted by victorious Soviet soldiers after 1945, the opening ceremony at the Hermitage was suddenly abandoned.[...] It was clear that trouble had been brewing for many weeks after it emerged that some 600 of the exhibits are also listed in Germany as looted works of art. They included the so-called Treasure of Eberswalde, said to be the largest prehistoric hoard ever found in Germany, with 81 separate gold pieces dating from the 9th or 10th century BC, including bowls and beakers, armbands and bracelets. The other most significant part of the treasures that Germany claims were carried off as “war booty” by Soviet soldiers are archaeological remains from the ancient city of Troy. The Hermitage exhibition marks the first time such treasures have been put on public display after years when the former Soviet government denied having them. But their reappearance has inevitably sparked demands in Germany for their return. However, in Russia they are seen as compensation for art works that were looted from Russia by Germany after their invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and have never been rediscovered.
but of course Troy is not in Russia. Perhaps we should ask Turkey where the stuff belongs? By what right was the Eberswalde hoard taken to Russia?

Russia and Germany Dispute War-Trophy Art

read the rest here:
Quentin Peel, Neil Buckley and Charles Clover, 'Russia and Germany in spat over ‘looted’ art', Financial Times June 21, 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How objects get to Museums

The recent repatriation of the two 10th century Khmer statues by the Metropolitan Museum of Art has led to some comments from India (Neha Paliwal, 'How objects get to museums' The Indian Express Jun 03 2013).
Public museums are wonderful spaces because they allow us to see and imagine things and societies that most of us will never get to witness first-hand. At the same time, we rarely question how these objects have been obtained; how they move through the world and ultimately come to rest in a museum where we can see and be moved by them. The Met's actions force us to ask this question, and to realise that many collections, private and public, contain items that have been obtained by violent means — previously by imperial and colonial governments, and more recently through looting during stressful times such as civil war (in the case of these Cambodian statues), or war (in the case of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003). It is clear that such plunder happens precisely because of the great aesthetic and cultural value of the artefacts, often at the behest of private collectors. [...] Illicit traffic is hardly unique to cultural objects. But in these cases, museums play a critical role [...]  when an object is loaned or donated to a museum, with little verifiable information about origins, its display in a public institution masks its violent acquisition, assigns it value and legitimises it. In other words, displaying a statue looted from a remote site in Cambodia in the halls of the Metropolitan Museum allows similar artefacts to circulate, and gather value in the international art market. [...] It is our appreciation of the art on the walls and the statues in a hall, and our unquestioning belief in the credibility of the museum that confers final value on the artefact. As public institutions, museums then have a special responsibility to ensure that the objects they display are not dubiously acquired. 

The writer then addresses the question of considering ancient objects as global cultural heritage (opposed by "nationalist notions of cultural property") and therefore displaying them in "universal" museums such as the Met or the British Museum, admitting that the idea has some credibility. There is little doubt that objects displayed in big museums in large European or American cities will be seen by many visitors. So-called "encylopaedic museums" spur curiosity about distant places:
However, we must acknowledge that the universal museum itself is a product of modern imperial and colonial interests. They are located almost exclusively in First World countries, their visitors are overwhelmingly from the West, and their collections are filled with objects taken from poorer nations over the last few centuries. Such situations do not make for universal access, by any measure.
While claims of many 'source countries' asking for the return of  numerous artefacts on display in British, French and American museums may ultimately be unsuccessful, the author argues that to assuage them, there may  perhaps in future be more loans, greater circulation of artefacts between the big collecting museums and those in other nations. This in turn would create a more genuinely cosmopolitan kind of museum.
The return of the Cambodian statues is one act in the recent history of repatriations that signals a change in attitude among museums. It shows us that, more and more, illicit acquisition of cultural and historically significant artefacts is intolerable, not just when buying or receiving artefacts as donations in the future but also with regard to past acquisitions. In this instance, the Met has set a standard that other museums ought to follow, both with regard to international acquisitions as well as artefacts obtained within the nation — from minority and oppressed communities. Even as we speak about the responsibilities of museums as public institutions, we as visitors also have a responsibility — to ensure that our museums reflect the concerns and values of their communities. The next time you visit a museum, you might wonder how a Manipuri manuscript found its way to the display case, and maybe you'll even ask the curator. 
Which brings us back again to the issue of public engagement with museums, including Jason Felch's idea of Wikiloot.