Monday, June 29, 2009

Putting the Pieces Together

Posted on behalf of Bernadette Callery

Museum International, volume 61, nos. 1-2, 2009. Conference proceedings of the 2008 “Athens International Conference on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin” held at the New Acropolis Museum.

Predictably, the opening of the New Acropolis Museum has fanned the fires of the repatriation debate over the return of the pieces of the Parthenon frieze to Athens – a fire that has been smoldering in the media since 1809 when Lord Byron published his “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.” Byron berates Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin, for purchasing and removing those sculptural elements for display in London, wasting
“useless thousands on the Phidian freaks,
Mis-shapen monuments, and maimed antiques;
And make their grand saloons a general mart
For all the mutilated blocks of art.”

This theme of the media’s involvement in the removal and restitution of cultural property continues in the postings of culture journalist Lee Rosenbaum and her CultureGrrl blog at - a useful source of breaking news in the world of art politics. Rosenbaum was also a contributor to the recently published issue of Museum International, vol. 61, nos. 1-2, 2009, the conference proceedings of the 2008 “Athens International Conference on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin” held at the New Acropolis Museum.

Readily available through the wonders of license agreements and full-text retrieval via Pittcat, many of the articles in this themed issue of Museum International are triumphant case studies of the return or reunification of cultural property. In her final synthesis of the conference, Elena Korka, Director for Documentation and Protection of Cultural Objects at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, notes that these cases “refer to objects, monuments or human remains removed from their countries of origin before 1970 – that is, before the UNESCO Convention – and whose return met with success as a result of a series of actions and long negotiations.” Social, legal, and archaeological issues are discussed by cultural ministers, tribal representatives, law professors, structural engineers, museum curators, archaeologists, and journalists, assuring that many voices are heard.

What particularly struck me were the legal maneuverings as claimants move through the dialectic dance, pausing to nod to the UNESCO Convention and its supporting legislation in the ratifying countries, the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, and the ICOM Code of Ethics. Mediation by interested scholars appears to have an impact in supporting national claims and they appear to be some of the most effective negotiators. One of these voluntary returns reunited the head and body of one of the stone birds of Great Zimbabwe, bringing together the upper part of the sculpture, which had remained in Zimbabwe, with the lower part, which was removed from the site by adventurers in the late nineteenth century. The much-traveled lower part of the figure came to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium for the 1998 “Legacies of Stone: Zimbabwe Past and Present” exhibition, by way of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin, Leipzig and St. Petersburg, as yet another example of the cultural dislocations of World War II. The conditions of the unification of this spiritually significant object and its return to the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe were that there was to be no blood shed throughout the transfer, and that the transfer be recognized as a long-term loan from Germany to Zimbabwe. This nice distinction between possession and ownership is also one of the points of argument in the ongoing call for the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum to the New Acropolis Museum, in which Britain recently offered a three-month loan of the marbles to the Acropolis Museum on the condition that Greece recognizes Britain’s ownership of the sculptures.

All such acts of cultural removal have substantial political overtones, as can be seen in the discussion of the return of the Axum obelisk or stelae, removed in 1935 from Axum, Ethopia, by personal order of Benito Mussolini for re-erection in Rome. As noted in Tullio Scovazzi’s article on the legal aspects of the Axum Obelisk case, Mussolini’s removal of the obelisk consciously drew a “direct parallel with the Roman Empire, also known to have plundered booty from the cities it annexed.” The sheer engineering feat of the removal, return and reconstruction of this 150 ton, 24 meter tall structure underlines the ease with which developing countries, albeit ancient cultures, can be exploited by developed ones – as well as the lengths to which megalomaniacs will go to have their whims gratified.

The chief virtue of many of these returns was the re-establishment of the spiritual value of the objects and their reintegration into the cultural environment of their creators. Collaborative loans, the most plausible of the solutions currently posed for the “Parthenon Marbles,” was illustrated by the actual case study of the reciprocal loan for exhibition of a Sumerian statue, now with its head and body reunited, which will be shared between the Musée du Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Warning those of us who think that digitization is necessarily a Good Thing, especially as it allows us to virtually reassemble the pieces of culturally disassociated materials, George W. Anastassopoulos, Permanent Delegate of Greece to UNESCO, and President of the 34th session of the General Conference of UNESCO, reminds us in his foreword that it ain’t necessarily so. There he notes that “some of the more determined traditionalists, with the help of new information and communication technologies, are setting themselves up as proponents of digital repatriation – a convenient but pale excuse for old collections to stay where they are, offering cultures that have been plundered the meagre compensation of access to cultures without a soul. It was thus no accident at all that the 34th session of UNESCO's General Conference should assert in 2007 that virtual access to cultural property cannot supplant the enjoyment of such property in its original and authentic setting.”

I recommend this collection for its case study approach and excellent legal overviews of the negotiations to anyone dealing with the ethics as well as the practical mechanics of preserving cultural property. These strongly argued articles will certainly be required reading for next year’s Museum Archives course.

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