The politics of cultural heritage

Nadine Loza
Friday 9 Mar 2018

How can Western museums reconcile respect for cultural property with hogging the world’s antiquities

Patrimony claims by countries seeking the return of their cultural property from North American and European museums, private collectors and antiquity dealers have accelerated since the 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)

Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the complementary International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (Unidroit) Convention of 1995.

Disputed antiquities originate in artefact-rich “source nations” and dubiously end up in economically wealthier “market” nations. Most countries can be categorised as either a source or a market nation, and this divide represents the two opposing stances which frame the repatriation debate.

The cultural nationalism of source nations prioritises the link between historical objects and national identity. Nationalists are protective of their cultural heritage and outraged by its plundering, firmly believing antiquities should return to, and remain in, their countries of origin.

Meanwhile, cultural internationalists advocate the universality of art, conveniently subscribing to a more fluid notion of ownership. Antiquities belong wherever the market distributes them, they say, because the world forms a global community that shares all cultural property.

Applied to Egypt, a similar dichotomy exists in the form of Egyptian Pharaonism versus Western Egyptomania.

The influence of our ancient civilisation has been far-reaching and is now to be seen throughout the world’s popular culture, fashion and architecture from the Eye of Horus used as the logo for the TV network CBS in the US and the obelisk-shaped Washington Monument in Washington DC to the glass pyramid that serves as the entrance to the Louvre Museum in Paris, Cleopatra bob hairstyles and shendyt Scottish kilts.

It would be exhausting to decry each instance of such usage and unrealistic to expect the world not to be fascinated by what is fascinating. As a result, we tend rightly to regard these acts of imitation as nods of appreciation.

However, taking inspiration from our history is one thing and taking its tangible remains and claiming ownership over them is an entirely different matter. The assumption that only Western museums can look after antiquities is patronising and false.

At the British Museum in London in 1937, for example, the sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, the so-called Elgin Marbles, were cleaned with harsh copper chisels and carborundum stone, damaging the 2,400-year-old patina on the figures and changing their form.

The famous Rosetta Stone from Egypt, also in the British Museum, has darkened because of decades of exposure to polluted London air in the museum’s foyer. It was only moved to its current protective case in 1999.

Market nations argue that they are more capable of safeguarding cultural treasures against turmoil, but is anywhere in the world truly immune to unrest?

The January 2011 protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square are sometimes cited as evidence of the danger of keeping priceless artefacts in the neighbouring Egyptian Museum, but what about London’s 1990 poll tax riots which saw Trafalgar Square in the centre of the capital descend into anarchy and during which no civilians stepped up to protect the neighbouring British National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery?

Arguing in favour of keeping the famous bust of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin in Germany, and lacking the gift of foresight, historian Arthur Weigall in 1927 said that “Berlin is a city perhaps less liable to a destructive upheaval than is the Egyptian capital.”

Luckily, the bust survived the bombings of World War II in a bunker, only to be taken out once again with the rebuilding of post-war Germany.

Adapting the bust as a mascot of sorts, Germany then claimed that it was integral to its cultural patrimony and new national character. Its claim of ownership of the bust has always been deeply problematic, however, as it is akin to sneaking a valuable, personal and prized possession out of someone’s home, taking it to your house, holding onto it despite the real owner’s appeals, attesting that it is really more yours because it has seen you through dark times, and later celebrating that supposed ownership in a centennial event marked by stubborn delusion.

It should go without saying that this cannot be genuine ownership and that cultural appropriation cannot absolve property theft.

The real issue for market nation museums is what would become of their collections and tourism revenues if they opened the floodgates by beginning to take repatriation claims seriously and returned key disputed artefacts to their countries of origin.

Their reluctance to do so does little to refute accusations of lingering colonial elitism. As antiquities lawyer Tess Davis points out, “colonialism is alive and well in the art world. So-called leaders in the field still justify retaining plunder in order to fill their ‘universal museums’ where patrons can view encyclopaedic collections from all over the world. A noble idea, in theory, but in practice, a western luxury.

The citizens of New York, London, and Paris may benefit, but those of Phnom Penh? Never.”

The universal museums of these urban hubs claim that they are better positioned than source nation museums to serve world audiences, to which US Getty Trust President James Cuno has responded that “any museum that argues for cosmopolitanism and cultural diversity has the obligation to encourage that access everywhere. There is no reason to believe that people elsewhere are not curious about the world.”

Questions regarding the rightful ownership of high-profile cultural objects tend to lead to drawn out, politicised struggles that are fraught with emotion because they are, in essence, conflicts over identity.

Public awareness of cultural property and the ethics of acquisition has increased, challenging contemporary museums to right their historical wrongs. The act of restitution is in a sense awaited as eagerly as the artefact itself by the source nations because it is an overdue gesture of respect and social justice.

The rationale behind many repatriation claims is based on the notion that restoring an artefact to its original setting will help the source country reattribute positive feelings to it in its cultural memory while allowing us all to gain a deeper understanding of it in its intended context.

In a book on Nefertiti published in January this year, British Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley muses that “in the Cairo Museum, alongside the golden treasures of Tutankhamun and the silver treasures of Tanis, Nefertiti’s aura would surely diminish.”

How can an Egyptian queen’s “aura” possibly wither in Egypt and flourish in Germany? Does an artefact have to be a museum’s only notable attraction in order for it to stand out? And why are we still being punished for our cultural wealth?

The writer is founding director of the Egypt Diaspora Initiative.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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