Oxford Union hosts debate on repatriation of Arab antiquities acquired during colonial rule

Nevine El-Aref , Thursday 17 Nov 2016

The prestigious debate society hosted students and art historians from Europe and the Middle East; those arguing for the return of artefacts to their countries of origin won the debate with 165 votes to 106

Oxford Debate
Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass with the debaters

The Oxford Union hosted a debate on Tuesday at Oxford University on the repatriation of Arab artefacts acquired under colonial rule, which are now on display in European and American museums.

The prestigious debate society invited students to observe the debate, ask questions, argue their own opinions, and vote for a winner at the end.

On one side of the stage, were those arguing for the return of artefacts to their countries of origin. Speakers on this side included directors of major European museums, including former director of the  Voorlinden,  Wim Pijbes, and Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian minister of antiquities and director of excavations at Giza, Saqqara, Bahariya Oasis and Valley of the Kings.

The side opposing repatriation included speakers James Cuno, President and CEO of J Paul Getty Trust, and Dr Sabine Haag, General Director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Austrian Museum of Ethnology and the Austrian Theatre Museum.

Hawass told Ahram Online that those in favor of keeping Arab artefacts housed abroad cited state-of-the-art display capabilities and high- tech security and lighting systems at Western museums—advantages with which local museums simply cannot compete.

The opponents of repatriation also argued that the restoration work being done in international museums is of higher quality, pointing to incorrect methods recently used to restore the Tutankhamun mask at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

A Sudanese student at Oxford University defended keeping artefacts abroad, asserting that officials in her own country do not care enough to adequately protect Sudanese artefacts and monuments—the majority of which have been smuggled out the country.

Those supporting the repatriation of artefacts obtained in foreign counties during colonial rule was led by Hawass.

The former minister of antiquities noted that 70 percent of the artefacts on display at international museums left Egypt legally when the country observed a law that enabled foreign archaeological missions to divide artefacts from their discoveries with Egypt. He added that Egyptian artefacts were legally put on sale at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir until the issuing of law 117 in1983, which prohibited such activity.

During the debate, Hawass argued that 30 percent of the artefacts on display at international museums were illegally smuggled out of Egypt and other Arab countries. The most notable of these are the bust of Queen Nefertiti which is now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin and the Rosetta Stone, now on display at the British Museum in London.

"During my tenure as secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, I asked for the return of both artefacts, because the Nefertiti bust travelled to Germany in 1913 illegally. I presented all the evidence that confirms its illegal smuggling," Hawass told Ahram Online, adding that the same applies to the Rosetta stone which was taken by the French when they invaded Egypt and given to the British.

Hawass argued that Egypt has some of the best museums, which exceed many in Europe and the U.S., such as the Nubia Museum in Aswan, the Crocodile Museum in Komombo, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat and the Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking the Giza plateau, currently under construction.

On concerns over inferior restoration, Hawass described the issue as "an international phenomenon that is not limited to Egypt and Arab countries." Botched restoration, he asserted, has happened in museums in Athens and Belgium, where an important mummy was completely destroyed.

During the debate, Hawass also criticised the policy some European and American museums which are continuing to display artefacts that were illegally smuggled out of their homelands, before being bought and sold by antiquities dealers.

He referenced a case from a few years ago in which the Louvre bought four wall reliefs which were stolen from a tomb in Luxor. Hawass said that he prohibited the Louvre archaeological mission from excavating in Saqqara until the reliefs were returned to Egyptian custody.

At the end of the debate, students voted on which side presented the better argument. Hawass and those in favor of repatriation won 165 to 106.

Hawass with his team



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