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MUSEUM International N°241-2
Return of Cultural Objects: The Athens Conference

Museum241-242 Eng Large.jpgTable of Contents

Editorial by Françoise Rivičre

Foreword by Dr George W. Anastassopoulos

Chapter 1: Case Studies

The reunification of the Great Zimbabwe bird

UTIMUT - The Return

The repatriation of the Ngarrindjeri Ancestral remains

The return of the Axum Obelisk

The reunification of a Sumerian statue

The reunification of the Kwakwaka’wakw mask with its cultural soul

Chapter 2: Ethical and Legal Aspects

Chapter 3: Mediation and Cultural Diplomacy

Chapter 4: Museum, Site and Cultural Context

Chapter 5: International Cooperation and Research

Chapter 6: Final Synthesis and Conclusions

  • Final synthesis and conclusions of the Athens Conference by Elena Korka

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The reunification of a national symbol Dawson Munjeri

The case of the soapstone bird has mobilized many stakeholders in Belgium, Germany and Zimbabwe and illustrates some of the dynamics involved in the repatriation and restitution of cultural property to countries of origin. As the Executive Director of the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ), the author was one of the key players in efforts that culminated in the return of the Great Zimbabwe Soapstone Bird from Germany to Zimbabwe, albeit ‘On Permanent loan to National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe’. The issues of ‘permanency of loan’ and ‘legal ownership’ have yet to be resolved at the global level and this article examines some of these. Top

The 1997 exhibition and the reunification process Christiane Tytgat

In 1997, the temporary exhibition Legacies of Stone: Zimbabwe, Past and Present was organized within the framework of the centenary of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. The exhibition witnessed the reunification of the two parts of one of the famous stone birds of Great Zimbabwe.– an event that received substantial attention and
would be the first step in the process of returning the lost piece to its country of origin.

The repatriation of Greenland cultural heritage Daniel Thorleifsen

During Greenland’s colonial period (1721–1953), scientists from abroad acquired a significant amount of ethnographic material and other objects. These collections found their way across Europe including the collection housed at the National Museum in Denmark.  In 1979 Greenland obtained Home Rule. As of 1 January 1981 all matters relating to museums and the protection of ancient monuments became the responsibility of Home Rule, one consequence of which was the creation of the Greenland National Museum. The museum then initiated talks with the Danish National Museum in order to transfer parts of its collections back to Greenland. Repatriation of such artefacts is a common desire among Greenlanders, who lost essential aspects of their cultural heritage during colonial times. Repatriation is inextricably bound up with the restoration of cultural pride and identity. The legal instruments that define the relationship between Greenland and Denmark do not encompass repatriation. As such, Greenlanders instead called upon ethical and postcolonial considerations. Top

The return of cultural heritage from Denmark to Greenland Mille Gabriel

During colonial times (1721–1953), Danish officials, arctic explorers and missionaries carried out considerable collecting activities in Greenland, with the National Museum of Denmark eventually becoming the holder of the world’s largest Arctic collection. From 1982–2001, Denmark and Greenland engaged in extensive museum cooperation resulting in the return of approximately 35,000 archaeological and ethnographic artefacts from the National Museum of Denmark to the Greenland National Museum and Archives – a process later identified as Utimut, the Greenlandic word for return. Greenlandic requests for repatriation date back nearly a century and have from the outset been inextricably associated with both the formation of museological institutions within Greenland and the overall political processes leading towards decolonization and the introduction of home rule, in 1979. Using the colonial relationship between Denmark and Greenland as a point of departure, this article discusses the rationales behind the Greenlandic requests and the basic principles on which the repatriation partnership was carried out – principles based on an aim to divide the collection into two equally representative collections, while at the same time acknowledging and respecting Greenlandic as well as Danish attachments to particular items. The Utimut process represents a partnership based on trust and mutual respect and has created the ideal platform for future museum cooperation between Denmark and Greenland. Furthermore, it may serve as a useful model to other indigenous peoples and decolonized states that likewise have lost their cultural heritage during colonial times, but yet are committed to establishing museums of their own. Top

Implications and challenges of repatriating and reburying Ngarrindjeri Old People from the ‘Edinburgh Collection’ Christopher Wilson

This article is based upon research on the repatriation of Ngarrindjeri Old People. Following over 100 years of removal, it was not until April 2003 that over 300 individuals (referred to as the Edinburgh Collection) were returned to the Ngarrindjeri nation, establishing a national standard for the treatment of Old People within Australia. Since this highly significant event, the Ngarrindjeri have been overwhelmed by the amount of Old People returned to the community, including remains from private collectors and an additional seventy-four individuals from Museum Victoria in 2004. This article provides an insight into the processes of repatriation and reburial experienced by the Ngarrindjeri nation and begins to consider some of the social, cultural, political and economic implications of repatriating human remains to indigenous communities within Australia. Furthermore, it sheds light on the first reburial event within the Ngarrindjeri community and thus examines some of the collective efforts involved in the reburial process itself. Top

Ngarrindjeri Nation, South Australia Cressida Fforde

European institutions collected indigenous Australian human remains from the late-eighteenth century onwards, forming part of collections that contained the physical remains of people from all around the world, including Europe. Obtained for the purposes of studying so-called ‘racial’ difference, their removal was deeply embedded within a racist scientific paradigm that has long been abandoned, but which played a large part in the oppressive treatment of Aboriginal people by the colonizing state. Evidence that remains were taken without consent, and against the wishes of the indigenous population, permeates the historical literature. Since the 1980s, many indigenous groups have campaigned for the return of their remains from institutions around the world so that they can be reburied. This article considers the case of Edinburgh University, which amassed a large collection of human remains from around the world in the nineteenth century and, following campaigning from Aboriginal people, adopted a pro-repatriation policy in 1991. Top

The Cultural Benefits of the Return Haile Mariam

The General Manager of the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage of Ethiopia describes how cultural heritage cannot be separated from the social and political patterns to which it belongs in the context of the Axum Obelisk. For many groups of indigenous people, the past and its sacred symbolic dimensions are among the most unifying issues in their struggle for self-determination. The way in which any nation defines and contemplates itself is vital to its growth. A nation’s historical and cultural heritage is a repository for definition of its character and identity. Top

Legal Aspects of the Axum Obelisk Case Tullio Scovazzi

In 1937, the 1700-year-old Axum obelisk was removed from the town of Axum in Ethiopia, following the annexation of the country by Italy. The obelisk was broken into five fragments, transported to Rome and re-erected in front of the Ministry of Colonies. In April 2005, despite three previous treaty engagements (1947, 1956 and 1997), Italy finally complied with its obligation to return the obelisk to Axum. In 2008 it was re-erected at its original site. The story of the return of the obelisk can be seen as a precedent in the current process of formation of new principles of international law in the field of cultural heritage, namely the principle of non-impoverishment of the cultural heritage of States of origin, the principle of non-exploitation of the weakness of other countries to obtain cultural gain, and the principle of preservation of the integrity of cultural sites. Top

From Italy to Ethiopia: Disassembly, transportation and re-erection of the Obelisk of Axum Giorgio Croci

Following the decision to return the obelisk to Ethiopia in 2005, the blocks of the stele were transported to Axum by an Antonov aircraft, although navigation on the runway posed several challenges. At the time of writing, the reconstruction of the Stele on its original site in Axum has not yet begun. The project foresees the construction of a provisional steel tower to lift the pieces with aramidic fiber bars being used to connect the blocks, thereby ensuring the necessary strength against seismic action. A final restoration and cleaning of the surfaces will complete the work. The article explores the technical aspects of the transportation. Top

The impact and significance of the statue of Ur-Ningirsen Joan Aruz

The statue of Ur-Ningirsu, the son of the famed ruler, Gudea of Lagash, was acquired by the Louvre in 1924 and reunited with its head fifty years later. This article focuses on the impact of those circumstances over a century ago on the study and appreciation of ancient Near Eastern art. Top

The historical context of the discovery Annie Caubet

In 1877 the French consul at Bassorah initiated excavations on the site of Tello in southern Iraq. The artefacts, reliefs and sculptures found there bore inscriptions in an unknown language, bringing about the rediscovery of the Sumerians. Troubles in the region then worsened culminating with the outbreak of the First World War. Between 1909 and 1924, looting took place on a grand scale. Between 1924–25, a series of statues of the Sumerian dynasty, including the statue of Ur-Ningirsu, were sold to various European and American institutions or collectors. In 1974, the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York signed an agreement to the effect that the two institutions would reunite the head and body of the Sumerian statue and take turns to exhibit the whole artefact every four years. Top

The reunification of the Kwakwaka’wakw mask with its cultural soul Andrea Sanborn

This article traces the path of a Kwakwaka’wakw transformation mask from its origin in Alert Bay, British Columbia, Canada in 1921 to the British Museum in London, UK, and finally back to Alert Bay in 2005. This eighty-four year journey left many impacts on the thousands of years of the culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations of northern Vancouver Island in Canada. The article also identifies the ongoing obstacles to repatriation of world cultures to their rightful owners. It argues that colonial attitudes still direct many decisions, and that these can only be eliminated through openness to cultural exchange leading to mutual respect. The Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations of northern Vancouver Island in Canada have endured almost 200 years of post-European contact and still face challenges to their repatriation processes. Moreover, the repatriated objects in the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia, form only a very small part of cultural repatriation; a process that also includes tangible and intangible components such as land, language and natural resources. Top

ICOM statement on reclaiming cultural property Udo Gößwald

Museums have long experienced diverse pressures on collections, particularly from source communities (many now in modern nation-states) that suffered extreme loss of their heritage under colonialism. A great deal of the world’s archaeology and anthropology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – even when most honourably pursued – can be argued to have advanced under grossly inequitable conditions among the world’s peoples and cultures in their ability to sustain and protect their own heritage. At worst, brutal human violence and uncontrolled pillage occurred. Cultural destruction and social dislocation prevailed in many of the historical movements of artefacts to private collections and museums from their communities of origin. The record is especially stark across the continent of Africa, in China with 1 million objects missing, and in all parts of the world in relation to indigenous peoples. Instead of being preoccupied with the ‘Universal Museums Declaration’ as a misjudged political event, which did more harm than good, ICOM is interested in an approach that moves beyond attack or censorious repression of the discourse of universalism. A more considered response is required – namely, to challenge the discourse itself to move out of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (where it remains atrophied) and to extend its continuing legacy and potential of self-transformation in twenty-first century terms. Top

New ways of cooperation between museums and countries of origin  Paolo Giorgio Ferri

This article examines the changes in sensitivity and international opinion regarding the illicit circulation of cultural goods. The emergence of a new and different international public policy means alterations in normative and jurisprudential inputs, at least with respect to good faith and proof of diligence, which are enriched by those factors that a given epoch and communal social sentiment assign them. Harmony and balance are found through the assimilation of different legal systems, and by honouring the imperative norms of the country of origin. It therefore becomes possible to envisage a final unified result, that is, the creation of uniform legislation. Top

Artistic heritage and the return of masterpieces Louis Godart

This article was written on the occasion of the exhibition Nostoi: Rediscovered Masterpieces that took place in the Quirinale Palace. For the first time, the public was able to view sixty-seven masterpieces, returned to Italy by four great American museums: the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Princeton University Museum. The exhibition, formally inaugurated by the President of the Republic and the Minister for Culture on 21 December, 2007, was an unprecedented success; so much so, that its duration was extended. All the works shown were the result of clandestine excavations carried out on sites in Magna Graecia, Etruria, Latium, Campania and Sicily. They cover around 900 years of Italian history, from the ninth century BC to the second century AD. They reveal the widespread nature of an extremely worrying phenomenon as regards the safeguarding of the country’s artistic heritage. Top

Unwanted antiquities Neil Brodie

 International debate over the fate of cultural property that has been stolen or otherwise expropriated has until now focused upon questions of return. This article considers the less prominent issue of what should happen to such cultural property when a country of origin does not want to claim its return. Top

The ethics and law of returns Lyndel Prott

Both international law and national laws are relevant in settling disputes about cultural heritage items. But what happens if the law is uncertain, or non-existent or if the relevant national laws conflict? Ethical principles and cultural arguments are important in any negotiation for return of cultural heritage. Top

Returning a stolen generation Tristram Besterman

This article is concerned with people – rather than objects – and their return. Human remains illicitly removed from source communities to UK museums during the colonial period are now being repatriated at an unprecedented rate. However, a few UK institutions remain deaf to the voices of descendants, whose feelings of violation can be deepened by uninformed and thoughtless treatment by the holding institution. At least two principles should guide museums in dealing with claims: context and consent. In analysing context, both the historical circumstances in which the remains of people left their source community and entered the museum, and the current circumstances of the claim should be sensitively explored. The spirit and conduct of enquiry should involve a dialogue between the museum and source community that recognizes equity and be informed by respect, to avoid adding a third stage of violation. By extension, consent – or the lack of it – is a crucial factor in past dispossession and present possession. The racial constructs of nineteenth-century science and museum practice can resonate uncomfortably in the twenty-first, if holding institutions fail to engage appropriately with claimant communities. Top

The thieves of Baghdad: a new way of looking at the unification of the Parthenon sculptures Matthew Bogdanos

As the head of the US government’s investigation into the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003 and as an American of Greek descent, Matthew Bogdanos suggests that the tragedy of Iraq’s lost heritage can be used in three distinct ways to add perspective and poignancy to the discussion of the unification of the Parthenon sculptures. First, he suggests that all those involved in the debate should enlist the interest and support of mainstream society through a more broad-based use of the media, on the basis that publicity means greater awareness – leading to increased scrutiny, pressure and resources brought to bear on the issues of recovery and repatriation. Second, he argues that if mainstream society were to see the removal of cultural property in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not through the hazy distance of centuries long past, but through the lens of April 2003 and the Iraq Museum, then the average citizen, voter and taxpayer might modify their traditional view of those who removed that property as benign gentleman adventurers. Finally, and fully acknowledging that it is not a perfect analogy, Colonel Bogdanos highlights the international outcry that would ensue if countries were to refuse to return any antiquities located in their country that were stolen from Iraq in 2003, noting that many of these countries are silent on the return of the Parthenon sculptures. Top

Mediation and cultural diplomacy Irini Stamatoudi

This paper discusses the pros of mediation and cultural diplomacy and discusses how progress can be made in this respect within the context of UNESCO. The issue of culture can be used as an instrument for many purposes, in some countries more than others. It cuts across many areas and can be used as a bargaining chip for numerous issues, especially with regard to parts of countries that value its importance. The internationalization of ideas and concepts has highlighted culture as perhaps the only vehicle that allows nations to work closer together and successfully share common interests. So, even if a State does not necessarily agree upon the return of a particular object to its place of origin, it may still be in a position to profit from the benefits of such a return. These might be found in exhibition exchanges, cooperation in research and excavations, the creation of museum annexes, and so on. The best way for these benefits to emerge is through mediation and cultural diplomacy. Top

Museums and restorative justice: heritage, repatriation and cultural education Moira Simpson

After decades of suppression and social injustice, many colonized indigenous peoples are seeking to revive traditional values and cultural practices as part of a process of renewal intended to strengthen cultural identity, heal personal and community ills, and provide a stimulus for new creativity. In this article, the author considers the contemporary value of sacred and ceremonial artefacts as resources for cultural renewal by indigenous peoples who have lost most of their heritage materials during the colonial era and are seeking to recover from the effects of post-colonial trauma. This process often involves the restoration of key items of cultural and spiritual heritage to living indigenous cultures and it is these types of objects that are most frequently the subject of repatriation requests. This article explores the links between heritage, and health and well-being that become evident as indigenous peoples seek to restore cultural values and identity and renew the spiritual dimension of their cultures – as a means of dealing with life in the twenty-first century – and considers the implications for the future roles of museums. Top

Preventing looting through the return of looted archaeological objects Ricardo J. Elia

In recent years several source countries have negotiated with foreign museums to effect the return of looted archaeological objects held by these museums. These cases are often regarded as simple disputes over ownership of artworks. Negotiators should keep in mind that, while individual antiquities may be successfully recovered in these cases, the archaeological, historical and scientific information that was destroyed by the looting can never be recovered. Efforts to recover looted cultural objects should also focus on pressuring museums to stop them acquiring undocumented objects in order to deter future looting. Top

Art history meets archaeology: considering cultural context in American museums Lee Rosenbaum

The recent heightened international sensitivity to cultural property issues has affected how antiquities are presented in museums in the United States. Not just by diminishing the number of works in those museums’ collections as a result of restitutions and curtailed acquisitions, but also by changing the nature of gallery installations and interpretations (i.e. wall texts, object labels and multimedia presentations). The article examines some specific examples of best and worst practices and end with examples of ‘separated objects’ that should be reunited to be seen as their creators intended them to be. Top

A first small step in a long journey Maurice Davies

This article is based on conversations with several participants at the recent Athens conference on the issue of the Parthenon Marbles. It hopes to bring together threads of discussion so far and hope to do so in a way that is useful and acceptable to both sides of the dispute. Top

Return and restitution of cultural property in the wake of the 1970 Convention Mounir Bouchenaki

Illicit trafficking in cultural property is an international affair and only international cooperation, particularly through the adoption of and adherence to international conventions, will allow a higher measure of control in this area. To curb illicit traffic in cultural property, more countries must ratify the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, as well as the UNIDROIT Convention of 1995 and other relevant multilateral and bilateral agreements. Still, unless these conventions are supported by adequate national legislation and a comprehensive programme for protection and preservation of cultural heritage, international conventions can have only limited effect. Following the period of decolonization in the 1970s, UNESCO Member States recognized that the lack of retroactive application of existing international instruments resulted in many ‘victim’ States that had no legal recourse to claim the return or restitution of illicitly appropriated cultural property. Top

Repatriation of cultural properties: the Peruvian experience Blanca Alva Guerrero

From the beginning of its life as an independent nation, Peru has prohibited the exportation of its cultural properties without a governmental permit. Nevertheless, this has not prevented the continuous loss of its cultural heritage. Many collections of Peruvian artefacts exist abroad in addition to many isolated objects. As many objects left the country legally (as concessions or favours of the temporary regime), as illegally. In 2007, Peru had a total of forty-one claims on cultural properties in eleven countries. That year, for the first time in Peruvian history, the government assigned to the National Institute of Culture a special fund to cover repatriation expenses for illicitly exported cultural properties. The most numerous of these repatriations took place within the framework of a Memorandum of Understanding enacted with the government of the United States of America, consisting of approximately 640 archaeological pieces. Peru is promoting the signature of new bilateral agreements with other countries, as well as the revision of already existing agreements, in order to facilitate restitution procedures. These agreements include listed categories of protected objects with generic descriptions, to avoid the main difficulty of obtaining the restitution of clandestinely excavated archaeological objects, which have no formal documentation. Top

Cultural objects in cultural contexts: the contribution of academic institutions Angelos Chaniotis

Academic programmes in art history and classics tend to view cultural objects as products of a particular cultural context and to ignore their later significance for their countries of origin. As such, they neglect issues of ethics, law and cultural policy. A holistic approach is therefore necessary – one which covers a range of issues from the creation of cultural objects to their significance in changing cultural environments, including issues of provenance and the illicit trade in antiquities. Cooperation with regard to the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin should be based on reciprocity and respect. A whole range of possibilities exists, whereby cultural objects can be exhibited in their country of origin without damaging the mission of international museums (donations, renewable loans, permanent loans, exchanges and periodic exhibitions). Top

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