Friday, February 16, 2018

Berlin Museums Chief Calls for Rules on Restitution of Colonial Artefacts

Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), has called for international guidelines to help museums handle collecting history research and repatriation of illegally acquired colonial heritage in public collections (Catherine Hickley, 'Berlin Museums chief calls for rules on restitution of colonial artefacts' The Art Newspaper 16th Feb 2018) . These guidelines would be the equivalent of the Washington Principles on Nazi-confiscated art.* He postulates that international organisation such as UNESCO or the International Council of Museums (ICOM) should take the lead in organising conferences to devise the guidelines. The issue of colonial art in European collections is becoming increasingly uncomfortable in western Europe, for example in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has pledged “a temporary or definitive restitution of African heritage to Africa” over the next five years.

There has also been much debate on  the collecting histories of non-European artefacts from former colonies in Berlin, prompted by the construction of the new Humboldt Forum, due to open in 2019. The building will provide a new home for the SPK’s ethnographic and Asian art collections, the ethnographic collections of the former Prussian state.
Bénédicte Savoy, an art historian and member of the advisory committee of the Humboldt Forum, abruptly resigned from the board last July complaining about a lack of attention to provenance research. The German culture minister Monika Grütters agreed, saying that “we have for a long time paid too little attention to the subject of colonialism” and that the debate over provenance research “was absolutely necessary”. She pledged government funding for such research. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its potential coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, have agreed that investigating and coming to terms with the country’s colonial past is a priority for the new government. Parzinger, a founding director of the Humboldt Forum, says the new museum will seek to provide full information on the provenance of its exhibits for visitors who are interested. The SPK received funding last year for a project to transcribe and digitise all its acquisition documents for the Ethnological Museum from 1830 until after the Second World War. “This is an important step towards transparency,” he says. “The project has been approved for three years but it will take many more. Our collections of world cultures will keep us busy for many years to come.” The foundation is also working with curators and scholars from Tanzania on an exhibition of objects that were removed from the country at the time of the Maji Maji War, an 1905-07 rebellionof against German colonial rule in German East Africa. “If you are conducting provenance research, then you also have to expect that you will come across objects that came into the collection illegally, and you have to be willing to hand them back,” Parzinger says.

The Washington Principles on Nazi-confiscated art were endorsed by 44 countries in 1998. They call for “just and fair solutions” to be applied to art in public collections that is claimed by the heirs of Jewish collectors who were allegedly robbed by the Nazis. They provide guidelines on provenance research on art in public collections and establishing processes to deal with disputes over claims. 

A Restitution Revolution Begins?

Bénédicte Savoy (professor at the Collège de France in Paris) has an opinion piece in Le Monde, reprinted in the Art Newspaper ('The restitution revolution begins ' 16th February 2018) arguing that France's President Macron is ushering in a new era for the return of displaced heritage
In two minutes and 33 seconds, on 28 November 2017, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, swept aside several decades of official French museum policy. He did it publicly, in the crowded lecture theatre of Ouagadougou University, in front of several hundred students, under the gaze of Burkina Faso’s president, Roch Kaboré, and the cameras of the news channel France 24. He did it in the name of youth—of his own youth, evoked seven times in the speech. “I am from a generation of the French people for whom the crimes of European colonialism are undeniable and make up part of our history, he said, adding: “In the next five years, I want the conditions to be created for the temporary or permanent restitution of African patrimony to Africa.” There were whistles and applause. On Twitter, the Elysée (the presidential office and residence) drives the idea home: “African heritage can no longer be the prisoner of European museums.” 
She hails this as the beginning of a revolution. The move has delighted those who have long called for the restitution of displaced heritage from Africa. In Berlin, Macron’s speech has added power to the 'heated debate about the colonial amnesia that seems to have afflicted the planners of the Humboldt Forum'. 'In a letter to Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, 40 organisations of the German African diaspora asked her to react to “the historic initiative of the French president”...'.
Although it concerns Paris and its prestigious collections of African art first of all, the Ouagadougou speech also implicates Europe and the colonial or missionary basis of all its ethnographic or “universal” museums. From the British Museum (which has more than 200,000 African objects) to the Weltmuseum in Vienna (37,000), the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium (180,000), the Humboldt Forum (75,000) and France’s leading ethnographic museum, the Quai Branly in Paris (70,000), the history of African collections is a shared European history—a family affair, if you wish, where aesthetic curiosity, scientific interests, military expeditions, commercial networks and “opportunities” of all kinds contributed to the justification for domination and national rivalries. The museums of our European capitals are brilliant conservatories of human creativity, but they also derive from a darker history of which we are not sufficiently aware. 
In the museum world, the mere word “restitution” 'sparks an almost kneejerk defensiveness and withdrawal'. Curators feel a certain unease, what if such acts become commonplace? Calls to repatriate items stolen in military actions and colonisation in the past  have been hotly contested by museums eager to hang on to such items:
No one in France has forgotten the trench warfare conducted by curators at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 2010, when, as a corollary to trade negotiations, the then president Nicholas Sarkozy ordered the return to South Korea of nearly 300 precious manuscripts deriving from a bloody French army expedition in 1866. No one in Italy has forgotten the 50 years of negotiations it took before the return to Ethiopia of the Axum obelisk, seized by Benito Mussolini in 1937. And no one in Berlin wants to return the massive fossilised skeleton of the world’s biggest dinosaur, Brachiosaurus brancai, to Tanzania, where it was taken in 1912 from territories then under the protectorate of the Reich.
She discretely fails to mention the Parthenon Marbles, mainly because, shamefully, they still have not been returned to Greece.

The time seems right for such a move. Interestingly, Macron’s proclamation in Ouagadougou —contrary to expectations— has not sparked the institutional outcry that we have been used to in recent years.
On the contrary: the president of the Quai Branly museum, Stéphane Martin, was pleased to bend in Macron’s direction, stressing that “nowadays we cannot have an entire continent deprived of its history and artistic genius”. So a second revolution, an institutional change, has taken place.
In the final part of her text she outlines how consensual restitutions of such artefacts should be 'motivated by the dual interests of peoples and objects' and in which the stake would be neither purely strategic nor political, but cultural. She urges a multi-sided dialogue, in which the parties listen to each other. There is no place for the object-centred lobbyists of the market countries dictating to the source countries how they should treat their own heritage, even if they do so masking their smokescreen as due to concerns for the 'safety of the objects':
we must listen to each other. And then we must be careful not to interfere in the decision-making remit of others. After Waterloo, when France returned the works removed to Paris during the Revolution and the Empire from other countries in Europe, it did not dictate to the pope and the sovereign states of Germany, Austria, Spain and elsewhere the proper way of looking after their collections. It often takes decades and much debate for “modern” heritage policies and suitable infrastructure to develop. In Berlin, for example, it was not until 1830 that the works France had returned 15 years earlier were displayed in a public museum. We must give time to those who recover works to find solutions that suit them. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Paracas Textiles Returned to Peru

'Peru recovers 79 pre-Hispanic textiles illegally kept in Sweden', The Local Sweden, 15 December 2017
Peru has recovered 79 pre-Hispanic textiles that have been illegally located in Sweden since 1935, the ministry of culture said. In 1935, Swedish ambassador to Peru Sven Karell acquired the fabrics hailing from the Nasca and Paracas cultures and took them to Sweden illegally – anonymously donating them to The Museum of Gothenburg, according to the Peruvian government. [...]  In 2008, the Gothenburg Museum of World Culture held the exhibition "Paracas: A Stolen World," prompting Peru to begin investigations and in 2013 begin the process of recovering the items. The recovered goods will be kept by the Ministry of Culture's General Directorate of Museums for conservation, and displayed in 2018.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Turkish lawmakers to go abroad to probe smuggled artefacts

Daily Sabah, 'Turkish lawmakers to go abroad to probe smuggled artifacts', November 6, 2017
The parliamentary investigative committee on Turkey's stolen cultural artifacts will visit countries holding such items, the body's head announced Monday. Mustafa İsen told Anadolu Agency the committee is tracking artifacts smuggled out of Turkey during the last 130 years. "We plan to carry out an inventory of the smuggled items during our visit to the countries," the Justice and Development (AK) Party lawmaker from northwestern Sakarya province said. İsen added that Turkey aims to show the world how seriously it takes the issue of smuggling. "We are working to protect our cultural properties and to prevent our artworks from being plundered," said İsen.
The article says that 'several objects stolen from Turkey are now on exhibit at museums throughout Europe and the United States'. The article is illeustrated by a photo of 'Two Sphinx of Hattusa that were smuggled from Turkey on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. Turkey has been demanding the return of the figures since 1934'. Other examples cited include:
the ancient Altar of Zeus, found in Turkey's western İzmir province and now on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. Another smuggling case which has drawn international attention is the stolen pieces of Gaziantep's famous Zeugma mosaic, purchased by U.S. Bowling Green State University in 1965, where they are still on display. Turkey has made several attempts to reclaim the artifacts from the American university.
I think somebody needs to look moree closely at the use of that word 'smuggled'.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Western Museums try to Forge Deal with West Africa to Return Benin Bronzes

The British Museum will take part in a European summit to discuss the return of art seized from the Benin kingdom, now part of southern Nigeria, by a British punitive expedition in 1897 as “reparations” after it defied the British empire by imposing customs duties. The museums taking part in the Benin dialogue group hope to establish a permanent display in Benin City, Nigeria, using items rotated from a consortium of reputable institutions. The negotiations involve authorities from Nigeria and the neighbouring country of Benin. [...] The fate of hundreds of [...] “Benin bronzes”, housed in institutions such as the British Museum, will be discussed by curators when the group meets next year at the Netherlands’ National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. [...] European curators and their west African counterparts are also keen to establish a legal framework that would guarantee the artefacts immunity from seizure in Nigeria. [...] the largest collection of antiquities from the 19th-century looting of Benin was in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, while the second largest was in the British Museum.
Ben Quinn, 'Western museums try to forge deal with west Africa to return the Benin bronzes', Guardian 12 August 2017

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Family Gives "One-of-a-Kind" Chilkat Robe to Sealaska Heritage Institute

Robe woven circa late 1800s-early 1900s
A family from Seattle has given a valuable, ancient Chilkat robe to the Sealaska Heritage Institute in an effort to return it to its ancestral home and repatriate it to tribal people. Chilkat weaving is a traditional form of weaving practiced by Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and other Northwest Coast peoples of Alaska and British Columbia. The donors, who wish to remain anonymous,could instead have sold the robe for thousands of dollars to a private collector ('Family Gives "One-of-a-Kind" Chilkat Robe to Sealaska Heritage Institute'  SitNews August 07, 2017 ).
The process of donating the blanket started when a daughter in the donating family noticed a similar blanket in her AP art history textbook. It was featured there as an important cultural piece as well as significant in the history of art. She then vigorously (and successfully) lobbied her parents to return it to its appropriate owners, the family wrote. [...] The donors purchased the robe in the 1990s, and at the time, an opinion on the piece was offered by Bill Holm, a nationally-recognized expert on Northwest Coast art and formline design. Holm in 1995 estimated it was made around the turn of the century or perhaps in the early 1900s and noted it was very similar to two robes featured in the book The Chilkat Robe by George T. Emmons. Emmons thought the robes in the book depicted an osprey or thunderbird standing with outspread wings, but the noted anthropologist John Swanton believed they depicted a beaver with alder - its food, Holm wrote. Holm said he tended to favor the interpretation of a bird, rather than a beaver, but that “either interpretation can be defended.” A Northwest Coast art expert who studied a photo of the robe on Sealaska Heritage Institute’s behalf thought it might depict a Raven because the beak is not curved.  [...] Holm also noted that the robe was in good condition and showed little fading. [...] The robe will be stored in Sealaska Heritage’s climate-controlled vault and made available to weavers for study.  
'Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research and advocacy that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee'.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America's Culture

Nicholas Thomas, 'How Native Americans are reclaiming their history ' Apollo Magazine,  29 July 2017 [Book Review]

Colwell book
The book by Chip Colwell ('Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America's Culture', University of Chicago Press) discusses the background story to the passing and then implementation of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
Colwell’s stories are not only of the insensitivity and acquisitiveness of early ethnologists, but also of native willingness to sell sacred artefacts (sometimes covertly, in the face of community censure) and of continuing internal disputes. He draws attention to archaeologists who lapsed into professional defensiveness, but points also to growing collaboration – manifest for example in the preparedness of Native Americans to see excavated bones fully analysed, and only then released for reburial. That said, he firmly supports the repatriation process. While advocates celebrated the NAGPRA legislation’s effort to arrive at a ‘balanced’ response to native, scientific, and other interests, he notes that hundreds of thousands of remains are still held in museums, and that there is a great deal more to do. I suspect that even those who begin reading, sceptical for whatever reasons of native claims, will finish the book considerably more sympathetic to them. Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits is inevitably partial, but offers, nevertheless, the best single account to date of negotiations between museums, archaeologists, and native people in the United States since NAGPRA.
The reviewer is a bit defensive of the museums, he writes that while the book makes a compelling case for the return of human remains, the issue with artefacts is less clear.
The assertion that ‘Objects shouldn’t be frozen under glass in a museum, but given to the people who breathe life into them’ rehashes a cliché; it overlooks the many senses in which museum artefacts are often activated, for both small groups and broader publics, through educational programmes, reinterpretation in temporary exhibitions, artists’ interventions, conservation, and study sessions; the principle here is one of recovery and reinstatement of ancestral value.