Friday 23 March 2012

‘Restitution of stolen artefacts: Turkey option may be hard to adopt’

By Tajudeen Sowole 
 The recent step taken by Turkey stopping collaborative exhibitions with museums in U.S. and the U.K. as part of efforts to retrieve her cultural objects illegally acquired by these countries may have drawn Nigeria’s attention to the limitation of relying solely on diplomacy to accomplish similar objective. 

TURKEY’s Ministry of Culture had intercepted the agreement by the country’s museums to loan some artefacts to British Museum for the ongoing exhibition, Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam. This action, it was gathered, forced the British Museum to make a last minute alternative for the exhibition.
   Turkey further insisted that it would not loan works to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for the same reason.
 Among countries agitating for return of looted cultural objects, Nigeria is one of the few that have been in collaborative exhibitions with custodians of such stolen artefacts.
  This ‘unwholesome’ partnership has, however, resulted in some gains such as manpower and capacity development for Nigeria’s museum officials.   
  These benefits have become factors driving Nigeria’s disposition towards efforts to retrieve the stolen artistic and cultural treasures.
Pendant mask of Iyoba, 16th Century, Benin, Nigeria, Met Museum, N.Y., U.S.

  Responding to a question on whether Nigeria could adopt Turkey’s approach, Director-General of NCMM, Mallam Abdallah Yusuf Usman, noted that “each country has its own method and strategy; not all cases are similar.”
  Between 2007 and a few months ago, the NCMM has had collaborative tour exhibitions of loaned artefacts, involving countries such as the U.K., U.S., Germany and Spain. About 109 works of Ife artefacts, sourced from Nigeria were exhibited in Madrid (Spain), and Houston, Richmond, Indianapolis, (U.S.) from 2009 to 2010.
  Under the title, Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, it was jointly organised by Museum of African Art, New York, U.S., NCMM, the British Museum and Fundacion Marcelino Botin of Spain. In 2010, the show moved to the British Museum, London, as Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures From West Africa.
  At the second Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage held in Lima, Peru, July, last year, Turkey joined countries such as Greece, Bolivia, Italy, China, India, Peru, Libya, Syria and Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador Guatemala, India, Israel, Jordan, Korea that have resolved to suspend cooperation with holders of looted or stolen artefacts.
  According to the communiqué, the gathering noted that “the capacity to effect positive change can be strengthened if each country, within the provisions of its own legislation, and with respect to the possibilities available to it, resolves to review its scientific and academic relations with those institutions and individuals who have conducted illegal excavations, and/or who hold pieces stolen or looted from their country of origin.”
  The gathering did not rule out what it advised as “possibility of suspending scientific and academic cooperation,” with the recalcitrant countries. And Turkey just appeared to have been the first country to suspend cooperation with the holders of her cultural objects.
  Although, Nigeria was present at the first conference held in Cairo, it however missed the Lima gathering. The Cairo event was organised by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). At the end of the summit, the participating countries declared: “We resolve to work together as a group of states to improve substantially the current international system of heritage protection.”
  Observers are divided on the merits and demerits of joint exhibitions — between holders and country of origins — as part of efforts to solicit restitution of stolen or disputed cultural objects. Collaboration would strengthen relationship with holder countries and perhaps lead to future reparation of these artefacts, some have argued.   
  Others noted that such collaborations might offer leverage for the holders of the works to maintain the current situation otherwise known as ‘universal museum.’   
GHANAIAN critic and commentator on restitution, Kwame Opoku is one of those that have commended Turkey and argued that the decision “has the merit of concentrating the mind on the basic issues of restitution.” He noted that governments and institutions from countries with restitution claims are not consistent with their agitations.
  Opoku doubted the sincerity of such agitations, wondering if they are genuine desire or just “simply propaganda,” to pretend that the governments are truly working towards restitution, hence keeping critics at distance.
  Revisiting the Cairo gathering, Usman recalled that the conference urged each country to pursue its demand or wish list, which is about top priority works. Nigeria’s demand list, he explained, is large. “For us in Nigeria, our demand list includes virtually all our objects outside the country. This is why our approach will be different from Turkey’s or other countries, so there can’t be a uniform approach by the countries.” Usman noted that the gathering was meant to exchange ideas. He, however, disclosed that the NCMM has been in fruitful discussions with holders such as British Museum, Germany and Austria on the return of Nigeria’s looted artefacts.
    Although collaboration through loaning of non-disputed artefacts for exhibition appears to be giving the holders a psychological warfare edge, it’s not a total loss to the original owners, particularly developing countries like Nigeria.
  However, the capacity building-benefit of the collaboration, may, in the future, empower the NCMM to carry out proper restoration and management of the collections without depending on foreign expertise.
  For example, after the Ife… exhibition tour, Usman disclosed that the partnership has afforded NCMM an opportunity to share experience and also acquire new skills and expertise in conserving and presenting cultural heritage.”
  In finding solution to restitution issue, the Cairo gathering also agreed that “the focus of the third conference will be on contributing to the process of updating and improvement that UNESCO has initiated with regard to the Convention of 1970.”

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