Sunday 23 February 2014

Return of artefacts: Greece, Nigeria may bring new methods

By Tajudeen Sowole
In Nigeria and Greece, there are indications that the separate issue of returning each country's cultural objects held in foreign museums will take new dimension.

A group sympathetic to the plight of Greece, known as International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures (IARPS), late last year sent a letter to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, requesting for the return of the controversial ancient frieze of Athens origin from the holder, the British Museum.  IARPS members are in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Cyprus, Finland, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.S.

Coincidentally, Nigeria's House of Representatives has commenced what could be an intervention of the parliamentarians in the protracted restitution stalemates between the country and foreign holders of its artefacts.

  Idia mask, Ivory in the British Museum Edo peoples, probably 16th century AD.
Some days ago, a member of the House Committee on Tourism and Culture, who did not want his name mentioned, has disclosed that the lower legislative members in Abuja may commence a process of meeting the parliaments of some of the foreign museums that are in possession of looted Nigerian cultural objects. The thinking of the initiators of the inter-parliament negotiation, it was gathered, premises on the fact that the powers to return the artefacts may be beyond the jurisdiction of most of the foreign museums' authorities. With inter-parliaments meetings between two countries in a dispute, restitution could be achieved easily, the House of Reps member added.

He hinted that a motion urging the House Committee on Tourism and Culture to intervene was already on its way to Rules and Business Committee. "The motion is before the Culture Committee and they will send it to rules and business."  He assured that the motion "will be before the house by month end."

Nigeria is facing a herculean task of recovering her cultural properties of ertefacrs status incarcerated in museums across Europe and the U.S. Top among these cultural objects are the Queen Idia mask in the British Museum, Nok Terracotta in Louvre, Paris, France, and several other Benin bronzes and ivories said to have been looted during the 1897 invasion of the old Benin Kingdom by the British soldiers, but currently housed in Vienna, Austria and German museums. In fact, latest of such artefacts are several dozens of works in Benin bronzes and ivories recently acquired by the Museum of Fine Art (MFA), Boston, U.S.

As part of effort towards the return of the works, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) hosted a meeting with the authorities of the  foreign museum in Benin, last year.  In attendance were Dr. Michael Barrett and Dr. Lotten Gustafsson-Reinius representatives of the National Museum of Ethnography of the Museums of World Culture Stockholm, Sweden Dipl. Ethn; Silvia Dolz of Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden, Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany; Dr. Peter Junge represented Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany; Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner represented Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna, Austria; and Dr. Annette Schmidt of the National Museum of Ethnology of the Netherlands.

Also in attendance were Rosemary Bodam, Peter Odeh, Babatunde Adebiyi (NCMM delegation); consultant of legal-related cultural object matter, Prof. Folarin Shyllon; and representatives of the Benin monarch, Prince Edun Egharese Akenzua (Enogie of Obazuwa) and Chief Stanley Obamwonyi (Esere of Benin). 
  During the meeting, the Director-General of NCMM, Mallam Usman Abdaldalla Yusuf stated that the collective sharing idea of the holders has not found much understanding with the original owners “whose moving tales have become strident finding listeners all over the world in support of the call for the repatriation of these artefacts.”

The meeting produced what was tagged as Benin Plans of Action. It included a projection that could facilitate the return of the. Artefacts. 

The Elgin Marbles, Athens origin, but in the British Museum, U.K.

However, experts and observers were skeptical about the strength of such a gathering getting the controversial artefacts returned. The Benin Plan of Action did not excite Prince Edun Akenxua. He advised a legal optionn. "My personal suggestion to government is to take the case to the international court,” Akenzua said. “If we lose in court, there is nothing more to lose.”  

 Also, a  prominent commentator on restitution, Dr Kwame Opoku faulted the Benin Plan of Action. Opoku, noted that the document lacked "time frame-work or concrete restitution proposals." He argued that the document "is not in the interest of Benin, nor of Nigeria nor of Africa."

 But shortly before the meeting an official statement from the Oba of Benin, OmoN'oba Erediuwa appeared to have predicted the current process of the House of Representatives. Akenzua in the monarch's speech stated "“Our Legislative Houses should show more interest in the recovery of these cultural properties. Our law pundits should examine various aspects of the matter."

Greece's Parthenon Marbles - named Elgin marbles by the British Museum - share similar protracted issue of ownership with the Nigeria's Benin bronzes and the Nok Terracotta in foreign museum. It’s been a long journey of several failed attempts to unite the marbles in the British Museum with those in the new Acropolis Museum in Greece. The sculptural marbles of representational figures were thrown into pieces during the Ottoman era invasion. Out of an estimated 160 metres original of these marble sculptures, 75 are known to be in the British Museum while the rest are in Greece and Italy.

 Towards the the completion of the Acropolis museum, there were signs that the British Museum's argument that "Greece lacks the right condition to receive the marbles" would be dead when the museum opens.

During the opening ceremony of the museum, Greek President, Karolos Papoulias said the museum offers the opportunity "to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it." But the Britons were not moved, even by the £110m ($182m; 130m euros) cost of the new Acropolis Museum. 

In 1817, during the Ottoman Empire, British Ambassador Lord Elgin was said to have negotiated the removal of the Parthenon sculptures with the Turks authority. On return to Britain and after a public debate in Parliament, Elgin’s action was exonerated and the marbles purchased by the British government in 1816.  The deputy head of the board of trustees of the British Museum, Bonnie Greer told the Greek authority that the marbles should remain in London. She argued in favor of “an international cultural context,” and suggested a loan of the sculptures, only "if Greece acknowledges British ownership of the marbles."

Currently the row is back in the news courtesy of the letter by IARPS and fueled by a statement credited to George Clooney, an American actor-director of a movie of related subject, The Monuments Man.

In the letter, dated December 2, 2013, the Chairman of the IARPS, David Hill, urges Britain to accept the recent offer of UNESCO to mediate the issue. He states that there “are now volunteers in 16 countries” committed to supporting the Greek claim for the sculptures to be returned. 

Hill reminds Cameron about the Director-General of UNESCO, Irini Bokova’s letter to the British Government over a proposal “to participate in a process of mediation to settle the dispute over the Parthenon Sculptures.”

Referencing a 2010 UNESCO advisory on mediation procedures, Hill urges Cameron “to accept the UNESCO invitation for Britain to participate in the proposed mediation process.”

Meanwhile, the filmmaker's advice, last week, which also urged the U.K to return the controversial marble has pitted him against the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. The mayor described the actor’s statement as "advocating nothing less than the Hitlerian agenda for London's cultural treasures." But Clooney told The Guardian of London: "When it comes to real facts, not imagined history, you need only to look at the UNESCO rulings that have been agreed to by all parties. An occupying nation can't sell off the national heritage of the country it occupies…” 

Perhaps based on the 2010 UNESCO intervention about mediation procedures as related to illicitly acquired cultural property, Nigerians who are passionate about the return of the country’s artefacts may join Hill’s IARPS or set up a similar group.

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