After President Obama's recent unfortunate ignorant gaffe about "Polish Concentration camps" (Grrrr) and now amid not a few revenge-jokes here in Poland about "Obama's barracks", the matter of the loan by the Republic of Poland of a concentration camp barrack from Auschwitz-Bikenau to the Washington Holocaust Museum raises its head again. As reported on this blog a few weeks ago, the Americans don't want to give it back. Obviously having it there for more than twenty years right opposite the White House has not resulted in some members of the US political elite learning very much about the history of "Yurope" and coming out with ignorant statements, so give it back. Polish Culture Minister Bogdan Zdrojewski is going over there next week to give them a good talking-to. Let other European nations look on at what happens when you lend objects to US museums.
Iraq is having the same problem with loaning cultural property to the United States. Manuscripts transferred to the United States were part of the Jewish archive that was found in the basement of the Iraqi intelligence building following the 2003 American invasion. The archive was reportedly taken out of the country for “maintenance purposes” under the condition that it would be returned to the Iraqi government by mid-2006. The archive, however, is still in the US and the Iraqi minister of culture now claims that the latter is delaying their return (and the Dubai-based news channel Al-Arabiya is claiming that the manuscripts have reportedly been sold to Israel). The artefacts held in the US reportedly include the oldest manuscript of the Talmud ("the cornerstone of Jewish oral law compiled in Babylon in the sixth century CE"), as well as the oldest manuscript of the Torah.
According to Saad Bashir Iskander, head of the Iraqi Books and Manuscripts Authority, the United States intentionally transferred ancient manuscripts that date back to several eras from Iraq. “The manuscripts filled 48,000 boxes and containers,” he said. “The United States has 90 percent of Iraq’s historic archives in its possession. American researchers and universities use it illegally.” Deputy Minister of Culture Taher al-Hamoud said that United States was delaying whenever asked by the Iraqi government to bring the collection back.
The Iraqi parliament’s Cultural Committee, among others, is calling upon the Ministry of Culture to exert its utmost effort to regain the cultural property removed by the Americans from Iraq during the 2003 invasion. A spokeswoman for Israel’s Antiquities Authority told The Times of Israel she had no information on the Iraqi allegations.
There is a long history of this sort of thing. Let us remember how Washington held on to the Hungarian royal crown after it was 'liberated' from the country by the U.S. 86th Infantry Division in 1945, taken overseas and then stored with the US bullion reserves in Fort Knox until 1978 when it was finally given back, but not until the US made sure it did not go to "the Communist government". Scandalous, as if it was theirs to give. In other cases, items loaned by foreign institutions to US temporary museum exhibitions have been impounded and confiscated by US authorities - like the Mary Brogan Museum of Art & Science in Tallahassee seizure not so long ago (it may be noted that this is an extremely rare occurrence in the museum world and really only applies to loans to the US). Then there is the ongoing 'University of Chicago Persian Antiquities Affair' still crawling its way through the US court system. Likewise top US university Yale apparently assigned itself the 'right' to hang on to the Machu Picchu finds which were only a temporary loan. Not to mention the infamous SLAM mummy mask affair where the museum sees fit, and has done so now for a number of years, to ignore the fact that the object is documented as being the property of another museum collection. The US authorities (judiciary) also apparently see it as their prerogative to apportion other people's property to Americans as they see fit (the Black Swan April 2007, the Chabad-Lubavitch library etc.).
Even their 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act is written in such a way as to facilitate geegaw-guzzling US dealers and collectors getting their hands on a good many dodgy antiquities without much interference (basically from the 181 countries not on this list), despite the US being a state party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
Then of course we hear the moaning collectors, dealers and museums complaining that the "source nations" of cultural property are not falling over themselves to loan US museums items from their collections in return for them promising not to buy stolen and otherwise dodgy antiquities and cultural property from the 14 countries on this list (see chart here). Wonder why? Could it have something to do with perceptions of US attitudes to the cultural property of others?