Sunday, 15 August 2010

The Need for Greater Clarity in Cultural Property Debate

Kwame Opoku's essays on restitution of cultural property are always meaty and worth reading. He has a talent for producing good arguments and highlighting the nonsense in those of his opponents. In the latest "Does History Suffer when Cultural Artefacts are Returned?" he answers an earlier text of Michael Kaput (“Whose Heritage? Repatriating ancient treasures seems like a noble cause, but history might end up the loser”) in the May 2010 number of "Egypt Today". He demonstrates that "history" is not "the loser" when cultural property goes back to the countries from which it comes and the arguments produced by the countries which insist on hanging on to such material are false. Worth a read.

I was struck by something else. Opoku names those that want to hang on to other people's cultural property and not give it back as "retentionists". That is perfectly logical of course. But in the topsy-turvey world of the antiquities market that label is used for those who have not yet lost all their cultural property and want to hang onto it. For the dealer-lobby "retentionists" are those that apply laws in an effort to make sure that freshly dug archaeological finds and other items of historical interest from their territory do not disappear onto the international no-questions-asked market. The same label is thus being used in two parallel and related debates, not only for different groups, but precisely the two groups which are in opposition, the victim and the takers. In such a situation it seems we need to coin new terms for both to avoid confusion, though I have the impression that causing confusion is precisely the aim of the "contributions" of antiquity collectors and especially dealers to the debates.

While on the topic, I note that Opoku writes of "holding" countries, those that have the cultural property of others and want to hold on to it. While again this term is perfectly in order, I feel it too is ambiguous.

Part of the problem is that two quite separate debates are in danger of becoming confused, and that is only to the advantage of those that wish them to be confused so that they can take advantage of the smokescreen of the general fogginess of the issues to carry on buying, trading and collecting as before. The first debate is the "who owns" issue concerning items dug up, knocked off, hauled away, stolen, looted and appropriated before (let us say) 1970. The second concerns what we should do about individuals and groups that have continued to benefit from collectables being dug up, knocked off, hauled away, stolen, looted and appropriated after the world lost innocence in (by) 1970 and continue to do so today. While related, these are in fact separate issues. One is concerned with identifying and correcting past wrongs, the other is concerned with identifying ongoing wrongdoing and combatting it. One is firmly in the sphere of idealism, the other is rooted in the practicalities of protecting what remains of the archaeological resource (and other finite cultural property resources) from continued unsustainable exploitation.

It is very much in the interests of the no-questions-asked exploitive market to confuse the two.

Opoku perceives this, he concludes his text outlining two tasks:
The urgent task now is for Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and others to return some of the artefacts removed during the colonial days from Africa, Asia and Latin America; they should also contribute to reducing further looting of artefacts which thrives mainly because of the lucrative market for such items in the West.

I would add the US and (at least) Japan to that list and suggest that it is the latter of the two tasks Opoka identifies which should bear the adjective "urgent".

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