Friday, 3 September 2010

Reflections on Midwestern Commentary on "Repatriation"


Over on a "philosophy of science" blog of a midwestern (chemistry?) "tutor" calling himself "Mercury" we find an attempt at a discussion of "repatriation". It is called: Artifacts, repatritation...why?. Most of it however consists of cut-and-pasting the entire text of Kwame Opoku's "Does history suffer when cultural artefacts are returned?" (which in turn is a reply to a text by Kaput's article in Egypt Today, entitled Whose Heritage? ). Opoku's text is freely available in a number of places a click away on the internet (including Modern Ghana and MSN) and it beats me why "Mercury" feels constrained to repost it on his own blog rather than simply give a link. Anyhow his real motive is to repost on his own blog the comments he made on another (Andrea ('Andie') Byrnes' Egyptology News) blog which had also contained the entire text of the article (but this time sent to her by the author).

Well, the author certainly seems proud of his ignorance of the topic on which he holds forth. He does not really define what he understands by the word "repatriation" but considers that whatever it is, "one person is the instigator of this movement...Zahi Hawass", and all the rest of the entities which are involved (Benin, Parthenon Marbles, Greece, Italy etc) are just 'copycats'.

According to Mercury "repatriation" is illogical. The looters "for the most part, are dead or cannot the located and if they are cannot be prosecuted or even coerced to return artifacts. Museums tend to be honest and rely on provenance". Apart from Egypt, Mr "Mercury "cannot think of another country ardently demanding the return of artifacts or even a nation of native people". "I don't see a lot of press devoted to Southeast Asian treasures". Wow. I'm glad he spelt it "artifacts" just to make it clear where that is coming from. I suggest that instead of trying to "stimulate individuals in the realms of science, philosophy and the provide as much free information as possible", Mr Philosopher-of-Science might like to do some reading around the subject he is writing about. He could add Damien Huffer's new blog on looting and illicit antiquities in Southeast Asia to his reading list for example.

Here's a prime example of imperialist culture-plunderer logic:
Laying claim [reparation] to any country's artifacts [and a secure and precise definition must be made as to what an "artifact" is] is not legitimate. It is a common course of global human activity: To conquer and to confiscate treasures [land, minerals, artifacts (art)]...or in the case of Carter to explore ancient Egypt largely financed by private entrepreneurs. I am not implying that this procedure is ethical but it is the way things are done.
Were done, still being done by western imperialists in the Middle East of course. Then he goes on about artefacts in western museums which he suggests:
will receive a wider exhibition for people to witness and appreciate. It is a global community experience. Face it, not everyone can afford trips to Cairo or Athens or remote areas of Chile, Iran, or Mexico. It is far more relevant to visit the fine museums of major cities as Chicago, New York, London.
Incredible. Amerocentrism at its very best. Mr "Mercury" may not be aware of the fact that many people who live in the region of Luxor in Upper Egypt for example can barely afford the train fare to Cairo (a journey that takes all day) let alone a Cairo hotel - how free to travel to New York and Chicago does this guy think they are? Would a family of Egyptian peasant farmers from Gurna village easily get a visa to come to the US to see the antiquities from their country's archaeological record displayed there? Has "Mercury" got any idea how long the US embassy in Cairo would take to process their application? What about the Iranians, or the Chileans? Frankly, I think the average American is far more able to travel to these foreign lands than the average citizen of many of the poorer "antiquity source countries" to get to America.

"Mercury" goes further. He gives as an example how many would have been able to see the Cuneiform tablets and see the Sumerian civilization's account of Gilgamesh if it were not displayed at the British Museum? How many Iraqis and Iranians that is? Well, I wonder just what it means to "see" a cuneiform tablet in a glass case with a label telling me it's "Gilgamesh". For all I know the BM could be puulling our legs and put a "washing list in Babilonian cuneiform" by the label. I'm a medievalist and I cannot read cuneiform and I suspect "Mercury" does not either. Actually, I'd rather have a multimedia touchscreen display allowing the whole subject to be explored, not just what cuneiform SOUNDS like read, and what it says, but photos of the place it was found, the dig, and how we think that tablet ended up in that place... not to mention the suspicious similarity between that story and the Noah's Flood myth. Just "seeing" the tablet itself tells me nothing much that I cannot actually get from seeing a decent photo in a book or on the internet. Why do we need the tablet there? Is it not exactly the same "nationalism" to have it displayed as an "Ooo-ahh" trophy in the BRITISH Museum?

Secondly, now the US has decided it is time to stop its "Bomb them into the Stone Age" policy with regards to Iraq, let us see some revenue-generating US package tours to the tourist sights of the country they have made so "safe" by defeating former US-ally Saddam Hussein. 8000 American tourists a day to Nineveh will want to see more than the big holes where something "used to be" before the post-US-sanctions looters moved in. The Gilgamesh tablets and other choice artefacts from Layard's excavations would be a great goodwill gift from the British people who willingly joined the coalition to smash Iraq at US bidding.

In his comments, Mr "Mercury" totally ignores however two important issues. One is where the artefacts which are being "repatriated" now - let us take the Euphronius Crater as an example - are coming from. They are coming from ongoing looting of archaeological sites which supplies the no-questions-asked antiquities market. "Mercury" does not mention that in his expose. Stopping the looting has absolutely nothing to do with any imagined "nationalism". Secondly, since (only now) many museums are indeed looking more closely at provenances, origins and collecting histories of the items they are currently acquiring (or pretend to), there is still a problem with private collectors who are not. As the market has more difficulty pushing tainted artefacts to the museums, they are increasingly turning to the growing numbers of private collectors. Dealers' lobbies are busily trying to create "justifications" for continuing to buy artefacts "no-questions-asked", for ignoring export laws of the source countries and the rights of the citizens of those countries. They are challenging the policies of states like the US which are aiming to curb this problem. "Mercury"'s arguments really do not apply to the private collecting of artefacts, though we see that collectors and dealers do try to blur the difference between private collections and public collections (applying Cuno's atavistic reflections to their own actvities) and even try to demonstrate the superiority of no-questions-asked private collecting over museums.

My comment to "Mercury's" original comments on the Egyptology News blog here.

1 comment:


I am surprised by the use of my article by "Mercury". I do not know who he is and have definitely not sent him the article which he reproduced without my knowledge and consent. His action and views would clearly not encourage me to send him anything.
The best action for him now would be to withdraw the article and link to the sites where it is already available. Kwame Opoku.

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