Posts Tagged ‘Elgin Marbles’

Radio 4 Programme Next Thursday on the Repatriation of Looted Museum Exhibits Following Black Lives Matter

August 18, 2020

The Radio Times also states that next Thursday on Radio 4 at 11.30 am there’s a documentary on the debate about the repatriation of looted African artefacts now on display in British museums. The blurb for it on page 125 of the Radio Times runs

In the wake of protesters in Bristol pulling down a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston, Gary Younge talks to museum curators as they review what is on display.

There’s an additional piece by Simon O’Hagan on the previous page, 124, which adds

Museums might be closed, but curators are keeping busy reassessing what they have on display – minds focused by the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in June. In the words of one curator, “in Britain you’re never more than 150 miles rom a looted African object.”

Presented by Gary Younge, who discovers that when the public is re-admitted to museums after lockdown, there is a distinct possibility that some display cases may have notable absences.

The debate over the return of looted and seized objects to indigenous communities around the world has been going on for several decades. Much of it is about the display of human remains. A few years ago a series about the British Museum showed that august institution repatriating a set of indigenous Australian burials to Tasmanian people from which they were seized. It’s not just African and indigenous peoples demanding that their ancestors and their property should be returned. The Greeks have famously been demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles for decades, if not since they very moment Lord Elgin collected them in the 19th century. In very many cases, I don’t doubt that the moral argument is with those demanding their return, and that it’s the right thing to do.

The mention of the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol adds a dimension that complicates the issue. The repatriation of these objects is supposed to be about modern, western museums correcting the moral injustices of an imperial past. But many of the looted objects themselves are the products of slaving societies, and were seized by British forces during wars fought to extirpate the slave trade.

The Benin Bronzes are case in point. These are superbly sculpted bronze heads, which were made as part of shrines to the chief’s oba. Literally meaning ‘right arm’, the word also denotes his spiritual power, rather like the numa of the pagan Roman emperors. However, Benin, then Dahomey, was a major centre of the African slave trade. It had a plantation economy centred on cotton production like the American Deep South, and was a major exporter. So much so that the British launched a war against them from 1850 to 1852 after their king, Guezo, refused to give it up and continued trading. The bronzes were seized by the victorious British forces.

Nobody was talking about their repatriation until the 1980s, when ‘African radical’ and the highly controversial leader of Brent council, Bernie Grant, demanded their return. I’ve no doubt that Grant was motivated by genuine indignation about the humiliation of an African nation by the British empire. But there is an irony here in that such a very outspoken opponent of anti-Black racism should have been seeking to return objects that had been taken as part of military action against an African slave state. And one that had absolutely no qualms, and grew rich, from enslaving the ancestors of Black Brits, West Indians and Americans like Grant.

Ditto with some of the objects that may have been returned to Ethiopia. A year or so ago the I reported that a particularly holy cross belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which had been seized by the British army in the 19th century, had also been repatriated to its country of origin. I wondered if the relic had also been looted in a similar campaign launched in that century to stop Abyssinian slave-raiding across the border into Sudan and what is now Kenya. If so, then it could be argued that it should not be repatriated, as it was a legitimate spoil in a war the British were justified in waging.

And let’s not be under any illusion that the African slaving nations wouldn’t also have enslaved the British servicemen they fought. One of the documents I found cataloguing the materials on slavery in the Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol was a parliamentary blue book on the British action against the African slavers in Lagos. One of the chiefs involved stated that if he won, he was going to shave the head of the British commander and make him carry his palanquin. Which sounds very much like a declaration that he intended to enslave him.

I think the area of the repatriation of objects looted from Africa is much more complicated morally than is being discussed and presented, and that African involvement in and culpability for the slave trade is being quietly glossed over in order to present a cosy, straightforward narrative of imperial aggression and guilt.

 

ISIS Destruction of Antiquities and Respect for Archaeology in Iran

April 12, 2015

Nimrud Map

Map of Nimrud drawn in 1856 by Felix Jones

The Independent reported today that ISIS had released a video of themselves destroying the ancient Babylonian city of Nimrud. Its destruction was reported back in March, but this is the first time footage has been shown of it. The video shows the terrorists attacking the city and its antiquities with pneumatic drills, anglegrinders and sledgehammers. They then laid explosives, and blew the site up.

Irinia Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, the section of the UN that oversees the world’s cultural heritage, denounced the destruction, saying that the “deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime”.

I couldn’t agree more.

The Indie’s article can be read at: http://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/other/isis-video-shows-complete-destruction-of-ancient-city-of-nimrud-in-iraq/ar-AAaTuAG?ocid=OIE9HP

I’ve already blogged about ISIS’ destruction of Nimrud, and the other cultural treasures of Mosul, and the Christian and Muslim shrines to the patriarch Seth, revered by Moslems as the prophet Sheth, St. George and others. ISIS have claimed that they are destroying these antiquities because they are somehow blasphemous or un-Islamic. In fact, they are attacking them purely because these monuments don’t conform to their own, extremely narrow religious views. They’re a deliberate, calculated assault on the cultural heritage and identity of Iraq’s people. ISIS fear them because they present an alternative, secular national and religious pluralist identity to the absolute conformity ISIS wish to foist on them.

It’s also been suggested that more worldly, venal motives were involved in Nimrud’s destruction. ISIS may have been looting the site to raise money to buy more arms by selling the antiquities illegally. They levelled the city to disguise what they’d done. So their claim that they were destroying the city for religious reasons may have been just a load of lies to disguise what they really are: a bunch of thieves and grave robbers.

Archaeology in Iran

ISIS’ contempt for the region’s heritage contrasts with Iran, where, with some qualifications, archaeology is still valued. John Simpson in one of his books described the way an angry mob was ready to destroy the depictions of the Persian shahs at Naqsh-i-Rustem in the 1979 revolution, but were prevented from doing so by the carvings’ guard. He stopped them by telling them that they were instead depictions of Hassan and Hussein, the two sons of the Imam Ali, the founder of Shi’ism.

In the 1990s there was a minimal Western archaeological presence in Iran, though I believe it has been expanded since then. I once bumped into one of the lecturers in the archaeological department at Uni nearly ten years ago, who had just returned from excavating an early Islamic city in Iran.

And a few years ago the British Museum loaned the Cyrus Cylinder, shown below, to the Islamic Republic.

Cyrus Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder records the conquest of Babylonia by the great Persian king Cyrus, or Kourash, as he is known in Persian. After the conquest, he issued an edict permitting the peoples exiled in Babylon to return to their homelands, returned their gods, and assisted in the reconstruction of their temples. These included the Jews, who returned to Israel, for which the Persians are praised in the Bible.

I was taught at College that Islam similarly regarded Zoroastrians as ‘Peoples of the Book’, who, like Jews and Christians, worshipped the one God, and whose worship was therefore protected.

British Museum’s loan of the Cylinder to Iran was of major diplomatic and cultural significance. Firstly, it was party of a general thaw in relations between Britain and the Islamic Republic. Secondly, it also showed the confidence that the Museum in the Cylinder’s safety. The repatriation of cultural artefacts looted by Western scholars from the other cultures around the world is a major issue in archaeology and the heritage sector. Many nations and ethnic groups are rightly angered at the appropriation of valuable or important religious items from their cultures, including human remains. A few years ago, for example, BBC 2 screened a series looking behind the scenes at the British Museum. Amongst the Museum’s other work, it showed the delicate negotiations surrounding the repatriation of the remains of Aboriginal Tasmanians to their descendants.

Other items remain, and their retention is immensely controversial. The Elgin Marbles is a case in point.

The Museum has, however, a policy of not returning antiquities to countries where their safety can’t be guaranteed. The looting and destruction of ancient monuments and archaeological finds is a real problem, particularly in the developing world. And it isn’t unknown here either. There have been digs in Britain, that have been wrecked and the finds looted by Nighthawks. There have also been a number of curators and museum directors, who have been caught illegally selling off objects from the very collections they were supposed to be maintaining.

The loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran, by contrast, showed that the British authorities had every confidence that their fellows in Iran would respect and value it, and that Britain and Iran could have good relations in the exploration of that nation’s ancient past and its treasures.

This is another excellent reason why the Repugs are stupid to want another war with Iran. Apart from destabilising yet another nation and brutalising its people, purely for the profit of the oil and arms industries, it could result in the same destruction of antiquities as in Iraq.

And as in Iraq, the world would again be much the poorer.