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Friday, August 04, 2017

Who Owns Culture?

BBC Radio 4 - Moral Maze, Who Owns Culture?

"A big brass cockerel suddenly became an unlikely though some might say appropriate prize in the great twenty first century tussle over history, justice and restitution. The cockerel stands in the hall of Jesus College Cambridge. Has done for a century or more. It was originally part of the treasure taken by a British punitive expedition that overthrew and ransacked the African kingdom of Benin in the late nineteenth century, the zenith of British imperialism. The exact opposite for the Benin Empire of course.

The students at Jesus College have voted unanimously to call for the cock to be returned, not without some controversy. The original motion was deemed despicable for its supposed paternalistic and colonial language and because not enough black students in the wider university had been consulted. Being right on is very exacting these days.

To the students it's a simple matter of justice. Wicked imperialist loot to be returned to its rightful owners.

The history is slightly more complicated. The kingdom of Benin was destroyed after it had massacred a peaceful and though doubtless scheming British delegation. Benin itself was an imperial military dictatorship that enslaved fellow Africans to sell to European traders.

As it no longer exists the question rises over who exactly in present day Nigeria it should be returned to. Nonetheless the Jesus cockerel takes its place alongside the Elgin marbles as cultural symbols of past injustice for which we must make amends...

I'm glad that Britons who valued the Elgin marbles looked after them at a time when Greeks were indifferent to them and I'm just sorry that the British Museum didn't have care of artifacts that are now being destroyed in Aleppo and Palmyra...

I think that the whole idea of repatriation is Romantic, essentialist. It's based on the idea that everything is the cultural property of somebody along essentially ethnic lines...

If we look at the principle of the Benin bronzes there's already a conflict in Nigeria. Are the cultural owners of those the Nigerian people in which case they go to the National Museum in Lagos? Are they the property of the Oba of Benin who was the original owner? In which case ninety nine point nine percent of the Benin people, the Nigerian people would never see them. And the security in both cases would probably leave much to be desired...

There are whole museums like the Accademia museum in Venice was entirely created by Napoleon to commemorate a culture that he had effectively destroyed... you can't build, rebuild a load of churches and put these paintings back and I think that that's the case with most of these situations...

The Parthenon Marbles, they are part of the whole culture of antiquity which has had an enormous impact on western culture. Most of which, that impact, took place outside Greece. Most Classical civilization was created by people who had never went to Greece...

[On returning the Elgin marbles] 'What is special about the original location? I mean is it something about the hill upon which they stand or are we trying to get at something about people? Because if it's about people I mean today's Greeks aren't like Ancient Greeks at all'...

'The new museum that has been built is designed specifically to display the sculptures in the way they were meant to be displayed'

'No no no. Clearly not that. Because they were up high on the Parthenon. They clearly were not designed to be in a museum'...

At a time when Modern Greeks - I'm talking about the nineteenth century - have clearly shown no interest in their own heritage it was English Romantics who came along and gave them a sense of pride in their Classical past. And as part of the symbol of how much we valued it, these marbles came back to Britain and to be looked after and now the Greeks realize how important they are...

I'm interested in the broader trend. So why there have been more claims since the nineteen eighties for repatriation but also a receptivity to those claims from museum professionals. And i am concerned that this is really about what a museum is and that what is at stake is really the kind of Enlightenment values that the museum was founded on. So that, that's been subject to great scrutiny and then you've had the politicization of culture. So culture's been asked to do things like make amends for past wrongs like kind of apologize for colonization when I think it just can't possibly do that...

If we take the Benin bronzes for example. The rooster that is being subject to this claim. I mean that was created in the thirteenth to the fourteenth century in a medieval African kingdom. That has got nothing to do with Nigeria...

'In Iraq after the fall of Saddam a trove of tens of thousands of Jewish documents both secular and religious were discovered in a base, in the basement of the intelligence service almost completely submerged under water. Left for longer they would have been destroyed. They were rescued and taken to America. There has been a fight ever since. Iraq says they are part of Iraq. The Jews say they are part of the Jews of Iraq, they belong to the Jews of Iraq who were either murdered or chucked out of Iraq and therefore they should not go back to Iraq. In your view who should own them? Iraq, the Jews or should they go to the British Museum?'

'My answer to the question is where is best for those artifacts?... We should learn and the problem with these battles is that we do not learn. They become objects of atonement or objects of identity and one that is an insult to those past human civilisations... Who speaks for that culture and on what basis? On the basis of blood? And do I speak therefore for people who live in Scotland?... there are questionable racial claims that are made'...

The Greeks were willing to donate their own bullets to the enemy so that lead from the Parthenon wasn't used for bullets against them so I think it's just false to say they didn't value them...

If it is true as Professor Sandis just said that the British Museum has plenty of other stuff that could tell the story and could do without the Elgin marbles, then it must also be true that if half the Elgin marbles are still in Athens it can equally be argued that there's plenty of stuff there to tell the story without the return of the other half. And so I rather reject the binary position.

I mean it seems to me that these objects have several significances. And at the moment the division let's say of the Elgin marbles between London and Athens is helping both of those positions. Some of them are there to establish the context, reminders that these people lived in this particular place although of course we have no trace of what these people were like and the rest is saying look this is what these marbles, this is what this sort of art contribute to the, contributed to the development of Western Civilization"
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