Apr 21, 2008

Africa, Repatriation, and Universal Museums

There have been some very interesting exchanges in recent days between Dr. Kwame Opoku and Phillipe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Opoku wrote an interesting and provocative letter to museum directors entitled Is legality a viable concept for European and American museum directors.

I have been quite familiar with Dr. Opoku's scholarly work for some time, and it's refreshing to see him continue to use the internet to broadcast his arguments; especially as he is a powerful voice for African repatriations, which often receive short shrift when compared to similar arguments for the Mediterranean or Central and South America.

De Montebello responded to the open letter with the following:


I read with interest Dr. Kwame Opoku's article EUROPEAN AND AMERICAN MUSEUM DIRECTORS AND THE LEGALITY CONCEPT? and glanced at the photo that accompanied it.

What a haunting, strange-looking object. There is no caption accompanying
the photograph so I looked in books and found that this was a product of
ancient Nigeria, the Nok culture. I also discovered that more than 2,000
years ago as well an Ife culture in Nigeria produced sculpture that I found
simply divine. As beautiful as anything produced at any time in the West.

Then I went to our African galleries and found -- as must our audience of
some 4.5 million visitors a year -- that Nigeria seemed to have produced no
art before the much later Benin period, well represented at the Metropolitan
Museum. Why is that? Simply because the Metropolitan Museum does not own
either a Nok or an Ife object. Their export and acquisition are strictly
forbidden, therefore the Metropolitan Museum has refrained from their
acquisition.

We have tried for years to convince the Nigerian authorities to place one
object from each of these great cultures on loan to the Metropolitan for the
benefit of our audiences, but unfortunately, to no avail.

Dr. Opoku believes all Nok, Ife, and Benin pieces outside of Nigeria should
be returned to Nigeria; that all works produced on its territory should
remain there.

How this advances broad knowledge of the rich cultural history of Nigeria is
a mystery to me.


He's advancing a kind of internationalist perspective here. It strikes me as a bit unfair to say that if wrongfully acquired objects are returned, then all objects would have to be returned. However, some policies certainly do have as a consequence, the possibility of restricting the movement of objects. The difficulty here stems from his argument. He's taking a grain of truth and extrapolating it to an almost illogical extreme. This happens all the time in policy and political debates, not just with respect to cultural heritage. Unfortunately much of the international law-making apparatus on the international level is incapable of successfully bridging these kinds of differences of opinions. As a result, partisans tend to push toward the margins rather than forge workable compromise.

Dr. Opoku responded with a letter which he forwarded to me, and probably others, including the Museum Security Network.

If the Metropolitan Museum has not been able to convince the Government of Nigeria to loan one object of each of the great cultures of Nigeria, there must be some reason which must have been explained by the Nigerian authorities. One cannot comment on this point without first studying the relevant correspondence.

The statement that “Dr. Opoku believes all Nok, Ife, and Benin pieces outside of Nigeria should be returned to Nigeria; that all works produced on its territory should remain there“ is surely incorrect and the maker of the statement knows it. As a person of culture who has spent a considerable part of my life visiting various museums all over the world, I reject very strongly this statement. It is an attempt to attribute to me an extreme position which can be easily dismissed instead of dealing with the serious arguments presented in detail (some would even say too much detail) in my various articles which are freely available on the internet.

Finally, Tom Flynn noted these exchanges and provided the following pointed analysis:

The problem here is the nature of the dialogue, which is not really a dialogue at all, but a series of embittered volleys that merely consolidates the entrenched positions of both parties. Dr Opoku continues to write uncompromising attacks on museum directors. One can understand his growing impatience, given the unwillingness of most museum directors to address what are clearly very serious issues passionately articulated. Moreover, when he does get a response, as was the case here, he is treated with the sort of patrician disdain that has become the lingua franca of leading museum directors across Europe and North America.

I regret I'm pressed for time today and don't have time to dive into the substance of these arguments, however all these links are highly recommended.

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