Wednesday, May 7, 2008

British Museum grants permission to use image of Benin mask as corporate logo

I see the Chicago Sun Times has just run a piece on Art Institute of Chicago director James Cuno's eagerly awaited new book, Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage.

The Sun Times piece (You Can't Have Your Stuff Back) quotes my critique of Cuno's thesis, (even though as a blogger I don't get name-checked or hyperlinked), but it has garnered one or two interesting comments, one in particular objecting to the "Cultural Property Nationalists" who constitute one of Cuno's main targets. "Under the auspices of UNESCO," writes Wayne Sayles, "they seek to control the flow of virtually anything made by mankind, anywhere, more than 100 years ago. The implications are mind boggling and the ideology is so myopic and fervent that it borders on cultism."

On current barometric readings, Cuno's book looks likely to be one of the most controversial publications to date in the previously genteel realm of museums and cultural heritage. Interesting that Mr Cuno and his fellow opponents of selective repatriation (that's all it is, despite what they'd have you believe) are applauded for their passion, while those arguing for a more constructive dialogue on this issue (which is in reality about nothing less than the future of museums) are accused of "zealotry" and "cultism".

But not every nation wants its "stuff" back. Many nations merely seek a more constructive relationship with museums that hold their cultural objects and would like to see a more open and forthright approach to revealing the true provenance of objects, warts and all.

I guess the ballyhoo confirms one thing - that the topic of cultural heritage just gets hotter and hotter, and not only in publishing.

This morning, I was interviewed by Mo Abudu (right), the host of Moments with Mo, the first pan-African chat show, which deals with African cultural, political and lifestyle issues. Mo has been looking into the case of a Benin ivory mask of Queen Idia (above left) in the British Museum.

In the mid-1990s, a Nigerian business group applied to the British Museum for permission to use an image of the mask in its corporate logo. The BM refused that permission. However, when the Nigerians then challenged the BM's good title to the mask (on the basis that it was among the many items looted from Benin City during the British Punitive Expedition of 1897), the BM finally capitulated. The logo is now duly registered as a trade mark (see website of the company, Markets and Investments, here).

Mo's researchers approached the British Museum for comment, but they declined. She wanted to know from me why the British Museum might have been reluctant to engage in a discussion for her TV programme on the issue. Not being a British Museum spokesperson I could only speculate that the whole matter might be a source of some embarrassment (which perhaps also explains why in its African galleries and its online Explore pages the BM still fails to give a full and honest account of how the Benin material entered its collections). I'm still intrigued, however, as to why, under pressure, the British Museum surrendered its previously held objection to the mask's corporate use. In doing so it appeared, by default, to be abdicating its rights to good title, although my knowledge of the legal ramifications is not so much shaky as wholly non-existent.

In fact, the Nigerians who are challenging the museum over its good title to copyright and licensing fees are not requesting that the mask be returned to Nigeria (although I know that Nigerian cultural groups would ultimately like to see progress on that issue). Instead they are seeking to explore, as a point of principle, the British Museum's claim to exclusive rights to commercial revenues generated through what they see as its illicit ownership of the object. Extrapolating from the fees they were charged by the museum for the logo-licensing rights, they estimate that some £300 million or more could have been generated by the Benin material dispersed through museums in Europe and North America since it was plundered in 1897 (and let's be clear, it was plundered).

Such thorny problems - a legal and ethical minefield to be sure - seem to emerge almost daily at present. Altogether it certainly provides a rich and fertile context for the appearance of Mr Cuno's book, which I look forward to with relish.


Wayne G. Sayles said...


If you were at the "pointy end of the spear" as we are, you would have an entirely different view of what is going on in the world of cultural property. "Selective Repatriation"? Get real. There are aggressive restrictions and seizures being implemented every day on mundane objects of no cultural value at all. It is a pure and simple power squeeze. The actions of the U.S. State Department and Customs Service are so reprehensible that they demean the basic tenets of freedom and democracy. I am not at all being a conspiracy theorist when I report that the bureaucracy is driven by ideology, fueled by cultural property nationalists, and is totally unresponsive to the freedoms, desires and interests of the American people. You may think otherwise, but such is life. The intensity of this debate will increase considerably before it abates because every attempt at moderation and cooperation on the part of the collecting community (and there have been many) has been rebuffed. It is really an "in your face" attitude that we get from anti-collector adherents and they are not willing to look for solutions, they will accept only the disenfranchising of a 600-year-old tradition. One might expect a little resistance. In fact, one should count on a LOT of resistance. If I were a prophet, I could see this inflexibility and yes "cultic" ideology being the undoing of archaeology as a respected science. I think it has already done considerable long term damage. Arrogance has never been rewarded by history.

In closing, I should thank cultural property nationalists for giving the moral high ground back to collectors and the associated trade.



Tom Flynn said...

Thanks for your comment. What, (or where) exactly is "the pointy end of the spear"? Can you specify? Are you a collector? A curator? I'm afraid that on many of your points I do indeed think otherwise, but, as you say, such is life. "Attempts at moderation and cooperation" are fine, but in many instances the damage has already been done and I don't think I need to name names.

Speaking personally, I have no interest in "disenfranchising a 600-year old tradition", although I confess that once again I find myself craving a clearer sense of what you're referring to. Do you mean archaeology? Or perhaps collecting and connoisseurship? I may have the wrong end of your pointy spear, but I have sensed recently something of a rift opening up between archaeologists and museum directors. From where I sit, it's a clear sense of conflicting desires.

Everyone is struggling - museum directors, collectors, archaeologists, dealers - to adapt to a rapidly changing world order. Speaking personally, I have never attached any value to the status quo. In any event, geopolitics have done for that and its effect on cultural heritage is there for all to see. Clearly the "freedom, desires and interests of American people" do not always coincide with those of people from other nations, many of whom have had enough of feeling the sharp end of the pointy spear.

As for "arrogance has never been rewarded by history", the rewards for Napoleon's arrogance — and indeed the arrogance of Lord and Lady Elgin in Athens — continue to be enjoyed by millions of visitors to the Louvre and the British Museum every year. But then as Bonaparte himself said, "What is history but a lie agreed upon?"

All good knock-about stuff. Feel free to clarify those points on which I have declared some bafflement.

Tom Flynn said...

I have just visited your blog and note that you are indeed a collector and respected numismatist. As a former colleague of Richard Falkiner while freelancing for several years at Antiques Trade Gazette, I have a great deal of respect for yours and Richard's particular area of expertise.

I sense from your recent entries that the collecting interests of the numismatic community have been subjected to some curtailment of late. That throws some welcome light on your earlier comments, doubtless penned from the sunlit uplands of the "moral high ground".
Best wishes

Wayne G. Sayles said...


Forgive me for being cryptic. I assumed, apparently in error, that you were well versed on the cultural property "debate". I'd be pleased to elaborate and clarify.

The "pointy end of the spear" is the place that draws blood. As you can imagine, and we well know from experience, it is an undesirable place to be. As you have discovered, I am a collector of ancient coins. Some years ago, I wrote an article for Encyclopaedia Britannica (which is still active by the way in the latest edition) that profiles the history of our discipline. Although coins have been collected virtually since they were invented, the activity as we think of it today began in the late 14th century. For more than six centuries ancient coins have been held, traded, transferred, studied, preserved and cherished by private citizens of every civilized society and modern nation. No controls existed and no records of provenance nor transfer were required nor kept for the most part. Archaeology, by comparison is barely adolescent.

In 1972, UNESCO declared that coins are cultural property. That declaration was buried unobtrusively amidst a long rambling list of objects cited in a UNESCO resolution designed ostensibly to protect significant cultural property by preventing the transfer of illicit objects. All well and good, except that the intent of this resolution and the subsequent laws enabling it in the United States were gradually perverted by a persistent and purposeful campaign. A crusade against private collecting raged within a radical but powerful element of the archaeological community. The view of those wielding this pointy spear is that the activity of collectors is responsible for archaeological site looting. There are, in their eyes, no shades of gray. The only solution, in their view, in their rhetoric and in their political initiatives is to eliminate collecting and the associated trade.

This started out as a well orchestrated campaign to curtail the international market for antiquities. Ancient coins became an adjunct target. Because the ancient coin collecting community has actively opposed the efforts of these zealots, who are typically referred to as cultural property nationalists, coins have received increased and specific attention (targeting) from them. In the past few years, the museum world has also come under attack from these same ideologues who pitch their beliefs as somehow being morally superior. The very notion of museums being a repository of objects from global cultures is anathema to them and collectors are in their published views merely criminal low lifes, sponsors of terror and thieves of the past.

There isn't nearly enough space here to debate the issue of the Elgin Marbles or the Euphronios Krater, but there is room I think to challenge the notion that a common coin, struck in millions of specimens during antiquity and surviving in the hundreds of thousands of specimens or more today, needs to be treated as a national treasure. This is a ridiculous extension of a valid debate and reduces the entire topic to the sublime.

Mr. Cuno is right to oppose this cult of retentionists and he is far from alone in his views.



moneythoughts said...

Hi Tom,

I was just checking out people interested in the art market and came across your blog.

I write and paint. Take a look at my blog, you might find it of interest.

I enjoy reading about the art market and art history. I find your debate with Wayne of interest. When you consider art taken from Jewish people in Europe less than 100 years ago and the laws passed since WWII that prohibits family from getting their art back, the fact that works taken over 100 years ago are being fought over is very interesting. But then again, stealing from Jews has been going on since the beginning of time, so what is new about the art that has been with held from families since the end of WWII.