Friday, February 22, 2013

European Commission Vice President seeks legislation to strengthen demands for restitution of “national treasures.”

The "Getty" bronze
News just in from the New Europe news agency suggests that European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani is planning new legislation to help EU member states recover pieces of their cultural heritage unlawfully removed after 1993. (A quick reminder, as if any were needed — this will NOT affect the Parthenon Marbles, the bust of Nefertiti, the Benin brasses, the Rosetta Stone, the Maqdala manuscripts, and a host of other contested objects still beyond the reach of their countries of origin.)

EC Vice-President Tajani, responsible for Industry and Entrepreneurship, said: "Safeguarding the cultural heritage of all Member States is of major importance to the European Union. Our proposal is therefore necessary to further strengthen the effectiveness of the fight against illegal trafficking in cultural goods. The harmful effect on our national treasures represents a serious threat to the preservation of the origins and history of our civilization."

It’s perhaps not surprising that this initiative comes from an Italian politician, given Italy’s muscular efforts to police what it sees as its cultural property in recent years. Italy has shown greater determination than most countries in forcing North American museums to restitute looted objects and to reform their acquisition policies. But as the case of the "Getty" bronze (above left) demonstrates, ownership claims to "national" treasures are never cut and dried (grazie Felch and Frammolino).

There is a stark mismatch here between the utterances of the EU’s cultural policy unit and those issuing from the so-called ‘Universal’ or ‘Encyclopaedic’ museums in many of the EU’s more powerful member states. Many directors of these museums are members of the notorious ‘Bizot Group’ — an exotic truncation of the rather more cumbersome 'International Group of Organizers of Large-scale Exhibitions'. This élite institution, which takes its name from its founder, the French Countess Irène Bizot, a former head of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, was the source of the now notorious Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums.

James Cuno, the most vocal proponent of Bizot Group ideology, and President of the Getty Foundation — one of the institutions previously caught with its fingers in the cultural heritage till — is a staunch defender of the ‘Encyclopaedic’ museum model. He has frequently condemned what he sees as a veiled nationalist agenda behind today’s restitution claims. In harmony with British Museum director Neil MacGregor, Dr Cuno has consistently argued that there is no such thing as “national” cultural heritage, that no nation has a legitimate and exclusive claim to treasures found on its soil, since all culture is hybrid and therefore all material culture is the property of all humanity.

He has never explained why European and North American museums are the rightful custodians of the lion's share of the world's cultural property. As far as I can gather, nor has he refused to alter his position on the right, nay duty, of museums to continue acquiring cultural objects.

The “universalist” view of museum culture expounded by Cuno, MacGregor, Monetebello, et al— a legacy of Enlightenment thought — clearly doesn’t chime with Mr Tajani’s position, which argues that: “The harmful effect on our national treasures represents a serious threat to the preservation of the origins and history of our civilization" (my emphasis).

The directors of European and North American encyclopaedic museums insist that they are safeguarding “the origins and history of civilization” by retaining the world’s treasures within their walls. But that position is clearly no longer tenable in the eyes of Greece, Nigeria, Turkey, India, and other developing nations, many of which now seek to recover their “national” cultural property from these big institutions.

It used to be said that the British Museum was reluctant to return the Parthenon Marbles for fear that the notional “floodgates” would open, leading to the wholesale denuding of encyclopaedic museums everywhere. However, Marbles aside, the water level behind those gates has been rising steadily for years and the force of the water is increasing week on week, month on month, year on year. 

We will have to wait and see what impact this new EU legislation might have, if and when it is implemented. It cites 1993 as the cut-off year after which treasures cannot be acquired (a 23-year extension of the date cited in the UNESCO Convention), stating: “The proposed changes would apply to cultural goods classified as ‘national treasures’ unlawfully removed after 1993 that are now located on the territory of another Member State.”

Perhaps Dr Cuno would like to comment on how this scans with the syndrome he has so memorably defined as “nationalist cultural property retentionism”?

No comments: