[Ancientartifacts] De Montebello responds

Philippe de Montebello responds to an article in Afrikanet.info by Kwame


After the publication of the Article EUROPEAN AND AMERICAN MUSEUM DIRECTORS
mid=2> by Afrikanet.info Author Dr. Kwame Opoku, Philippe de Montebello,
Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York replies:

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

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.


Dr. Opoku wrote in his article cited above:

"… who appointed the British Museum, London, the Louvre, Paris, the Musée du
Quai Branly, Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York as guardians
of the cultures of mankind? Was the use of force also authorized by whoever
appointed them? Are those from whom they forcibly or through stealth took
these objects not part of mankind? Are the peoples of Greece, Nigeria,
Ghana) Ethiopia and Egypt not part of mankind? And why could they not keep
their own cultural property in their countries? The universal museum concept
is simply a modern version of imperialism employed by those who have not
realized that the days of unbridled imperialism are over; their thinking is
still dominated by nineteenth century ideas of the might of their countries
and the unquestioned dominance of the world."

This is nothing less than a challenge to the concept of the "Universal
Museum," and a bold assertion that no one other than the inhabitants of the
nation in whose present day territory a "cultural object" was produced or
discovered can have valid title to that object. Apparently it does not
matter, in the eyes of Dr. Opoku, how or when a "cultural object" came to
leave the present day territory of the state in which it originated as
defined in the 1970 UNESCO Convention [
http://exchanges.state.gov/culprop/unesco01.html ].

The 1970 UNESCO Convention, however, does not go so far as to demand the
return of every "cultural object" to the state in which it originated. That
Convention is not retroactive, and therefore does not require return of any
object exported from its "territory of origin" before the Convention entered
into force as defined in Article 21: "This Convention shall enter into force
three months after the date of the deposit of the third instrument of
ratification, acceptance or accession, but only with respect to those States
which have deposited their respective instruments on or before that date. It
shall enter into force with respect to any other State three months after
the deposit of its instrument of ratification, acceptance or accession." The
effective dates of entry into force for each signatory state are tabulated
here: http://erc.unesco.org/cp/convention.asp?KO=13039&language=E

The following dates of acceptance or ratification are particularly

United States of America 02/09/1983
Russian Federation 28/04/1988
France 07/01/1997
United Kingdom 01/08/2002
Switzerland 03/10/2003
Germany 30/11/2007

Citizens and institutions of these nations are not legally bound under the
Convention to return anything removed from the territory of another
signatory State prior to those dates. Furthermore, their obligations are in
each case defined by the instrument of accession and the local laws of the
state in question, which may further restrict their obligations.

Dr. Opoku concluded: "Perhaps a period of intensive legal claims and
procedures might remind the museum directors and their supporters that a
civilised world can only be built on legality and the respect for the rights
of others, including their cultural rights which are now disregarded by many
European and American museum directors."

Such claims must, however, always be based upon laws. The Parthenon or Elgin
Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the bust of Nefertiti, the Benin Bronzes and
almost all other major museum holdings whose return is now being sought were
removed from their territory of origin under circumstances which in many
cases involved permission of the responsible authorities, or in other cases
involved acts of war or imperialist expansion that have long since passed
into legal precedent, whatever one might today think of their morality.

If Dr. Opoku's viewpoint should be accepted and pursued to its logical
conclusion, what basis would there be for limiting the right of a state to
claim restitution of any cultural object that originated in its territory?
Should the Government of Italy, for example, be required to seize and return
everything in Italy that can be shown to have been forcibly or coercively
acquired by past Italian regimes such as the Roman Empire, and institutions
such as the Roman Catholic Church? The list of objects to be returned under
such an interpretation would be long indeed, and its implementation would be

Dave Welsh
Unidroit-L Listowner


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