Should cultural property be returned?
a long, very long time, an acrid debate has been raging in the art
world. The issue is the return, or repatriation, of cultural property,
national treasures if one so likes, to its original owners. Museums of
the world, one knows, are filled with objects brought in from other
nations, other regions, by all kinds of persons: victors in war, satraps
and administrators, moneyed buyers, smugglers, and the like. One look at
any of the great museums of the world — the British Museum and the
Victoria and Albert in England; the Louvre in Paris; the Metropolitan in
New York; the Hermitage in Russia; the State Museums of Berlin; to name
just a few — will tell its own tale. For there one would see gallery
after gallery filled with artifacts that have come from elsewhere:
Egypt, Greece, Central Asia, India, Turkey, pre-Columbian America, for
example. Much of it might have happened in the 18th and 19th centuries,
but the process still goes on, as everyone knows. And with the
dissolution of the great, aggrandising empires of the world on the one
hand, and the resurgence of national identities on the other, questions
have been raised about all this. With increasing intensity, one might
add. There are cases that everyone knows about, the most celebrated
among them being the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, successive
governments and prominent public figures joining hands in making the
demand. But nothing seems to happen, no objects that have become a part
of the history of these museums are in the process of being returned.
Demands continue to be made, and turned down. It is an impasse.
This is how the Declaration opens: "The international museum community shares the conviction that illegal traffic in archaeological, artistic and ethnic objects must be firmly discouraged. We should, however, recognize that objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values reflective of that earlier era. The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones." Much of this sounds factually correct, even unexceptionable, at least initially. But then other things follow, for a case is carefully being built for freezing the issue of return of cultural property to its legitimate owners. And the arguments advanced against such return are ingenious, to say the least. Thus: "Over time, objects so acquired – whether by purchase, gift, or partage – have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them", it says "Today we are especially sensitive to the subject of a work’s original context, but we should not lose sight of the fact that museums too provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source."
Then the Declaration moves on to the role that museums have played in the world of art and in the lives of nations, pointing out that the very art the return of which is being called for today might not have been "established", or acquired the prestige that it has, but for what the museums did for it. Obviously aware of the fact that the return of the Elgin Marbles is an all-important, even a test, case, the Declaration brings in a specific reference to Greek antiquities. "The universal admiration for ancient civilizations would not be so deeply established today", it says, "but for the influence exercised by the artifacts of these cultures, widely available to an international public in major museums. Indeed, the sculpture of classical Greece, to take but one example, is an excellent illustration of this point and of the importance of public collecting." "The centuries-long history of appreciation of Greek art began in antiquity," the declaration continues, "was renewed in Renaissance Italy, and subsequently spread through the rest of Europe and to the Americas. Its accession into the collections of public museums throughout the world marked the significance of Greek sculpture for mankind as a whole and its enduring value for the contemporary world."
I realise that I have brought in here nearly the entire text of the Declaration issued by the Bizot group. But the issues raised in it are important enough, I believe. And in the coming years, much debate is going to center around the averments, and arguments, made in this Declaration. Interestingly, however, the last paragraph of the document contains a statement with which one cannot argue much. " …we should acknowledge that museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation. Museums are agents in the development of culture, whose mission is to foster knowledge by a continuous process of reinterpretation."
These are soothing words, but are they persuasive enough? Convincing?
Our own case
There is very little that one hears in our own land about the issues to which the Declaration cited above addresses itself. The return of the Koh-i-Noor, or Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s throne, might figure sometimes in statements, but only when some political mileage is to be gained. And millions of visitors go past the Amaravati railing and sculptures in the British Museum without so much as raising an eyebrow.
But, then, who cares about art here, anyway?