The 20-year feud concerns the ownership of 44 artefacts from the Sixena Monastery, a Romanesque jewel in the heart of Aragon, less than 30 miles away from the trenches where George Orwell fought during the Spanish Civil War. The works of art (paintings on panel and canvas, sculptures, reliquiaries) are currently kept in the Museum of Lleida, in Catalonia, some of them on display and many in storage. The condition of some is frail, the historic significance and value of most is enormous.
Some scholars employ the idea that identity is fluid and constructed, especially national identity of modern nation-states, to argue that the post-colonial countries have no real claims to the artifacts plundered from their borders since their cultural connections to the artifacts are indirect and equivocal. This argument asserts that artifacts should be viewed as universal cultural property and should not be divided among artificially created nation-states. Moreover, that encyclopedic museums are a testament to diversity, tolerance and the appreciation of many cultures. Other scholars would argue that this reasoning is a continuation of colonialist discourse attempting to appropriate the ancient art of colonized states and incorporate it into the narrative of Western history.
In the 19th century, many groups were violently forced from their ancestral homelands onto reservations. This is an important factor to remember when reading the essays and watching the videos in this section because the art changes—sometimes very dramatically—in response to these upheavals. You might read elsewhere that objects created after these transformations are somehow less authentic because of the influence of European or Euro-American materials and subjects on Native art. However, it is crucial that we do not view those artworks as somehow less culturally valuable simply because Native men and women responded to new and sometimes radically changed circumstances.
Second, this movement shows an absolute disregard for the right of regional governments, such as the Catalan one, to have views and policies that oppose those of the central government. The Spanish government sees Catalonia not as a nation, but as a property, and therefore it is acceptable, if not imperative, to correct the mismanagements of the local rulers as soon as the opportunity arises.
Opposed to the nationalist, proprietary, and even tribal concerns of such regimes, Cuno believes, are the benevolent interests of public museums. They hover above the sectarian conflicts gripping much of the world, drawing human beings together by demonstrating the interrelatedness of all civilizations. Cuno exalts “the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations, and not of nationalist limitations, curious and respectful of the world’s artistic and cultural legacy as common to us all”—the ideal repository, in his view, for artifacts that illuminate this legacy. He advocates a return to the system of partage, whereby foreign-led excavation teams provide archaeological expertise to source countries in return for a share of the finds, to be exhibited in public galleries elsewhere. Further, he urges compromises that would allow museums to display unprovenanced antiquities—particularly those acquired before the stricter trafficking laws of recent decades—reminding his readers of the aesthetic and educational rewards to be reaped by their presence in major collections.
The 1978 UNESCO Convention strengthened existing provisions; the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of illicit Appropriation was established. It consists of 22 members elected by the General Conference of UNESCO to facilitate bilateral negotiations for the restitution of "any cultural property which has a fundamental significance from the point of view of the spiritual values and cultural heritage of the people of a Member State or Associate Member of UNESCO and which has been lost as a result of colonial or foreign occupation or as a result of illicit appropriation". It was also created to "encourage the necessary research and studies for the establishment of coherent programmes for the constitution of representative collections in countries whose cultural heritage has been dispersed".
This is a worrying attitude. It indicates that Spain is willing to use direct rule for its own benefit, even if that means opposing the long-standing policies of the democratically elected government that has just been ousted and jailed under charges of tumultuous sedition. The case of the heritage of Sixena has a long history of legal disputes between the governments of Catalonia and Aragon.
In the past, the term “primitive” has been used to describe the art of Native tribes and First Nations. This term is deeply problematic—and reveals the distorted lens of colonialism through which these groups have been seen and misunderstood. After contact, Europeans and Euro-Americans often conceived of the Amerindian peoples of North America as noble savages (a primitive, uncivilized, and romanticized “Other”). This legacy has affected the reception and appreciation of Native arts, which is why much of it was initially collected by anthropological (rather than art) museums. Many people viewed Native objects as curiosities or as specimens of “dying” cultures—which in part explains why many objects were stolen or otherwise acquired without approval of Native peoples. Many sacred objects, for example, were removed and put on display for non-Native audiences. While much has changed, this legacy lives on, and it is important to be aware of and overcome the many stereotypes and biases that persist from prior centuries.
The argument that artwork will not be protected outside of the Western world is hypocritical as much of the artwork transported out of colonized countries was crudely removed and damaged and sometimes lost in transportation. The Elgin marbles for example, were also damaged during the cleaning and "preservation" process. Moreover the Napried, one of the ships commissioned by di Cesnola to transport approximately 35,000 pieces of antiquities that he had collected from Cyprus, was lost at sea carrying about 5,000 pieces in its cargo.
One significant step that has been taken to correct some of this colonial legacy has been NAGPRA, or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1992. This is a U.S. federal law that dictates that “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony, referred to collectively in the statute as cultural items” be returned to tribes if they can demonstrate “lineal descent or cultural affiliation.” Many museums in the U.S. have been actively trying to repatriate items and human remains. For example, in 2011, a museum returned a wooden box drum, a hide robe, wooden masks, a headdress, a rattle, and a pipe to the Tlingít T’akdeintaan Clan of Hoonah, Alaska. These objects were purchased in 1924 for $500.
In recent years, museums across the United States and Europe have begun returning objects to their countries of origin. Each case tells its own story. While much attention has focused on the act of repatriation, The New York Times looked at what happened to several objects after they went back. Some works, returned with great fanfare, have taken on greater meaning back on view in the countries or cultures that produced them. Other times, after the triumphalism fades, they fall victim to benign neglect, or are not always easy to reach.
An Egyptian worker cleans some of the archeological pieces inside the Egyptian Museum on February 16, 2011. Looters broke into the museum in Cairo's Tahrir Square on January 28 when anti-Mubarak protesters drove his despised police from the streets in a series of clashes, shattering 13 display cases and at least 70 artifacts, some of which have been recovered and repaired.
The Yale case has also paved the way for Peru to reclaim objects from around the world, including a collection of Paracas textiles, which the city of Gothenburg, Sweden, is in talks to return. “Their concern is how are these pieces going to be taken care of” if they leave Sweden? Mr. Castillo said. “It’s a legitimate concern,” he added. “The point is that Peru is ready.”
“I think the Yale case is a good one as a model in some ways because it was resolved diplomatically; it wasn’t resolved through legal decisions,” said Richard Burger, chairman of the Council of Archaeological Studies at Yale and a former curator at the Peabody Museum, who was part of the talks. A committee of Yale scholars and officials from Peru’s Culture Ministry oversee the museum.
In response to the Iraqi National Museum looting, UNESCO Director-General, Kōichirō Matsuura convened a meeting in Paris on April 17, 2003 in order to assess the situation and coordinate international networks in order to recover the cultural heritage of Iraq. On July 8, 2003, Interpol and UNESCO signed an amendment to their 1999 Cooperation Agreement in the effort to recover looted Iraqi artifacts.
Native American is used here because people are most familiar with this term, yet we must be aware of the problems it raises. The term applies to peoples throughout the Americas, and the Native peoples of North America, from Panama to Alaska and northern Canada, are incredibly diverse. It is therefore important to represent individual cultures as much as we possibly can. The essays here use specific tribal and First Nations names so as not to homogenize or lump peoples together. On Smarthistory, the artworks listed under Native American Art are only those from the United States and Canada, while those in Mexico and Central America are located in other sections.
Today the Euphronios krater sits rather forlornly in a glass case in the National Etruscan Museum in Rome’s Villa Borghese park. Wall labels, written in Italian and poorly translated English, explain where it was found. One example: “The tomb of Greek Vases (Tomba dei Vasi Greci) is the latest within the great tumulus II of the Banditaccia necropolis and contained so many grave goods that only part of them could be displayed.”
War and the subsequent looting of defeated peoples has been common practice since ancient times. The stele of King Naram-Sin of Akkad, which is now displayed in the Louvre Museum in Paris, is one of the earliest works of art known to have been looted in war. The stele commemorating Naram-Sin's victory in a battle against the Lullubi people in 2250 BCE was taken as war plunder about a thousand years later by the Elamites who relocated it to their capital in Susa, Iran. There, it was uncovered in 1898 by French archaeologists.