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.
Stereotypes persist when discussing Native American arts and cultures, and sadly many people remain unaware of the complicated and fascinating histories of Native peoples and their art. Too many people still imagine a warrior or chief on horseback wearing a feathered headdress, or a beautiful young “princess” in an animal hide dress (what we now call the Indian Princess). Popular culture and movies perpetuate these images, and homogenize the incredible diversity of Native groups across North America. There are too many different languages, cultural traditions, cosmologies, and ritual practices to adequately make broad statements about the cultures and arts of the indigenous peoples of what is now the United States and Canada.
A precedent for art repatriation was set in Roman antiquity when Cicero prosecuted Verres, a senate member and illegal appropriator of art. Cicero's speech influenced Enlightenment European thought and had an indirect impact on the modern debate about art repatriation. Cicero's argument uses military episodes of plunder as "case law" and expresses certain standards when it comes to appropriating cultural property of another people. Cicero makes a distinction between public and private uses of art and what is appropriate for each and he also asserts that the primary purpose of art is religious expression and veneration. He also sets standards for the responsibilities of imperial administration abroad to the code of ethics surrounding the collection of art from defeated Greece and Rome in wartime. Later, both Napoleon and Lord Elgin would be likened to Verres in condemnations of their plundering of art.
Some argue that in colonized states, nationalist archaeology was used to resist colonialism and racism under the guise of evolution. While it is true that both colonialist and nationalist discourse use the artifact to form mechanisms to sustain their contending political agendas, there is a danger in viewing them interchangeably since the latter was a reaction and form of resistance to the former. On the other hand, it is important to realize that in the process of emulating the mechanisms of colonial discourse, the nationalist discourse produced new forms of power. In the case of the Egyptian nationalist movement, the new form of power and meaning that surrounded the artifact furthered the Egyptian independence cause but continued to oppress the rural Egyptian population.
Archaeologists and scholars criticized the US military for not taking the measures to secure the museum, a repository for a myriad of valuable ancient artifacts from the ancient Mesopotamian civilization. In the several months leading up to the war, scholars, art directors, and collector met with the Pentagon to ensure that the US government would protect Iraq's important archaeological heritage, with the National Museum in Baghdad being at the top of the list of concerns. Between April 8, when the museum was vacated and April 12, when some of the staff returned, an estimated 15,000 items and an additional 5,000 cylinder seals were stolen. Moreover, the National Library was plundered of thousands of cuneiform tablets and the building was set on fire with half a million books inside; fortunately, many of the manuscripts and books were preserved. A US task force was able to retrieve about half of the stolen artifacts by organizing and dispatching an inventory of missing objects and by declaring that there would be no punishment for anyone returning an item. In addition to the vulnerability of art and historical institutions during the Iraq war, Iraq's rich archaeological sites and areas of excavated land (Iraq is presumed to possess vast undiscovered treasures) have fallen victim to widespread looting. Hordes of looters disinterred enormous craters around Iraq's archaeological sites, sometimes using bulldozers. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 archaeological sites in Iraq have been despoiled.
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.
Both parties have put forward strong arguments in favor and against the return of the artefacts, but it is not my purpose to judge their validity in any detail here. The essential summary is that the works of art were sold or donated to the Museum of Lleida by nuns from Sixena during the last years of General Franco’s dictatorship. The formality of these purchases and donations is, however, questioned by the Aragon authorities. It may not be a clear-cut case, but it is one that deserves a settlement in a context of institutional normality, in which the Catalan government can defend its own interests.
These treasures await those who make the sometimes difficult journey. About a 90-minute drive west of Catania, Aidone is in the province of Enna, Sicily’s poorest, and is less than 15 miles from Piazza Armerina, whose Roman-era mosaics, part of a Unesco World Heritage site, are among the most visited spots in Sicily. But the island, renowned for political corruption, lacks reliable public transportation. Local roads are sometimes closed.
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.
“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.
Even the naming conventions applied to peoples need to be revisited. In the past, the Navajo term “Anasazi” was used to name the ancestors of modern-day Puebloans. Today, “Ancestral Puebloans” is considered more acceptable. Likewise, “Eskimo” designated peoples in the Arctic region, but this word has fallen out of favor because it homogenizes the First Nations in this area. In general, it is always preferable to use a tribe or Nation’s specific name when possible, and to do so in its own language.
According to Roman myth, Rome was founded by Romulus, the first victor to dedicate spoils taken from an enemy ruler to the Temple of Jupiter Feretrius. In Rome's many subsequent wars, blood-stained armor and weaponry were gathered and placed in temples as a symbol of respect toward the enemies' deities and as a way to win their patronage. As Roman power spread throughout Italy where Greek cities once reigned, Greek art was looted and ostentatiously displayed in Rome as a triumphal symbol of foreign territories brought under Roman rule. However, the triumphal procession of Marcus Claudius Marcellus after the fall of Syracuse in 211 is believed to have set a standard of reverence to conquered sanctuaries as it engendered disapproval by critics and a negative social reaction.