Few repatriation cases have been as contentious as that of the Euphronios krater, a red-figure vase hailed as one of the few extant masterpieces by the ancient Greek artist Euphronios, which is also a cautionary tale about looting. Found in 1971 in illegal excavations in an Etruscan tomb in Cerveteri, north of Rome, the vase was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1972 from an antiquities dealer. For years, it was on display there, admired by millions of visitors.
Encyclopedic museums are located in cosmopolitan cities such as London, Paris, Berlin and New York, and if the artworks were to be moved, they would be seen by far fewer people. If the Rosetta Stone were to be moved from The British Museum to The Cairo Museum, the number of people who view it would drop from about 5.5 million visitors to 2.5 million visitors a year.
The Haisla totem Pole of Kitimat, British Columbia was originally prepared for chief G'psgoalux in 1872. This aboriginal artifact was donated to a Swedish museum in 1929. According to the donor, he had purchased the pole from the Haisla people while he lived on the Canadian west coast and served as Swedish consul. After being approached by the Haisla people, the Swedish government decided in 1994 to return the pole, as the exact circumstances around the acquisition were unclear. The pole was returned to Kitimat in 2006 after a building had been constructed in order to preserve the pole.
Nationalist retentionist cultural property laws claiming ownership are founded on constructed boundaries of modern nations with weak connections to the culture, spirit, and race to the ancient peoples who produced those antiquities. Cultural identities are dynamic, inter-related and overlapping so no modern nation-state can claim cultural property as their own or else they are promoting a sectarian view of culture.
In truth, there is no need to reject the premises of the contemporary nation-state—a move likely to alienate the very parties with whom compromise is needed—in order to advance the changes Cuno proposes. Try as they might, Italy, Greece, and China cannot hope to repossess all the antiquities ever removed from their soil. As he suggests, agreements that give these countries custody of certain objects while promoting long-term loans, reciprocal education, and responsible archaeology are an obvious way forward. Such governments could even be convinced that sharing their patrimony with others will advance their national reputation abroad. Cuno’s concept of a change in terminology from “ownership” of cultural properties to their “stewardship”—different nations holding such objects in trust for the benefit of various audiences—could also attract the support of these states. However, in order for agreements to happen, First World museumgoers will have to respect the concerns and claims of source nations.
It was here at Morgantina, just outside the modern town of Aidone, that in the late 1970s or early 1980s, a breathtaking statue of a goddess, draped in a windswept robe and standing over seven feet tall, is believed to have been found. First thought to be Aphrodite and now widely considered to be Persephone, the statue, which dates to about 425 B.C., has become one of the most contested artworks in the world.
The broader issue here regards cosmopolitanism, the philosophy that informs Cuno’s defense of the modern museum. As formulated by Jacques Derrida, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and others in conversation with a tradition stretching back thousands of years and through many intellectual traditions, cosmopolitanism asserts that our common humanity gives us grounds for mutual understanding. It requires us to try to comprehend alien points of view. If cosmopolitan values call attention to the importance of the museum—helping us to look beyond its sometimes exploitative past toward a future in which it deepens the cultural awareness of people across the world—then they also demand that we take a tolerant approach to its foes. We owe something to countries laying claim to artifacts, even if they are doing so in ways that appear “tribal,” selfish, or politically motivated. After all, the priorities of these nation-states may be just as important for them as sharing a common artistic patrimony is for “enlightened” members of the world community.
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.”
Australian Aboriginal cultural artefacts as well as people have been the objects of study in museums; many were taken in the decades either side of the turn of the 20th century. There has been greater success with returning human remains than cultural objects in recent years, as the question of repatriating objects is less straightforward than bringing home ancestors. Australia has no laws directly governing repatriation, but there is a government programme relating to the return of Aboriginal remains and artefacts, the International Repatriation Program (IRP), administered by the Department of Communications and the Arts. This programme "supports the repatriation of ancestral remains and secret sacred objects to their communities of origin to help promote healing and reconciliation" and assists community representatives work towards repatriation of remains in various ways.
Luna’s Artifact Piece (1987) and Take a Picture with a Real Indian (1993) both confront issues of identity and stereotypes of Native peoples. In Artifact Piece, Luna placed himself into a glass vitrine (like the ones we often see in museums) as if he were a static artifact, a relic of the past, accompanied by personal items like pictures of his family. In Take a Picture with a Real Indian, Luna asks his audience to come take a picture with him. He changes clothes three times. He wears a loincloth, then a loincloth with a feather and a bone breastplate, and then what we might call “street clothes.” Most people choose to take a picture with him in the former two, and so Luna draws attention to the problematic idea that somehow he is less authentically Native when dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.
In rare cases, a repatriation is arranged so that a collector knowingly buys works identified as stolen to protect them from being further damaged or broken up. That happened in 1985, when the art collector Dominique de Menil bought some 13th-century Byzantine frescoes from a Turkish art dealer after the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and government officials there identified them as having been stolen.
Across-the-board public budget cuts have left the museum with few resources for maintenance, guards and publicity, said Laura Maniscalco, an archaeologist who has been director of the Aidone museum since fall. “I don’t think it’s up to me to create tourist itineraries,” Ms. Maniscalco said. “But I can complain about the closed roads. Why aren’t they fixed? These are political problems.”
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.
Artifacts from the area have been sent to the Musee Guimet in Paris, from Afghanistan's national museum in Kabul, and will be on display from December 2006 as part of the "Afghanistan, Rediscovered Treasures" exhibition. The artifacts were saved from the looting of the Afghan national museum during the civil war of the 1990s and then the Taliban regime, which destroyed many pieces.
The Hague Convention of 1907 aimed to forbid pillaging and sought to make wartime plunder the subject of legal proceedings, although in practice the defeated countries did not gain any leverage in their demands for repatriation. The Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict took place in the wake of widespread destruction of cultural heritage in World War II is the first international treaty of a worldwide vocation focusing exclusively on the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict.