Sunday, May 06, 2007

The day's controversy.

That's the world famous bust of Nefertiti, originally dug up in Amarna (if my memory is reliable, but definitely in Egypt) and now residing in the Berlin Museum, Germany. What's it doing in Germany? Damn good question. A German dude originally dug it up and took it home. It was finders-keepers in grave robbing (I'm not calling it archeology) up until about 1920. The finding of Tut's Tomb finally made the government step in and stop the massive removal of antiquities from the country. Though there was still a lot of smuggling going on, continuing until now.

Zahi Hawass, director of antiquities for the country of Egypt, wants to borrow it for the opening of the new wing of the Cairo Museum in 2010. Germany is - get this - saying no. They claim it's too fragile to move. (IF it's too fragile to move, it's due to bad conservation and there are many things that could be done to stabilize it. Not to mention archeologists schlepped King Tut around the planet decades ago, and some of that stuff was pretty fragile.) Zahi has countered with refusing to ever loan antiquities from Egypt to Germany ever again, and threatening to not loan antiquities to any other country that works with Germany. Plus a ban on Germans excavating in Egypt, etc etc. Basically he's gonna fuck with them as much as he's able, and being pretty damn influential, that's a lot.

So here's the obvious question: If the country of origin of artifacts (in this case, Egypt) is capable of taking proper care of their history, should other museums around the world give back their stuff? Or is it finders-keepers? (I'm not saying we should give back antiquities from countries that are currently selling off the contents of their museums anyway. But for countries that are stable and have the ability to care for the stuff, why can't they have their stuff back?)

Personally I think early 'archeologists' were nothing more than grave robbers and all the stuff should be given back. More modern stuff that was excavated with the agreement of the Egyptian government is okay, but that early stuff was stolen. Give it back. At least to the countries capable of taking care of their stuff. (Turkey should get the stuff from Troy back, too. And they're getting pretty pissed about it being in Russia.)

Details on the Nefertiti argument here.
Listing of articles about it, here.
Troy treasure details, here. Which is as much a story of theft as any I've ever read. Schliemann was a grandstanding theif, not an archeologist. (Okay, so I've got strong opinions on this. Everyone who knows about it does.)

How's that for a nice break from knitting?


Roxie said...

I agree that the artifacts belong in their home countries if said countries are capable and willing to care for and display them. However, The museums in posession have paid for those artifacts, cared for them, insured them, invested quite large sums of money in them, and you are asking them to make huge financial sacrifices in the interests of doing what is right. Is Egypt (for example) offering any recompense for the return of objects now in foriegn posession? Money makes the world go around. Sad, but true.

amy said...

This morning my kids were watching the Curious George movie and I was complaining about how the idol is ultimately just stolen from Africa. My husband told me it's just a cartoon. Yeah, I know that. But it's not that far off the truth, is it? It's a horrible legacy, and there's definitely more than a bit of imperialism going on here. When it comes to Nefertiti, the Egyptians are just asking to borrow, which is done all the time. Thanks for posting--I hadn't heard of this yet.

MrsFife said...

Hey, how about The British Museum refusing to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece? Apparently their rules forbid them to! Now that's a tautological argument if ever I heard one. India would love to have all its stolen treasures back, including the Kohinoor, the Peacock Throne, major chunks of the Crown Jewels. And here's the British monarch celebrating the first English settlement, and of course there's no question of her apologising to the native people for what happened because of the settlement. It was all so long ago, after all.
Sorry, I feel strongly about these things and why should the Germans be singled out in this regard? They bear enough crosses that don't cast even a shadow on the other imperialist countries around the world.

Julie said...

I didn't mean to single out Germany and England and Russia in terms of giving stuff back - those were just the most well-known issues I could think of off hand. (Wallis Budge of the British Museum is a particularly well-known theif of his time, and I always think of him when this issue comes up.)

Personally I think it's a crime for the Metropolitan Museum of Art to have so much stolen stuff from everywhere, here in New York. Give it back, or pay rent, or something. An ART museum, for crying out loud.

Mrs. Fife, the native Americans here would agree with you completely on the settlement issue. (And I agree with both, for what it's worth.)

Kristen said...

I feel lucky to have see Queen Neffy when I visited Germany in 1990.

Germany should totally give her back. No question. Germans are great engineers; they can find a way to transport it. Maybe they can devise a system for transporting precious cargo (because no one has ever done this before, right?) and that could be the exclusive system for returning museum artifacts to their rightful owners.

Jessica said...

Personally, I think that artifacts of this importance, should be shared (for a time) among all the museums that are capable of taking care of them. Schools take field trips to see these exhibits, because of their educational significance and people come in droves for a chance to see these amazing pieces of history. Then, once the artifact has completed it's circuit, it should be retired, if possible, to a museum in the country it was excavated from.

Of course, I don't know all the politics that go into the borrowing of antiquities and I don't pretend to, but that just seems like the sensible thing to do (if the artifacts are stable enough to be moved, that is).

Bells said...

Artefacts of any kind should go home.

An extreme example: Aboriginal remains are slowly but surely being returned from museums in Europe to be buried on Australian soil by their descendants. About bloody time too.

MrsFife said...

Sometimes I wonder. Is there some sort of statute of limitations on blame-apportioning in history? Like if it happened about 60 years ago, we'll remind you of your crime every single opportunity, but say, a hundred or two hundred or more years ago and "what crime?"
Or maybe it's geographic, like it's okay if you come from the Western hemisphere or west of wherever you choose to draw the line. Anywhere else and you're committing crimes against humanity (HUMAN RIGHTS, for Gossake).
Oh, and trust us, we can take better care of your history than you can.
*thinking of hiring a soapbox permanently*

Amy Lane said...

Well, yeah...isn't that 'finders-keepers' crap for eight year olds?

debsnm said...

It was stolen in the first place, those that took it - ESPECIALLY the Germans - *knew* they were stealing - give it back!