Monday, May 10, 2010

Reflections on the Cairo Conference on Restitution

Museum Security Network (Kwame Opoku)

The Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage, 7-8 April 2010, Cairo, Egypt, ended with demands for the return of certain cultural artefacts which had been looted or stolen by colonial powers in the past. (2)

The conference called by Zahi Hawass, the energetic and dynamic Secretary-General of the Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, was attended by several States including, Austria, Bolivia, Chile, China, Cyprus, Ecuador, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Italy, Libya, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Syria and the United States. Britain, France and Germany, countries holding most of the contested artefacts did not attend. One can understand that there was not much interest in inviting the countries holding the contested artefacts since their attitudes over many decades have not been generally positive or sympathetic to the idea of restitution. However, in the last few years France and Britain have returned objects to Egypt. My own position would be to invite them to attend as observers, ensuring however that they do not come to disrupt or sabotage the conference or even try to dominate proceedings as they are wont to since eventually, we would need their co-operation to achieve lasting solutions to the questions of restitution. Besides, the USA which is a big market for stolen/looted artefacts attended as observer and we have not heard that this presence hindered the participants from achieving their aims.

Information on the number of participating States seems to vary according to the report that one reads. From the list of participating States, we note the absence of Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Sudan etc. Did these countries not have any demands for restitution? Ethiopia in particular, has still claims against Italy which returned the Axum Obelisk in 2008. Ethiopia has even more claims against Britain which is keeping thousands of Ethiopian national treasures looted during the infamous attack on Maqdala in 1868. What about Ghana? Has Ghana given up all attempts to recover the numerous gold and silver objects, including the 20 centimetre-high golden head, regalia and other treasures looted by the British in the infamous 1874 Punitive Expedition to Kumasi?

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