The head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, closed a two-day conference in Cairo for nations seeking to recover their antiquities and precious objects. Hawass has made it his mission to find Egyptian antiquities that he believes were wrongly removed from Egypt and bring them home.
While in Washington last month, Hawass beamed with pride as he accepted the return of an apparently smuggled ancient Egyptian coffin that a U.S. customs agent had intercepted at the Miami airport.
“People may think that the best part of an archaeologist’s life is discovering something,” Hawass said. “But for me, the best thing is to give something back to Egypt.”
If so, Hawass has had many better times. According to his calculations, he has supervised the return of 31,000 objects since 2002. These objects are intercepted during their illicit passage across borders; some are identified as they become ready for auction; some come from the rooms and walls of world-famous museums.
Last year, France repatriated the last of five stolen 3,000-year-old Egyptian relics that ended up in France’s Louvre museum. They were removed from a wall painting of an ancient Egyptian tomb in the 1980s.
For Hawass, every return is a victory, not only for Egypt, but for all humanity.
“This is not our heritage,” he said. “It is the heritage of human beings everywhere in the world.”
Ironically, this is the same argument made by those in the art world who oppose the idea of removing objects from international museums and returning them to their place of origin.
“We all own antiquity or have a responsibility to steward the past into the future,” said James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of the book “Who Owns Antiquity?”
Cuno agrees with Hawass that antiquity belongs to all humanity.
“This is a shared responsibility. It is not the responsibility of a single nation state,” Cuno said.
Egypt is not alone in its search for artifacts; From Nigeria to Greece to Peru, nations are demanding the repatriation of cultural works.
But it’s not easy, says attorney Tess Davis, deputy director of Heritage Watch and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation.
“You have a museum that says, ‘I bought this. I paid a lot of money for it. I’m the rightful owner of it.’ You have a country saying, ‘This antique, this work of art, this comes from our country. We are the rightful owner of it,'” Davis explained.
Take the case of the Parthenon sculptures, more commonly known as the Elgin Marbles. The elaborate marble sculptures have adorned the Parthenon temple in Athens for over 2,000 years.
By 1800, the Parthenon was in ruins. At this time, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, asked the Ottoman occupiers of Athens for permission to take some of the sculptures.
They have been on display at the British Museum in London for almost 200 years. Last year, more than five million people visited the international museum. But the Greek government wants the marbles to be reunited with other Parthenon sculptures in a new Acropolis museum in Athens.
Davis acknowledges that this is a delicate issue.
“I think morally, many people would think that the Elgin Marbles are the property of Greece, but legally, most people would agree that they are the property of England,” Davis explained.
Cuno argues that there is really no basis for deciding whether a nation has compelling moral arguments. He says decisions about repatriation should depend on whether a law has been broken.
“Otherwise, it’s about going back and rewriting history,” he said.
Cuno points out that modern Greece did not form until decades after the sculptures were removed. He claims that the current emphasis on Athenian culture comes at the expense of other cultures linked to Greek history.
“It requires us to look at the past in a way that is not true to the past,” he said. “This amounts to imposing territorialized identities on the past when the past did not have these identities.”
Cuno says there is added value in seeing works of shared cultural heritage in an international museum, where the viewer can understand that the world is diverse and has always been in touch with itself.
“When you are in a museum like the British Museum and you look at the Parthenon Marbles, you can recall from the neighboring galleries the visual effect of Egyptian sculpture or later Roman sculpture or contemporary Chinese sculpture,” he said. -he explained.
Davis says there’s a difference between theory and practice when it comes to this idea of what’s called the “universal museum.”
“If we are ever going to make this idea a reality, then we need to make sure that someone in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, can walk into a museum and see examples of American, French and Japanese art, which is not the case,” Davis emphasized. . “So far, the path has been very one-sided.”
Davis and Cuno agree that object and antique loans are a great way for people around the world, not just those in Western capitals, to appreciate and be inspired by cultural works.
And for those who fear that by returning an iconic object, museums risk losing their antiquities collections, Davis points out that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has repatriated objects and that its 600,000 square meter building is full of priceless treasures.