Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1321, (24 - 30 November 2016)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1321, (24 - 30 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Repatriation wins the debate

Supporters of the repatriation of Arab artefacts acquired under colonial rule won a debate held at Oxford University last week, reports Nevine El-Aref

Al-Ahram Weekly

An Oxford Union Society debate last week on the repatriation of Arab artefacts acquired under colonial rule now on display in European and North American museums was won by those supporting their repatriation.

Those arguing for the return of artefacts to their countries of origin were led by Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian minister of antiquities, and Wim Pijbes, former director of the Voorlinden Museum in the Netherlands.

The opposing side included James Cuno, president and CEO of the Paul Getty Trust, and Sabine Haag, director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Austrian Museum of Ethnology and the Austrian Theatre Museum.

Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly that those who opposed the repatriation of the artefacts thought that keeping Arab artefacts abroad was the best solution to preserving them because museums in Europe and North America had state-of-the-art facilities and high-tech security and lighting systems, advantages with which museums in Arab countries could not compete.

They also argued that the restoration work being done in international museums was of higher quality, pointing to incorrect methods recently used to restore the Tutankhamun mask at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, for example.

Hawass told the Weekly that a Sudanese student had defended keeping the artefacts abroad, asserting that officials in her own country did not care enough to adequately protect Sudanese artefacts and monuments, the majority of which had been smuggled out of Sudan.

In the course of the debate Hawass noted that 70 per cent of the artefacts on display in international museums had left Egypt legally when the country observed the division law that enabled foreign archaeological missions to divide artefacts from their discoveries with Egypt.

Egyptian artefacts were also once legally on sale at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. Law 117 of 1983 prohibited such activities.

Hawass argued that 30 per cent of the artefacts on display at international museums were illegally smuggled out of Egypt and other Arab countries. The most notable were the bust of Queen Nefertiti, now on display in Berlin, and the Rosetta Stone, now on display at the British Museum in London.

“During my tenure as secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, I asked for the return of both artefacts, because the Nefertiti bust travelled to Germany in 1913 illegally. I presented all the evidence that confirmed its illegal smuggling,” Hawass told the Weekly, adding that the same thing applied to the Rosetta Stone which was taken by the French when they invaded Egypt in 1798 and then given to the British.

Hawass told the Oxford audience that Egypt had museums that in some cases were better than those in Europe and the United States, such as the Nubia Museum in Aswan, the Crocodile Museum in Kom Ombo, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat and the Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking the Giza Plateau, which is currently under construction.

On concerns over botched restoration, Hawass described the issue as “an international phenomenon that is not limited to Egypt and the Arab countries.” Botched restoration, he asserted, had happened in museums in Greece and Belgium as well as in Egypt, and in Belgium an important mummy had been completely destroyed.

During the debate, Hawass also criticised the policy of some European and American museums of continuing to buy artefacts illegally smuggled out of their homelands from antiquities dealers. He referenced a case from a few years ago in which the Louvre in Paris had bought four wall reliefs stolen from a tomb in Luxor. Hawass said that he had prohibited the Louvre archaeological mission from excavating in Saqqara until the reliefs were returned to Egypt.

At the end of the debate, Hawass told the Weekly that the Oxford students had voted in favour of repatriation by 165 to 106 votes.

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