Thursday,15 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)
Thursday,15 November, 2018
Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The great Oxford debate

A recent Oxford Union debate was a further step towards the return of Egypt’s stolen cultural artefacts from abroad, writes Zahi Hawass

The bust of queen Nefertiti
The bust of queen Nefertiti

The Oxford Union Society organised a major debate in November between scholars and other intellectuals about the repatriation of artefacts obtained under European colonial rule. The debate was organised by the University of Oxford’s student-run Oxford Union, which is well known for the controversial topics it addresses.

Three speakers represented the panel that spoke against the repatriation of artefacts. The first speaker was James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust in the US, who is a highly respected scholar and whose leadership I admire. The Getty under Cuno’s management has initiated very important projects to preserve the world’s heritage. It is now working on the preservation of the tomb of Tutankhamun, and it has also set up an important site management project to preserve the Valley of the Queens on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor.

The second speaker was Sabine Haag, director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Museum of Ethnology and the Austrian Theatre Museum in Vienna and curator of the Chamber of Art and Treasury. The final speaker was Mia Smith, a fourth year university student of classics and a former librarian of the Oxford Union.

The panel speaking for the repatriation of artefacts consisted of three speakers as well. The first was Wim Pijbes, director of the VoorLinden Museum and former director of the Rijksmuseum in Holland and chairman of the board of Droog Design and board member of the Rembrandt Society. The second speaker was Ed Evans Saint-Johns, a  third year classicist and member of the union’s committee. The author of this article was selected as the third speaker in this panel because of my long career in bringing back over 6,000 stolen artefacts to Egypt.

The president of the Oxford Union gave students the chance to make short speeches from the floor during this debate. The opposition believed that museums should not return these objects at all for many reasons. First, at a UNIDROIT convention held in Italy in 1995, agreement was reached that any object that had left any country before 1970 should not be returned. In addition, if an individual or institution had purchased an artefact after 1970, but was well intentioned, then the country that wanted to repatriate this artefact should pay the same amount that was paid by the individual or institution in question.

However, how can good intentions be proved? Lamia Mekhemar and myself, who represented Egypt at the 1995 convention, had therefore refused to sign the agreement.

The opposing panel also argued that many countries that originally owned such objects do not have museums able to display the artefacts at their best. They argued that artefacts now in European museums can be seen and appreciated by many people, but if the objects were shown in their countries of origin, very few people would be able to view them.

Cuno admitted that collectors should be very careful when it comes to the authenticity of the objects they acquire, but he also said that museums and institutions such as his had a global mission to encourage cultural diversity and encourage the public’s access to the world’s cultural heritage. He was concerned that nationalistic calls for the repatriation of artefacts in order to make good the integrity of their nations of origin were more theatrical than moral and could jeopardise the mission of museums. Mia Smith said that poor restoration work had taken place in the museums of the countries of origin, and she even gave the example of damage that had occurred in the restoration of the mask of Tutankhamun in Egypt.

One student from Sudan stood up and said that no one cared about the monuments in her country and that these were left to decay or were destroyed. She even stated that historical artefacts were safer in European museums. However, Nader Rafaat, a student from Egypt, then gave a good speech saying that artefacts should be returned to their countries of origin.

I stood up and said that though I had prepared a written speech I would not use it, but would speak from the heart instead. I explained my position and said that I was not in favour of the return of all artefacts because 70 per cent of the objects in museums across Europe and America were taken out of Egypt legally because the law permitted this until 1983 and foreign archaeological missions were permitted to take out 50 per cent of what they discovered.

However, if we look at Egyptian museums today, we will see that we have museums that are better than those in Europe. I gave the examples of the Luxor, Alexandria, Islamic, Coptic and Nubia Museums. I also stated that we were building two great museums that would be unparalleled anywhere in the world — the Grand Egyptian Museum and the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation. These new museums will display the objects they contain in new ways and will be the best of their kind in the world.

Poor restoration work can take place in any museum, I said. The British Museum is a good example, as when skilled workers cleaned the 2,500-year-old Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens to make them whiter in appearance they had removed the original carvers’ tool marks. Because the restorers had used copper chisels and wire brushes, they had also left scratch marks on the marbles. The Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels had also moved a portrait of a mummy for x-ray analysis and in doing so had damaged the mummy.

What should be returned are those artefacts that have been stolen from Egypt, which perhaps represent 30 per cent of the total. When I asked for the return of the bust of queen Nefertiti from Berlin, I found evidence that it had been taken out of Egypt illegally, and I wrote requesting its return. Even today, some museums still practice such imperialism. The Louvre Museum in Paris, for example, once bought four stolen reliefs from a tomb on the west bank at Luxor. I asked for their return, and when the Louvre did not return them the Antiquities Council in Egypt halted the Louvre’s mission at Saqqara. The president of France at the time then called the Egyptian president, and we finally got the reliefs back.

Some museums also sell the Egyptian objects in their possession, such as the Northampton Museum in England which sold a statue of Sekhem-ka, and the Toledo Museum of Art in the US which sold part of its Egyptian collection. Museums should put objects on display to educate the public and to conserve them for future generations. They should not sell them.

I delivered this message to the students at the debate. The president of the union then asked those present to vote, and 165 voted in support of what I had said and only 106 voted in support of the opposing panel. I believe that this debate was a further step towards our seeing the return of our stolen artefacts.

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