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An 1880 photograph showing the Alexandrian Obelisk (later to be known as Cleopatra’s Needle) being made ready for shipment from Egypt to the United States. The Obelisk was formally erected in New York’s Central Park in 1881

Cleopatra’s Needle is the popular name for each of three Ancient Egyptian obelisks re-erected in London, Paris, and New York City during the nineteenth century. The obelisks in London and New York are a pair, and the one in Paris is also part of a pair originally from a different site in Luxor, where its twin remains. Although all three needles are genuine Ancient Egyptian obelisks, their shared nickname is a misnomer, as they have no connection with Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and were already over a thousand years old in her lifetime. The London and New York “needles” were originally made during the reign of 18th Dynasty Thutmose III. The Paris “needle” dates to the reign of 19th Dynasty Ramesses II and was the first to be moved and re-erected as well as the first to acquire the nickname, “L’aiguille de Cléopâtre” in French.

The [Central Park] stone had stood in the clear dry Egyptian desert air for nearly 3000 years and had undergone little weathering. In a little more than a century in the climate of New York City, pollution and acid rain have heavily pitted its surfaces. In 2010, Dr. Zahi Hawass, sent an open letter to the president of the Central Park Conservancy and the Mayor of New York City insisting on improved conservation efforts. If they are not able to properly care for the obelisk, he has threatened to “take the necessary steps to bring this precious artefact home and save it from ruin.”

Source the Wikimedia entry on Cleopatra’s Needle.


The headless sculpture, in the British Museum, of the river god Ilissos from the Parthenon frieze

In the November/December issue of Cultural Affairs, James Cuno, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, writes persuadingly against repatriating museum artefacts –

In December 2007, the Italian government opened an exhibition in Rome of 69 artifacts that four major U.S. museums had agreed to return to Italy on the grounds that they had been illegally excavated and exported from the country. Leading nearly 200 journalists through the exhibition, Francesco Rutelli, Italy’s then cultural minister, proclaimed, “The odyssey of these objects, which started with their brutal removal from the bowels of the earth, didn’t end on the shelf of some American museum. With nostalgia, they have returned. These beautiful pieces have reconquered their souls.” Rutelli was not just anthropomorphizing ancient artifacts by giving them souls. By insisting that they were the property of Italy and important to its national identity, he was also giving them citizenship.

Rutelli has hardly been the only government official to insist that artifacts belong to the places from which they originally came. In 2011, the German government agreed to return to Turkey a 3,000-year-old sphinx that German archaeologists had excavated from central Anatolia in the early twentieth century. Afterward, the Turkish minister of culture, Ertugrul Gunay, declared that “each and every antiquity in any part of the world should eventually go back to its homeland.”

Such claims on the national identity of antiquities are at the root of many states’ cultural property laws, which in the last few decades have been used by governments to reclaim objects from museums and other collections abroad. Despite UNESCO’s declaration that “no culture is a hermetically sealed entity,” governments are increasingly making claims of ownership of cultural property on the basis of self-proclaimed and fixed state-based identities. Many use ancient cultural objects to affirm continuity with a glorious and powerful past as a way of burnishing their modern political image — Egypt with the Pharaonic era, Iran with ancient Persia, Italy with the Roman Empire. These arguments amount to protectionist claims on culture. Rather than acknowledge that culture is in a state of constant flux, modern governments present it as standing still, in order to use cultural objects to promote their own states’ national identities.

In the battle over cultural heritage, repatriation claims based strictly on national origin are more than just denials of cultural exchange: they are also arguments against the promise of encyclopedic museums — a category that includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York; the British Museum, in London; and the Louvre, in Paris. By presenting the artifacts of one time and one culture next to those of other times and cultures, encyclopedic museums encourage curiosity about the world and its many peoples. They also promote a cosmopolitan worldview, as opposed to a nationalist concept of cultural identity. In an era of globalization that is nonetheless marked by resurgent nationalism and sectarianism, antiquities and their history should not be used to stoke such narrow identities. Instead, they should express the guiding principles of the world’s great museums: pluralism, diversity, and the idea that culture shouldn’t stop at borders — and nor, for that matter, should the cosmopolitan ideals represented by encyclopedic museums. Rather than acquiesce to frivolous, if stubborn, calls for repatriation, often accompanied by threats of cultural embargoes, encyclopedic museums should encourage the development of mutually beneficial relationships with museums everywhere in the world that share their cosmopolitan vision. Cultural property should be recognized for what it is: the legacy of humankind and not of the modern nation-state, subject to the political agenda of its current ruling elite.

The rest of James Cuno’s article in Cultural Affairs, Culture War: The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts, is here.


Video credit Al Jazeera English

Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey reports this month that –

An auction house in the US state of New York has agreed to return an ancient statue that was looted from a remote Cambodian temple in the 1970’s. The statue is among seven missing statues that have been traced to the United States. Cambodia says it wants all of the statues back to be displayed together at the country’s national museum.

Source Al Jazeera English.


The Duveen Gallery at the British Museum. Present home to the Elgin Marbles
Source Wikimedia Commons. Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 3 December 2005. Website
Lara Prendergast in The Spectator last Tuesday couldn’t have put it better when she says, “George Clooney may be many things, but an art historian he is not.” That he isn’t, Lara, but he still seems to think himself qualified to voice an opinion on the repatriation of the Elgin (or Eljin as he pronounces it) Marbles to the Pantheon… Pantheon? Did you mean the Parthenon George and… oh dear… the actual Parthenon and not the Acropolis Museum?
Ms Prendergast goes on to say –
Clooney then waded in with a measly dose of cultural finesse:
‘Even in England, the polling is in favour of returning the marbles to the Pantheon [sic]. The Vatican returned parts of it, the Getty returned parts of it [the Vatican gave a section of the Parthenon frieze to the Acropolis museum in Athens on loan; the J Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles repatriated looted treasures last year]. There are certain pieces you look at and think, “That would perhaps be the right thing to do”.’
Which ‘certain pieces’ do you look at George? Do you even know the difference between the Parthenon and the Pantheon? The debate about the Elgin Marbles may be hackneyed, but it is still an intellectual one. And it is, in the grand scheme of things, more important than the promotion of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Hear, hear Lara, we couldn’t have put it better, but we’d also like to ask George whether or not he’s actually seen the Marbles at the British Museum and whether or not he’s aware of the restrictions in place on the Museum when it comes to disposing of any object in its collection – whether through sale, exchange, repatriation or disposal in some other way. It can’t be done – at least not without changing the law. That’s not to say there isn’t a case to be made for the Marbles repatriation (it would certainly free up much needed gallery space for, dare we say it, more interesting exhibitions) and we’ve presented both sides of the repatriation argument on these pages before (type Elgin Marbles in the search box above for more).

When all’s said and done however the debate is, as Lara Prendergast writes, “…an intellectual one. And it is, in the grand scheme of things, more important than the promotion of a Hollywood blockbuster.”
Full Independent article here.


June 2022
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