Who's culture is it, anyway?

Fighting the tomb raider

video zahi hawass recover artifactsWhen you visit museums in the principal cities around the world, you see all sorts of artifacts from many cultures and epochs. A sizable portion of these objects were taken out of their original context by legal and not so legal means. Early archaeology involved the legendary tomb raider and their bosses looting national treasures as a result of military expeditions, principally by European powers that today own and display these objects as a matter of imperial pride.

The time has come for the legitimacy of possession of objects pillaged from their original countries to be put into question.

Egypt has made a formal request for the return of five objects it considers essential to its national heritage. The objects in question are the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum in London, the bust of rosetta stoneNefertiti in the Altes Museum in Berlin, the statue of Great Pyramid architect Hemiunnu in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hilesheim, the Dendera Temple Zodiac in the Louvre in Paris, and the bust of Kephren pyramid builder Ankhaf in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The question of the return of stolen and looted art to their original countries is not an easy one. On the one hand, museums in places like London, Paris and New York are regarded as better equipped to preserve these ancient artifacts. They also promote scientific research and contribute greatly to the value of these objects by allowing millions of visitors to see them every year. In fact, economic considerations weigh heavily against the return of an object of immense touristic attraction like the Bust of Nefertiti. Another point to consider is that many of these archaeological treasures belong to extinct civilizations not represented by the people or government presently occupying that location.

Egypt has made strong advances toward the conservation of its national treasures, including state-of-the-art technology and modern structural facilities. The country can raise enormous resources to improve its archaeological site research and restoration efforts by the boost in tourism these highly cherished treasures will assuredly signify to the Egyptian economy. A possible compromise is to declare these cultural artifacts the patrimony of its country of origin, but to keep them on loan at museums in Europe and the United States.

The components of property include possession, beneficial interest and the right to transfer ownership (usus, fructus and abusus as per Roman law).

As of now, objects such as the Rosetta Stone are under full property of the museums that possess them.

Possible solutions might include but are not limited to the following options:
1.) Mutual property where decisions pertaining possession, beneficial interests and right to dispose of an ancient artifact must be agreed upon by both parties.
2.) Present museum keeps the object but shares with the country of origin the beneficial interests produced by museum visits and publishing rights.
3.) A transfer of ownership to the country of origin but keeping the ancient artifact in the present museum as a long term or permanent loan.


Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970

Article 7
The States Parties to this Convention undertake:

(a) To take the necessary measures, consistent with national legislation, to prevent museums and similar institutions within their territories from acquiring cultural property originating in another State Party which has been illegally exported after entry into force of this Convention, in the States concerned. Whenever possible, to inform a State of origin Party to this Convention of an offer of such cultural property illegally removed from that State after the entry into force of this Convention in both States;

(b) (i) to prohibit the import of cultural property stolen from a museum or a religious or secular public monument or similar institution in another State Party to this Convention after the entry into force of this Convention for the States concerned, provided that such property is documented as appertaining to the inventory of that institution;

(ii) at the request of the State Party of origin, to take appropriate steps to recover and return any such cultural property imported after the entry into force of this Convention in both States concerned, provided, however, that the requesting State shall pay just compensation to an innocent purchaser or to a person who has valid title to that property. Requests for recovery and return shall be made through diplomatic offices. The requesting Party shall furnish, at its expense, the documentation and other evidence necessary to establish its claim for recovery and return. The Parties shall impose no customs duties or other charges upon cultural property returned pursuant to this Article. All expenses incident to the return and delivery of the cultural property shall be borne by the requesting Party.

Source: UNESCO

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