December 6, 2012

Part II of Dr. Tom Flynn's Interview with Georges Okello Abungu at Forum d'Avignon

TF — If the original acquisition involved intense violence or things were taken as a part of the subjugation of another culture — as was the case with Benin in 1897 — is that not a justification for thinking again about those objects?

GA — The Benin question is very complex. The first thing we need to accept about the museums that own those Benin collections is to come out and say: ‘Yes, we know these things were taken under those circumstances; we know the Benin kingdom, the Benin royal family, they still exist even if they are not as powerful as they were; we know there are contestations, we know there are claims’. How are we going to satisfy this after all the changes that have taken place? Even if you took it back, who are you going to give it to? Are you going to give it back to the kings? Are you going to give it back to the Nigerian government? Who are you going to return it to? These are issues that need to be discussed. They have been through so many hands, how are we going to trace them back? But these questions do not give you immunity against discussion. You cannot even talk about compensation because these things were done in the late nineteenth century. It was an attack, it was looting, it has ended up in some of these museums. If you measure them even in terms of financial economic benefits to the Benin people, how much is it? In some instances it may not apply because, as others argue, even if it were compensation, who would it go back to? Will it go back to the community, for who are the community? Will it go back to the royalty, for who are the royalty? Will it go back to the government and how will it trickle down there? So the issue is that we must engage in this. We cannot run away by claiming that we are a superior status or that we don’t want to talk. If we can start to engage in a discussion we will probably come to an understanding whereby source communities will be saying, ‘Now we understand. This case is so complex, that this heritage is better preserved where it is’. But if we do not engage and discuss with the [source communities], this problem will continue to be there, because there are people also who are making money out of this. There are NGOs who are paying so that they are in business, there are community members for whom it is a business to continue to agitate for return. There are also people who are genuine, who feel they have a genuine case that they need to be able to discuss and agree on. So at the end of the day I think sitting down, talking, negotiating, compromising and agreeing — ‘Ok, time has passed, you have had this. We are transferring it in good will, on a permanent loan. Have them because you have recognised that ideally these should have belonged to us.’ That is very simple because mentally and psychologically it also helps the community. They know you have reached a compromise, that their ownership has been accepted, symbolically, but physically things remain in the custody of the institution that now owns it on behalf of the world. But you see this is what we have never reached because most of the big institutions think that once they accept that, there will be another big legal challenge, you know, ‘OK, now you have accepted it, now we want it back.’ But if it is in good faith and negotiated properly, this issue of the flood of returns will disappear. I don’t think this is something that will last forever, but it is energized by the fact that big institutions refuse to negotiate and refuse to accept responsibility even where they have been wrong. You cannot win without dialogue, especially in terms of heritage because people feel very attached to it at times and emotional about it.

TF — Where do you stand on partage? As an archaeologist, is it not a way of enabling archaeology to continue to take place, for countries to collaborate on unearthing things and sharing them when they’ve found them? Or do you think anything that is dug up in a country should stay in that country?

GA — That is a very difficult question because we have had some very bad experiences. For years I personally have resisted the issue of sharing when it comes to commercial activities and this applies much more to underwater archaeology which has been misused because you have private companies with suspect archaeologists, you know, so-called archaeologists, who go and negotiate with governments who don’t understand the Convention and then you have officials who are corrupted for a few hundred dollars and they give permits and people go into the sea within the territories and get this material. In Africa there is a lot of problems with that. And they say ‘Fifty percent’. But the fifty percent in the first place on what basis? These are cultural materials. Their fifty percent is going to be sold somewhere. And so you are turning archaeological material into a sellable material. The second things is that the people who are digging here are people from outside so when they say fifty percent, how do you know that is really fifty percent? In most cases when you are told fifty percent, it is actually one hundredth of what is found. I was educated at Cambridge and so I grew up in a culture of cooperation; to me cooperation in the archaeological field is very important. But that sharing was always in the sharing of the knowledge, not in the sharing of the material, unless there was a request from an institution for a particular object or set of objects where there were more and you did not need all of them. In that case it should not be a problem. But I think the idea of people ganging together to go the field to exploit it and then share it; to me that has a risk, the risk that it becomes more of an occupation than the pursuit of knowledge and the representation of humanity’s heritage. It becomes like treasure hunting and if we can do away with the treasure hunting out of it then I have no problem with governments or  institutions sharing knowledge and information and sharing material as long as it is clear and documented and everything is clean. But I’m saying there must be clear policies and regulations and arguments as to how this can be done. It must not be based on bureaucratic decisions taken at government levels with people who could be compromised by giving them a hundred dollars and then the fifty percent comes in.

The conclusion of this interview will be posted tomorrow.