Showing posts with label Universal Museums. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Universal Museums. Show all posts

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.

December 5, 2012

Georges Okello Abungu at Forum d'Avignon (Part I of III)

Georges Abungu, Vice President of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) was among delegates participating at Forum d’Avignon, the international think-tank that convenes in the southern French city every year to discuss urgent issues in the realms of culture, media, digital innovation, and economics. London arts journalist Tom Flynn spoke to Dr Abungu about museums, cultural heritage disputes, underwater archaeology, and the role culture should play in the future development of Africa.
 
TF — Dr Abungu, you were one of the few museum specialists who dared to speak out against the ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ issued by the directors of European and North American Encyclopedic Museums and which continues to be a source of controversy as repatriation requests mount. How do you see the future of the Encyclopedic Museum as it is currently being articulated by leading museum directors?

GA — I’m very much a believer in museums that are relevant to communities, museums that stimulate curiosity but which also address human needs, that involve communities in the interpretation of their collections. The model I am describing is divorced from the old notion of the temple, it is a museum that is much more open to the public and to questioning; it is a place the curator is not the holder of all the answers. Now when you talk about Universal Museums, I have no problem with museum directors branding their museums in whatever way they wish, but I felt that the whole concept of the Universal Museum as it was being revived was not in good faith. One of the intentions of the Declaration seemed to be to try and do away with the discussions on the role of these collections, the positions of these collections, on the ownership of these collections. So the driving force behind that [Declaration] was to do away with questions that were emerging by branding themselves as universal and above questioning. I think the intention was not good, and that’s why I questioned it. And what about the other museums? What are they? I can give some examples of equally big museums that had big collections that were probably matching these Universal ones. Why weren’t they not also universal? Why were we trying to grade ourselves into different pedigrees? I thought it was going to bring divisions between museums where some are going to be more important than others. The word universal in this context struck a very bad kind of intention when I heard it and that was why I was against it. I think the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the Louvre, and all these big museums, they have a real role to play. They are wonders of the world and they have collections that apply to humanity but I think there is no need to try to grade themselves as much more superior than others and to degrade the others as not so important or as universal as them. So that was an important principle — it was questioning the intention and to me it was this hidden agenda that struck me very strongly.

Museums are places of dialogue, places of questions, and some of this dialogue can involve furious discussion, even on origins and acquisition policies and even on thefts, and collections that might have suspect origins and I think this is part of the richness of museums. I’ve seen this taking place. There have been returns, there have been museums that originally had collections that were questioned but some of these collections had been given by the source communities to these museums on the condition that originally they belonged to these communities and that they are now given on permanent loans or that they are given as gifts. To me that is the way forward rather than re-branding and segregating.

TF — Today, the requests by smaller nations and source communities for repatriation of objects are often criticised by some leading museum directors as a form of nationalism, on the grounds that all cultures are essentially hybrid and “mongrel” and that those calling for return are failing to understand the cosmopolitan nature of culture. What is your response to that?

GA — Well, I’ve heard that argument and I’ve written about returns and I’m one person who doesn’t believe in mass returns. I don’t think it makes sense, especially for collections that have been in these museums for hundreds of years. Unless they are human remains. In those cases I really have no short cut. I think if the source communities want them back, they should go back. But I believe that we should not shut doors and claim that these cultural objects are cosmopolitan. They must have origins and if those origins can be traced they must be returned to those places. There are materials, of course, that have origins in Britain, others that have origins in the USA, or in Germany, or in France, and if they can prove that, why not ask for them? I think the same applies to other parts of the world, to Asia, to the Pacific, to Australia, Africa, South America. The most important thing is not to hide behind terminologies...the whole concept of urbanism, metropolitanism, and all these things. The important thing is to sit down and create dialogue with those who are claiming, and not to take cover under the big name of Universality and then say ‘There are no more questions, we cannot discuss’. However, I also believe this issue of calling for mass repatriation of materials from museums taken from one place or another many years ago is also irresponsible. I’ve always been very categorical when it comes to the solutions. I think we need negotiation and ICOM has set up a structure where people can negotiate and agree. I personally believe very much in permanent loaning but I also believe that museums that have these collections, where there are have arguments about them, or claims behind them, they need to sit down and negotiate without dismissing these claims as cosmopolitan, as cross-cultural, and that they cannot be discussed. They need to engage in dialogue so that discussion can prevail at the end of the day. But as I’ve also said, I don’t believe in mass transfer of material from museums back to source communities just because they can show it was theirs... unless it is human remains. With that one it becomes very tricky. And also certain religious paraphernalia that can be proved to be still relevant to those particular communities.

Dr. Flynn is a lecturer at ARCA and author of The Universal Museum

Part two of this article will be published tomorrow.