If you pay attention to the info notes at an archeology museum, you’d notice most items were acquired before 1970s. After the UNESCO Convention on Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Export of Cultural Property of 1970, ancient treasures have rarely crossed borders to become part of the permanent collections of world museums.
It seems like a great thing. After all, isn’t it disturbing that the most important museums in the world are venerable institutions founded around the time their countries were significant colonial powers. Their roles, beyond geopolitical conquering, was to rescue ancient treasures of civilizations past from their ancestral lands, where they weren’t appreciated enough, to the metropolis of the current cultural dominant.
The concept of museums was invented in the Enlightenment and developed during the Romanticism. While previously just erudites collected ancient artifacts privately, now collections were public. There was a specific ideology behind museums. They played a role in colonialism’s conscious drive to take on the baton from ancient civilizations. Conquering a land included also the intellectual conquest of its discovery for humankind.
On the other hand, museums also played a role in the consolidation of the nation-state, where the ancient roots of each country fortified the arguments for national liberation and independence.
This created tension. Do treasures have to go to world museum centers, where they would be properly catalogued and studied, or stay in the very land they were discovered, because they were part of the heritage of the local people who had a right to them? Was the scientific argument also an argument for plundering the dignity of dependent nations, just as their natural resources were under threat?
Well, the UNESCO Convention sought to prevent plundering of cultural heritage. But recent cases of disputes over ownership and custody of artifacts serve as reminder of the old tension. Two years ago, Yale agreed to return objects taken from Machu Picchu over a hundred years ago. Egypt recently demanded the return of the famous bust of Nefertiti, taken to Germany in 1912.
It turns out, though, that this bust contention is a perfect example of the role of museums in globalization of cultural heritage. Yes, it was taken to Germany when Egypt was part of the waning Ottoman Empire, with hardly a voice in the decision regarding what would soon become one of its cultural symbols. Apparently, however, this bust was a fake. It was created on commission by Ludwig Borchardt, the archaeologist who was conducting the digs, to test ancient pigments on a statue. But as a Prussian prince admired the work as an original ancient work, he “couldn’t sum up the courage to ridicule” his guest. So the image went on to become one of the most famous examples of Ancient Egypt and its civilization worldwide.
It is ironic and highly significant that the return of that very bust was demanded at the same time the truth behind its origin was revealed. Yes, scholars from colonial powers have taken countless artifacts to universities and museums to study them and to display them, distancing them from the very people among whom they were found. But the attention toward the precious objects also brought respect toward the ancient cultures that produced them. In more recent days, that also brought tourism and cultural interest in those countries and in the people who perhaps inherited the ancient traditions. Nefertiti’s bust was a fake, and it has been in Germany for the last hundred years, but it served as a fascinating symbol of a powerful empire, thus creating a world interest in Egypt during that time.
The UNESCO Convention was an instrument of fairness at a dynamic moment of anti-colonial movement worldwide. But it is not necessarily a clear-cut instrument contributing to awareness of less-known cultures, access to cultural heritage for those people who have the ancestral right to it or even preservation of that heritage. Even if artifacts found in contemporary Peruvian lands go back from Yale to Peru, they probably will stay in the capital city instead of going to the Andes. They will be less accessible to the public and admired just by a fraction of the crowds who can see them now. And how do we know who are the rightful owners of ancient traditions of peoples long disappeared? What if those peoples and their lands don’t conform to today’s national boundaries? Do we separate the collection between Peru and Bolivia? How? Who has the property rights of them, actually?
Except when they have been victims of the illegal digs of treasure-hunters, the UNESCO Convention is not the right way to preserve ancient treasures. It just perpetuates the nationalism of cultural heritage.