Should museum artefacts be returned to the countries they came from? | Letters

Prof Nick Havely is curious about Simon Jenkins’ choice of museum ally, while Oliver Miles believes cases should be judged on their merits. But Richard Dowden questions whether countries really want their objects back

Simon Jenkins cites “French art historian André Malraux” as an authority when arguing that “a museum … has always been an artificial concept, a wrenching of objects not into context but out of it” (Stolen objects don’t belong in our museums, 24 November). Malraux himself seems to have been complicated in his attitude to “stolen objects”, as also in his political and intellectual life.

An episode that gained him early fame was an attempt to steal and sell four sculptures from the Banteay Srei temple at Angkor, Cambodia. On a visit there in 1923, he and a friend “pried them loose … with a plan to sell the stolen goods on the art markets in London or New York” (The Many Lives of André Malraux, Apollo, 26 August 2017). When he was, unsurprisingly, arrested and imprisoned, an outcry by French intellectuals secured the suspension of his sentence, and he would emerge as an avid collector of eastern antiquities and (to quote the Apollo article again) “a protector of world heritage from neglectful native populations”.

All in all, Malraux seems a curious ally for Sir Simon to have co-opted in his campaign against museums – as “mausoleums”, concerned solely with “acquisition, ownership and status” – given that this future minister of culture (under Charles de Gaulle’s presidency) seems not to have been averse to the “wrenching of objects” out of their context.
Prof Nick Havely

• The case for returning the Easter Island statue should be considered on its merits, as should others such as the Parthenon marbles. My first choice for return would be the Sphinx’s beard, which doesn’t make sense in the British Museum, but would make a lot more on the Sphinx’s chin. But Simon Jenkins does not strengthen the case by linking it to the rise of nationalism (he doesn’t use the word, hiding it behind expressions like “the looming politics of national self-confidence”).

The counter-argument for internationalism was best made by the great Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis. By no means an Anglophile, he visited England just before the second world war as a guest of the British Council. He spent a lot of time in the British Museum, where he particularly admired the Assyrian sculptures, powerful but barbaric, and the Persian miniatures, exquisite but epicene. Also, of course, the Elgin marbles, exemplifying the Greek ideal of nothing in excess. “If time had a home,” he wrote, “and if it was itself a connoisseur prince, to love and to remember its beautiful past moments, for sure the British Museum would be that home.”
Oliver Miles
(British ambassador to Greece, 1993-96), Oxford

• Simon Jenkins argues that President Emmanuel Macron is right to demand the historic objects taken from Africa, Asia and South America be returned. In principle, this seems an honest restitution. And then what? Is he sure these countries are demanding their return? Why did it come from a French president not an African or Asian one?

On a visit to London a few years ago, I took the Catholic archbishop of Sokoto in Nigeria, Matthew Kukah, to the Africa galleries of the British Museum. As we looked at the Benin bronzes and the ivory masques I asked him if they should be returned to Nigeria. He said: “I think it would be best if they remained here.”

His argument was that if you sent them back to a museum in Nigeria some people would demand they were returned to the shrines where they once were, or they would be stolen. Besides, he said, few people in Nigeria will be interested.

The last point has been borne out in my visits to museums in Africa over the past 40 years. Outside Egypt, Kenya and South Africa, few tourists and school groups go to museums. They are gloomy places, built hurriedly by the departing imperial powers in the 1960s as part of an independence package. Today, governments barely support them. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni wanted to knock down the museum in Kampala. I get a sense that many Africans of his generation are ashamed of their past.

The obvious solution is for the objects to be replicated or rotated throughout the world’s museums.
Richard Dowden

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