15 May 2010

The Cairo Conference, One Month Later

The Conference on International Cooperation in the Restitution and Protection of Cultural Heritage took place on April 7 and 8, 2010 in Cairo. Over 20 countries from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean attended. This meeting, the first of its kind, brought together countries that have been victimized by the antiquities trade to talk about return and restitution. As I observed in January, this meeting represents a new phase in the decolonization of heritage.

New Tang Dynasty Television reported on the conference, including an interview with the Syrian delegation. As the clip from Hawass suggests, one of the main aims of the meeting was to further increase the pressure on European and American museums to stop purchasing illegal antiquities.

Two days, of course, was not enough time for the participants to agree on a common platform (though seven countries added items to a repatriation wish list). As Paul Barford notes, it is unclear exactly what will come of the conference, though it is clearly a historic step. Zahi Hawass would like to make the meetings an annual event, and the next one is tentatively scheduled for Greece next year.

Last week Kwame Opuku published an assessment of the conference at museum-security.org, which is worth reading in its entirety (via SAFE). It is refreshing to read Opuku's in-depth discussion of colonial looting from African nations, which is often neglected in the Western press. I was especially struck by his roadmap toward a permanent organization that would advocate for the return of illicit antiquities:
What the Conference needs to do rapidly, is to establish a Secretariat or some other body that would have, inter alia, the following functions:
  1. Follow up implementation of decisions of the Conference;
  2. Collect materials relevant to restitution, such as UNESCO, UN and ICOM resolutions, decisions and other documents and bring to the attention of States concerned;
  3. Assist members of the Conference in the formulation of restitution demands; This is to avoid giving opportunity to holders of looted artefacts saying there has been no demand for restitution. Incredible as it may sound, we still find officials of the British Museum saying there has been no demand for the return of the Rosetta Stone by Egypt. Germans are also saying there has been no demand by Egypt for the return of the bust of Nefertiti even though a German delegation, including the Director of the Neues Museum, Berlin, went recently to Cairo to present what they consider as proof that the bust of Nefertiti was legally removed from Egypt. No doubt much of this is propaganda for internal consumption. The British Museum also pretends there has been no demand for the return of the Benin Bronzes even though a petition was presented by a member of the Benin Royal in the British House of Parliament as shown by the records of the House;
  4. Maintain an internet site where issues of restitution and relevant materials can be made available to the public;
  5. Publish articles and other materials relevant to the objectives of the Conference;
  6. Publish the complete records of the Conference proceedings. No where can one find a complete record of this first conference, not even at the homepage of Zahi Hawass, a consummate master of the mass media. Moreover, the homepage of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities seems not to have been updated for a long time.
Something along these lines is clearly needed if the conference participants are to achieve their goals.

More coverage of the conference from Looting Matters here, here, and here.

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