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

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 in context but out of it" (Stolen objects do not belong to our museums, 24 November). Malraux himself seems to have complicated in his attitude to "stolen objects", as well as 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 the Eastern antiquities and "to quote the Apollo article again" a protector of world heritage from neglectful native populations ".

All in all, Malraux seems to be a curious ally for Sir Simon to have his campaign against museums – as "mausoleums", concerned solely with "acquisition, ownership and status" – given that this minister of culture 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 must be considered on its merits, as must others like Parthenon marbles. My first choice for return would be the Sphinx's beard, which does not make sense in the British Museum, but would make a lot more on the Sphinx's chin. But Simon Jenkins does not use the idea of ​​nationalism (he does not 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 was especially praised by 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 himself 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 stay here."

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

The last point has been born out in my visits to museums in Africa over the past 40 years. Outside Egypt, Kenya and South Africa, some tourists and school groups go to museums. They are gloomy places, built by 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 clear solution is to be replicated or rotated around the world's museums.
Richard Dowden

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