Wednesday, October 10, 2012

More Criticism for Turkey's Repatriation Claims

The the Guardian has now joined the chorus of criticism for Turkey's recent over broad repatriation claims.  As the article notes,

The Turkish economy has come down from the vertiginous heights of 2010 and 2011, when annual growth exceeded 8%, but the country remains one of the only economic winners of the past few years – Turkey is ready to play in the big time. It's already at the top table of geopolitics (the G20) and defense (Nato). Its failure to get into the EU now looks like a blessing in disguise. Its retaliation against Syria this past week marks not only its military might, but also US and EU dependence on Turkey in a region changing too fast for western diplomats to handle. And now, naturally, Turkey wants to make their mark in the cultural sphere as well.

"Artifacts have souls and historical memories," according to Ertugrul Gunay, Turkey's pugnacious culture minister. "When they are repatriated to their countries, the balance of nature will be restored."

That nationalistic statement puts Turkey in the vanguard of a troubling tendency, one seen everywhere from Israel to China: that the nation state has an infinite claim to a cultural heritage that may date back thousands of years before the state's foundation. Gunay's appeal to the "balance of nature" is telling. He conceives of the nation state as something organic, an unchanging territorial bond, rather than a relatively recent phenomenon in world history.

It's worth recalling that the Turks, or at least their historical ancestors, were involved in the hottest cultural property dispute of them all. The tussle over the Elgin Marbles, in the British Museum, is usually seen as an Anglo-Greek affair. But of course, it was the Ottoman Empire that took Elgin's money, and it's Ottoman documents that, so say the Brits, prove the legality of Elgin's "purchase" (more like bribe).

But that case only highlights that when it comes to cultural restitution, national boundaries are not very helpful guides. Cultures are not ahistorical and immutable. They change all the time. And they certainly don't line up easily with the borders on our maps, to say nothing of the governments that delimit them.

Despite these sentiments against the repatriation of artifacts that left Turkey before 1970, the article expresses support for the MET's decision to repatriate the so-called Lydian hoard, despite the fact that far fewer individuals have seen the artifacts in a small provincial museum in Turkey than could have seen them at the MET.   The article fails to mention that some of the major pieces from this collection were evidently stolen from the Turkish museum and replaced with fakes.  Perhaps, where the artifacts can be best be curated, preserved and displayed should also be considered.

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