November 12, 2014
It had been a tough day interviewing victims of Khmer Rouge atrocities, and it was with great relief that I slumped down in a chair in the hotel bar in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and ordered a beer.
Through the window I could see the sun shimmering red as it sank through the torpid, tropical air hanging over the Tonle Sap tributary of the Mekong River. I was the only non-Asian in the bar, which was humming with the chatter of rich locals and visiting businessmen from other parts of the region, who had come to see what spoils there were to be harvested in a country just emerging from decades of war.
I was still savouring the first beer when a tall American, probably in his mid-thirties walked in. He scanned the room, saw that the only seat available was at my table, walked over and asked if he could join me. Some of my best stories have come from chance encounters in bars, so I gestured to the spare chair.
After some time of general chit-chat he said he was an architect from the Mid-West and had come to Cambodia to try to resolve a mystery. A few years before, he had started getting offers from interior designers of carved sandstone heads, statues and even whole friezes from Cambodia’s vast temple complex at Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious site. The American said the looting industry was so sophisticated that he had been shown videos of the temples and was told he could order any of the statues he liked.
He deflected questions about his purpose in coming to Cambodia, but I came away from the conversation with the distinct impression he wanted to make his own contacts with the temple looters and to cut out the middlemen back home.
These were the early years of a rough and tumble restored democracy in Cambodia and the authority of the government didn’t stretch far. It was perfect ground for carpetbaggers and anyone with a lust for a fortune and not many scruples about how to get it. Added to that, remnants of the Khmer Rouge still controlled large areas of the country and travel outside Phnom Penh was often dangerous.
For the government, still enveloped in factious fighting about who ruled, development of the tourist industry was still years ahead and the ravishing of the Angkor Wat World Heritage site was a real problem. The government was forced to assign armed guards to patrol the ruins, which put a bit of a curb on the trade. The development of the tourist industry also lessened the looting, by providing work for local people. But even today the looting continues.
I was reminded of that evening in Phnom Penh by the recent news that the new wife of actor George Clooney, the human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, has been hired by the Greek government to advise on how to force the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles. Alamuddin, who says she wants to be known as Amal Clooney, has been described as “the world’s most photographed barrister.” She joins a list of equally frequently photographed women who have lobbied in vain for return of the marble frieze, which was removed from the Parthenon in Athens in 1817 by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, and later sold by him to the British Museum. Actress Melina Mercouri, singer Nana Mouskouri as well as less photogenic male Greek/Egyptian singer Demis Roussos, have all lent their celebrity to the Greek campaign to have the marbles returned, but so far without success.
The British position has always been that Lord Elgin, whose son James paved the way for Canadian Confederation, saved the marbles for posterity. The Greeks at the time were plundering the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis to grind down the marble to make lime for cement, as well as breaking up statues and stonework to provide rubble for the foundations of their houses. And, says the British argument, Elgin only removed the frieze and shipped it to London after gaining permission for the local authorities, the Turks who were ruling Greece at the time.
After Greece obtained its independence from Turkey in 1829 the Acropolis became the symbol of the revived nation. But it was not the Greeks who decided this. After saying goodbye to the Turks, the Greeks shopped around the royal houses of Europe looking for a king. There were plenty to choose from, but the Greeks lit upon Otto, the 17-year-old son of King Ludwig of Bavaria. Otto was imported to Athens and it was he and his German advisors who decided the Acropolis should embody the soul of the nation. Indeed, the German architect employed by Otto decided that a good deal of purification was needed. He therefore ordered that all post-Hellenic “barbaric” additions to the Acropolis should be removed. These included a Byzantine church, an Orthodox Christian cathedral and a mosque.
The Parthenon, from where Lord Elgin removed the frieze, was built in 447 BC as a temple of the goddess Athena. It was being used in 1687 by the Turks to store gunpowder when it was blown up by Venetian cannon fire. This accounts for the large hole in the middle of the temple.
It might be possible to feel more sympathy for the Greek cause if the aim was to put back the Elgin frieze on the gable end of the Parthenon. But that’s not the intention. The Greeks only want to put the marbles in their own museum in Athens instead of them being in the British Museum in London.
However much Greek propagandists like to describe Elgin as an imperialist vandal, this is clearly a very different situation from the men with chainsaws who chop off the heads of statues at Angkor Wat to sell to American interior designers.
The issue of the Elgin Marbles is, however, one of the most prominent stories in a growing hubbub of demands from all around the world for the return of artefacts gathered during the European colonial age or by long defunct empires, and now on display in museums, mostly in Europe and North America. The emotionalism enveloping this issue is sometimes quite astonishing. It is not uncommon to hear advocates for returning artefacts speaking of these objects as though they are mystical beings and their continued exile from their homelands causing some sort of rift in the space-time continuum. Some governments have given in to these outpourings. In 2011, for example, the German government returned to Turkey a 3,000-year old sphinx excavated by German archaeologists in central Anatolia in the early 20th century. But even the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, does not support cultural chauvinism. The UNESCO mandate says “no culture is a hermetically sealed entity.”
In a recent essay, James Cuno, the president and chief executive of the J. Paul Getty Trust, made the case for what he calls “encyclopedic museums.” Cuno argues that the value of museums like the British Museum or the Louvre in Paris that have collections gathered from all corners of the world is that they offer visitors the entire sweep of human cultural history. They unify humanity because they display graphically how over history all cultures have influenced each other. In contrast, he argues, the concept of returning all alien artefacts to their place of origin is narrow-minded, crudely nationalistic and divisive.
That’s a powerful argument and has great merit.
I remember thinking something similar a few years ago when my wife and I visited Alert Bay on Cormorant Island off the north-east coast of Vancouver Island. It was March, the rain and driving wind were interminable and I was not surprised that we seemed to be the only visitors to the small community. There is only one attraction at Alert Bay and that is the U’mista museum and cultural centre. The museum’s fine long house stands next door to a grim, shuttered and boarded old residential school, which is kept as a crumbling reminder of the failed attempts by Canadian governments to foster the assimilation of native peoples.
In the museum is another side of the same story. It contains a wonderful collection of masks used in potlatch dances and festivals. The potlatch was made illegal in the early 1920s and the local agent of the Department of Indian Affairs confiscated the masks. To Canadian legislators of the time, imbued with a Scottish sense of probity, the potlatch, where communities often gave away their entire wealth to guests, was an example of evil, unsustainable economics. To the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Cormorant Island, however, the potlatch ceremonies, which were held to mark births, deaths, marriages and the accession of a new chief, were and are an essential element of their culture. The people believe making the potlatch illegal was yet another thread in the drive by the government for assimilation. So they never gave up trying to get back the potlatch masks from the museums in Ottawa, Toronto, England, New York and Washington to which they had been distributed.
The U’mista Cultural Society was founded in 1974 and by 2002 they had managed to get all known masks and other potlatch accoutrements returned to Alert Bay and another museum at Cape Mudge.
The U’mista masks are extraordinarily beautiful and powerful. But I remember wondering at the time of our visit whether they should not still be housed in metropolitan museums where the story they tell could be more widely seen and appreciated rather than being tucked away on this far-flung island. But no, they are where they should be. Unlike the Elgin Marbles, the U’mista masks are part of a living culture, and that makes a big difference.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2014
Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has traveled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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