Africa’s artefacts belong at home

2010-06-19 11:50

Africa has many gems, but it is its natural wonders and diverse ­cultures that sparkle the most.

The continent has a tangible history spanning civilisations.

Europe and America want to control our history and heritage by appointing themselves custodians of our artefacts and heirlooms.

This sense of entitlement to other ­(usually poor) nations’ cultural objects is known as Elginism.

The 7th Earl of Elgin helped himself on behalf of Britain to the Parthenon Marbles from Greece between 1801 and 1805.

He sparked a trend.

Mussolini took the Ethiopian obelisk in 1937.

Benin, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Mali have also been plundered, along with countries in north, east and central Africa and the spoils displayed in the capitals of the West.

An exhibition ­consisting of 120 “excellent” bronze, ­terracotta and 12th- to 15th-century stone sculptures from Ilé-Ife, Nigeria has never been shown in Africa.

It is Germany that takes the title of ­cultural thug du jour.

The Berlin Egyptian Museum has at least 100 000 Egyptian artefacts.

Germany also has the 3 400-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin.

She was taken there in 1913. Egypt found out in 1923 ­after a German book showing the “great beauty” was published.

Egypt has been trying to get her back ever since.

Germany believes the bust is a “legitimate” acquisition.

The museum’s opinion that moving the bust will damage the treasure is backed by Germany’s ministry of ­culture, which believes it is better for Africans to relinquish ownership of treasures as long as their host countries put them on display for all to see.

Unesco exists to protect and preserve heritage.

But it has a seemingly lenient approach to cultural vandalism, leaving the return of national treasures to the host nations – like Italy belatedly returning the ­Ethiopian obelisk and France’s handover of ­fragments of an ancient tomb mural to Egyptian antiquities authorities.

Meanwhile, Museum Barbier-Mueller says it will return to Tanzania the ancient Makonde mask on display in Geneva.

This act of goodwill is a drop in the ocean of thuggish tendencies justified by nations that are okay with hoarding our heritage.

Though it is true that art ­belongs to ­everyone and that no one owns relics, it is important that our treasures are kept at home, where they have emotional ­sentiment, not in foreign museums, where they represent trophies of the West’s stranglehold on ­Africa. 

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