On May 29, SAFE opened up an informal poll to gauge public opinion on the issue of international cooperation on cultural heritage protection. This was inspired by Egypt’s request for a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to restrict imports of Egyptian archaeological and ethnological material into the United States. The goal was to raise public awareness, a core mission of SAFE.
In fact, the poll did an excellent job—it got people talking. A total of 142 people voted on the poll, and more than twenty-five experts and concerned public took the trouble to put thoughtful comments on the SAFE webpage, the poll website, and LinkedIn group pages.
An overwhelming majority of the voters (89.44%) voted for the first choice—a simple “Yes,” that all nations should help protect each other’s cultural heritage.
It seemed that many people who responded YES saw the international cooperation on protecting cultural heritage as an obvious, basic moral duty. But what intrigued me the most was that some people have voted for the runner-up choice (albeit only with 5.63% support): “No, a nation only deserves assistance if it has a stable government, incorruptible officials and adequate museum facilities in which to preserve the protected materials.”
This was a kind of argument that the stubborn retentionists of the 80s and 90s often used to undermine source countries’ ability to take care of their cultural heritage.
One of the commenters on the SAFE website, Nigel Sadler, perhaps provides an insight into why some people might prefer partial or limited repatriation. First, Sadler reasoned that his understanding of this answer choice was not that objects should never be returned to politically unstable countries, but that they should ultimately be at some point. Then he said,
“there has to be a degree of stability in the government and there must be museums or organisations that can house, safeguard, and even display the items in a secure environment.”
This view suggests that some people might think temporary retentionism is permissible. However, Ian MacLeod, Executive Director at Western Australian Maritime Museum, seems to disagree, for he wrote,
“All nations deserve support regardless of the stability of the country—it is a shared cultural resource we protect.”
Another idea that was echoed in several comments was that cultural heritage belongs to all humans regardless of nationality and cultural affinity. Christ Durham wrote:
“It is the heritage of all humans no matter which country it resides in.”
As a college student who has studied both the retentionism and restitutionism arguments, I personally thought that this idea could go either way. That is, if cultural heritage belongs to all mankind, you can argue that the museums with the highest number of visitors and the best conservation resources should keep the objects—a classic retentionism argument. But you can also make an opposite argument for repatriation: because cultural objects belong to all people, the objects should be placed within their source countries’ cultural context, where they can be best understood for the benefit of the entire world.
This is why I thought that Shruti Das raised an interesting point—she broke away from the dichotomy of retentionism and restitutionism. She wrote that there is the
“need to create a common platform for all the nations, where they can stand for the preservation of cultural heritage irrespective of national bias or discrimination.”
Therefore, she is talking not from the point of view of ownership, but from the point of view of shared efforts and shared knowledge. Sachin Bansal chimed in, writing,
“we should have a knowledge transfer exercises [sic] on the heritage preservations as ‘one world’ concept. People should share insights . . .”
Despite some disagreements, it was apparent that everyone wanted to advocate for more action to establish a worldwide culture of respect for every culture’s heritage. Jack Rollins’s eloquent comment might be a nice point to wrap up this summary. He commented on June 21:
“However tragic these losses are, the fact is that if someone has the power to do something, he also has the power not to do it. If the world sits by watching one minimally civilized group destroy—forever—any part of the world’s culture, how unendurably self-absorbed are we; a shiftless, spoilt, selfish, coarse citizens of the world we must see ourselves as ‘rudely stamp’d.’”
That is, apathy, laziness, and neglect are the worst enemies of safeguarding the heritage of all cultures.
Let SAFE know about your thoughts on another important issue on cultural heritage protection: Should the St. Louis Art Museum voluntarily return the mummy mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer to Egypt? Vote here.