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The price of letting go

The Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza should have been open long after the cornerstone was laid 20 years ago.

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The price of letting go

The Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza should have been open long after the cornerstone was laid 20 years ago. Now it should be this year that the world's largest museum for archeology will finally open. There would definitely be a good spot for the bust of Nefertiti in the huge building within sight of the pyramids.

If Berlin would give them up. Nefertiti is the tourist magnet on Museum Island. In the Neues Museum, the colored limestone bust from around 1350 BC has its own cabinet, where hundreds of thousands of people can look at it, take pictures and share it on social media. Her North African face is an advertising face of German cultural pride, just as the Italian Mona Lisa in the Louvre also smiles for France.

The return of the portrait head was repeatedly demanded. In particular, the Secretary General of the Egyptian Antiquities Administration and interim minister, Zahi Hawass, was downright obsessed. Even after his dismissal in 2011, the archaeologist with the cowboy hat did not rest, most recently he wanted to start a petition to bring him home in the summer of 2022. After her discovery by the Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt, the pharaoh was illegally taken out of the country, i.e. stolen.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) sees itself as the legal owner. She persistently points out that it was a "scientific excavation" in 1912 and that a "division of finds, which was common at the time, was agreed upon in return for the financing". Documents testified "clearly and unequivocally" that "Egypt had no legal claims".

Now Saraya Gomis blew into the horn of Hawass. The State Secretary for Diversity and Anti-Discrimination in the Berlin Senate Department for Justice told the Tagesspiegel that, in her personal opinion, "the Nefertiti bust must be returned". In the interview, she extended her generosity to the Pergamon Altar, which can also be seen on the Museum Island, in the 2nd century BC. but had been erected over today's Turkish city of Bergama.

And it was not illegally broken off by the German archaeologist Carl Humann and taken to Berlin, says SPK President Hermann Parzinger to WELT, but had already been destroyed. Humann "saved" the reliefs built into a castle wall and "executed them legally in coordination with the Ottoman Empire". According to Parzinger, there are no official demands for the return of Nefertiti or the Pergamon Altar, nor can he “imagine that this is an attitude of the Senate”.

Berlin State Secretary Saraya Gomis has spoken out in favor of returning the bust of Nefertiti and the Pergamon Altar. "There were never any demands for return," emphasizes Prof. Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, in the WELT interview.

Source: WORLD

But the demand was a pinprick in an increasingly moral debate. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth had just used the restitution of the foundation's own Benin bronzes, which had been legally acquired at the time but came from a raid by the British colonial power in the then Kingdom of Benin, for a modest appearance in Nigeria. However, the future of the bronzes is uncertain, as is that of many artefacts from Africa, which are to be restituted on the recommendation of a report by art historian Bénédicte Savoy published in 2018.

Provenance research, a long-suppressed duty of museums, has become essential, even if it means property has to be parted with. However, instead of preserving vested rights (legally prescribed for state collections) there is increasingly an esoteric letting go in the name of reparation (and the calming of private sensitivities).

But what justifies letting go of cultural assets? Legal violations or already sluggish feelings when looking at objects from unlawful contexts? In some ethnological museums you can really feel how happy the curators are to hand over objects contaminated by colonialism. And does the political will to abolish discrimination result in a right to restitution for exhibits that could be felt to be out of place?

Diversity can hardly be achieved if cultural assets can only be seen where they come from or, as the zeitgeist calls, where they belong. Museums should resist political opportunism. Especially if they want to be a "third place", they not only have to endure controversies, but initiate them or at least moderate them courageously.

The British Museum, of all things, is likely to set a precedent, the centerpiece of which – the “Elgin Marbles” from the frieze of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis – is claimed by Athens. London has so far refused to return it. They tell “a unique story about the humanity we all have in common”.

Now one reads of “complex conversations” and some of the sculptures could become permanent loans “sooner rather than later”. In return, Greece plans to loan other ancient works of art to Great Britain. Cultural exchange can thus be understood as a contemporary barter transaction.

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