by Marc Masurovsky
South Korea hosted the 6th International Conference of Experts on the return of Cultural Property (ICECP), a forum which it helped create in 2011. The three-day conference was held from October 18 to October 20, 2016, at the Hilton Hotel in Gyeongju, a historic city situated at three hours train ride south of Seoul.
The conference host was the Korean Overseas Cultural Heritage Foundation, an affiliate of the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA). It invited specialists and government officials from China, Cambodia, Greece, Turkey, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Several speakers, including Ieng Srong, director of movable heritage and museums section at UNESCO, and Keun Gwan Lee, a law professor and dean of planning and coordination at Seoul National University, called for peaceful solutions to be sought in the resolution of cultural heritage disputes worldwide. These conflicts regularly pit current possessors, i.e., museums in recipient nations, whether State-owned or privately-owned, against aggrieved communities or source countries from which the cultural property was illegally removed either as a result of colonial rule, military conflict, civil strife, or good-old fashioned commercial theft. Their presentations were complex, rich, and raised more questions than they themselves could answer. Thoughtful, they encapsulated the complexity of source nations’ attempts to recover the cultural property lost to predatory practices implemented by uninvited guests, invaders, colonizers, State-sponsored thieves backed by significant force and armies. Decades later, their treasured property remains displayed in the halls of “global” museums which pride themselves on providing to their loving public the result of their illicit purchases and acquisitions, indifferent to the twisted provenances that these objects carry with them.
Yes, negotiations can be fraught and frayed between aggrieved nations and the current possessors, self-described “internationalist” institutions which support a “global” view of displaying cultural objects, regardless of origin, licit or illicit. The strategies that source nations must consider using when attempting to recover their property can have direct consequences on their foreign relations, cultural, commercial, political, with the nations where their objects rest on display.
At what price must these negotiations be conducted, short of declaring war, to recover sacred and cultural objects, prized possessions that are an integral part of their cultural and spiritual heritage? What are the costs of maintaining a durable peace when the current possessors flaunt their acquisition and retention of title to these looted objects which source nations and aggrieved communities have asked to be returned to them out of respect for their heritage and the meaning, symbolism, and (non-monetary) value which they imbue in those objects. These arguments invariably fall on deaf ears, as the current possessors refuse to acknowledge them, so sure they are of their right to maintain title to the stolen property, obtained in “good faith”, mind you.
What does peace really entail when negotiations become protracted, drawn out in order to ensure the return of these looted cultural assets to source nations? Peace subsumes lengthy exchanges, endless mediations provided by international organizations, specially designated committees and individuals to present the arguments that will lead to some kind of resolution. Is it worth waiting for 20 years? And why does it have to take an average of 20 years to recover stolen cultural objects?
This is where it gets interesting. The spokespersons for aggrieved nations reason differently than the individual claimant victims stripped of their property as a result of acts of genocide, like Holocaust victims and their families. Source nations’ attachment to the cultural, spiritual, national significance of their lost objects carries with it a different sense of responsibility which compels varied strategies in how these objects will be recovered.
A brief tour of Korean cultural and sacred sites was enough to make anyone’s blood boil at the immensity and scope of the crimes committed by the Japanese occupying authority against the culture of millions of Korean citizens for close to half a century. It was as heartbreaking to see what no longer is there than to visit ruined Jewish settlements overgrown by forests and bushes, the bare remnants of thriving communities before the Nazis sowed their genocidal wrath against them.
The same reactions would obviously apply to China which suffered unspeakable violations and depredations for fifteen long and endless years at the hands of the Japanese imperial army and its allies. This is history, it happened. And there is no denying it. The scars are still visible. The discussions of this history continue to be awkward and painful, unresolved, an objective history of these tortured events remains a difficult task to accomplish. And it is in this context that the recovery process of the lost cultural and sacred heritage of these aggrieved nations must take place. Korea and China are but two examples of similar crimes perpetrated in other countries around the world. And each time, the fortunate recipients of these crimes—wittingly or unwittingly—are museums and other cultural institutions residing in Western nations. This is not meant to be an anti-Western diatribe but the facts are as they are. Those countries most willing to absorb cultural and sacred material looted from non-Western nations lie mostly to the West of the Oder River and between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, with the exception of Japan and its absorption of Chinese and Korean cultural material.
How does one achieve peace in this context? It is almost impossible to ask victims to be peaceful. But it is worth noting that the aggrieved parties have maintained, in most instances, the high ethical ground against the apparently selfish, self-righteous and self-aggrandizing motives put forth by the current possessors as justification to retain title to their looted property.
In that regard, calls for peace to resolve cultural heritage disputes echo the “just and fair solutions” developed as of the late 1990s by international diplomats and their allies in the museums community to achieve peaceful, non-litigious compromises between Holocaust victims’ heirs and the current possessors of their looted property, without the latter ceding title to the looted assets. The victims are asked to be reasonable while their painful legacy is explicitly acknowledged. The same appears to hold true in the recovery of looted cultural property illegally removed from source nations. Their painful heritage and history is readily acknowledged, empathy evenly distributed, but title must remain with the current possessor. Conflict arises when the source nation rejects that rationale, complaints are filed and some form of mediation ensues which can last for years, if not decades, which will require intervention by policymakers, politicians and experts from many countries and international bodies. Why waste all of this time and energy when the facts underlying the thefts and illegal removals are clear? Even if they are somewhat muddy and blurry, the obsession that current possessors have with retaining title borders on obsession and pathology. What would happen if current possessors ceded title to a long-sought object embodying far more meaning to the claimant than it could ever have to the current possessor? Without a fight, swiftly and efficiently. Would the world fall apart? No, the present and future role of museums as global institutions might be redefined, that's all.
For now, let’s stop here and ponder.
We will return to this discussion in forthcoming dispatches, inspired by the Sixth International Conference of Experts on the Return of Cultural Property (ICECP) which took place in Gyeongju, South Korea, from October 18 to October 20, 2016.