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min Read18 July 2023
Like return claims in other Western countries, the Schøyen Collection case in Norway illustrates how viewpoints from the past still hold sway. With the growing international pressure on Western museums, collectors, and art institutions to return cultural objects looted during colonialism and prevent illegal trade in cultural property, some organizations remain reluctant. The Schøyen Collection holding onto Iraq’s cultural treasures demonstrates how outdated patterns of thought and behavior still persist in some parts of the cultural heritage sector.
Claims for the return of cultural objects have shed light on new narratives linked to national treasures. These accounts not only describe how the artifacts were looted and brought to European museums and collections during the colonial period; they also reveal a persistent reckless and arrogant attitude among Western people towards the cultures and nations who created these cultural treasures. According to some Norwegian and international researchers, the field of culture is still characterized by colonial thinking and practice. This also applies to the debate surrounding the Schøyen Collection, owned by the Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen.
Parts of the extensive Schøyen Collection have been highly disputed over the past two decades because of unclear ownership of several items. Recently, a report from the Museum of Cultural History in Norway concluded that parts of the Schøyen Collection must be returned to Iraq because the objects were taken out of the country illegally. Iraq, since 2019, has been searching for objects from ancient Mesopotamia. The most valuable artifact, a floor plan of the mythical Tower of Babel, is said to be worth several million Norwegian kroner. According to the experts behind the report, there is no documentation that the objects were taken from Iraq legally. Schøyen has constantly denied Iraq’s demand for the return of the artifacts, even though he has been unable to provide clear documentation. Instead, the collector claims that Iraq has not proved that the objects were unlawfully removed from the country. The most startling thing in the report is that experts have established that many of the items in question were acquired through notorious dealers and smugglers.
Self-justification is a key element in current debates about the return of cultural heritage items. A much-used argument is that by bringing other countries’ cultural heritage to the West, Western collectors have preserved the objects for posterity; had they remained in their country of origin, these objects would probably have rotted away. During the past two decades, while the debate surrounding the Schøyen Collection has been ongoing, both the collector and several of the researchers associated with the collection have repeated this well-rehearsed argument, and tried to appear as protectors of “world heritage”. Scholars like Mark Horton, a professor of archaeology, believe the latter argument is rooted in racist attitudes from the past, that local people cannot be trusted to preserve and manage their own cultural heritage. This viewpoint is also common among the general public. In connection with the publication of the Schøyen report, I published a chronicle about the case. On the Facebook page of the magazine Agenda.no, we could read comments like: “Norway should certainly not help Iraq gain control over more of the world heritage. Get your country in order, then we’ll get back to it.” On the other hand, it is interesting how Schøyen expresses enormous pride in having secured the unique cultural treasures: “The Schøyen Collection thus crosses borders and unites cultures, religions and unique materials found nowhere else.”
Most Western museums still refuse to negotiate the return of cultural heritage looted by colonialists or illegally transported by missionaries and collectors. A classic example is the British Museum which to this day refuses to return the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, to Greece, or the Rosetta Stone that was removed by British Imperial forces in 1801 and which Egypt demands back. Schøyen has responded similarly. When the Norwegian National Authority for Investigation and Prosecution of Economic and Environmental Crime (Økokrim) seized the disputed objects in the Schøyen Collection, the collector stated that “there is no basis for Iraq’s demand for return” and demanded the items back after three weeks. After the Schøyen report concluded that the objects were acquired illegally, probably looted from Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s, and must be returned, Schøyen, through his lawyer, not only refused to meet Iraq’s demands, he also attacked the experts behind the report and the Ministry of Culture that initiated it. Schøyen’s lawyer believes that “the current provisions on return cannot be given retroactive effect for items acquired before January 2007”. In other words, even if it can be confirmed that the objects were probably looted or stolen and smuggled out of the country, Schøyen will not return them to their country of origin.
Another key feature of the claim for return debate is the disrespect shown towards local people’s traditions, religions, and cultural assets. The Schøyen report reveals how recklessly some of the objects in the Schøyen Collection have been treated. According to the report, several objects that originate from ancient Mesopotamia and are part of Iraq’s cultural heritage, have been cut down with modern machine tools. Some objects have been inscribed with ink, while others have been destroyed due to poor preservation. The experts conclude that Schøyen and his researchers have been directly involved in the irreparable damage and destruction of Iraq’s cultural and historical objects.
Brick with inscription in Sumerian, Modern cut, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Norway.
Clay brick, Museum of Cultural History,University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway.
Clay cone with Sumerian inscription, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway.
Slab with Akkadian inscription, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway.
The Tower of Babel Stele, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway.
According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the illegal trade in cultural property is one of the world’s largest illegal activities, robbing people of their cultural heritage and history, while at the same time helping to finance terrorism. According to Interpol, 854,742 cultural objects were seized by the police globally in 2020. The latter international criminal police organization believes that the illegal international market for cultural objects is as large as the drug market. The strong criticism directed at parts of the Schøyen Collection over the past twenty years should be understood in light of the increased global awareness of cultural objects with disputed ownership. However, like many Western museums and art institutions, Schøyen and some of the researchers associated with his collection still refuse to accept this reality. There are examples of some art institutions and private collectors returning artifacts – which were either illegally acquired during colonial times or stem from modern looting and smuggling. But as social scientist Pierre Losson has noted, it is difficult for most Western actors within the field of cultural heritage to imagine that museums, experts, and researchers in the South own, manage, interpret, and convey culture and history linked to their cultural objects.
Norwegian archaeologists, through studies of Norwegian museums’ colonial collections, have also confirmed this. They conclude that colonial structures continue to embody various Norwegian collective institutions. Attempts to reform current practices related to exhibitions and research agendas prove to be difficult because the actors maintain ownership and control, even if a restitution agreement has been concluded.
In recent years there has been ever-increasing global pressure on Western museums, collectors, and art institutions to return objects looted during colonialism, but also to prevent and prohibit illegal trade in cultural property and return illegally exported cultural objects. Though most Western actors are reluctant to meet the demands – for example, Schøyen Collection keeping Iraq’s cultural treasures for the time being – the debates and inquiries have exposed how a shameful pattern of thought and behavior from the past still permeates some spheres of the cultural heritage sector.
Mehreen Sheikh is a writer and has a MA degree in History of Religions from The University of Oslo. She has previously published work about research on illicit cultural artifacts, including “The tacit dimension of research” and “Research on illicit cultural artifacts. The case of the Babylonian mathematical cuneiform texts”.
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