Such a system could help in a country like Mali, where thousands of
Djenne-jeno terra cottas were looted during the 1980s. The looted sites were not
documented, and our picture of the culture that made the terra-cottas remains
is fourth from the bottom on the United
Nation's Human Development Index, and Appiah observes that the pressing
national problem is not a lack of ancient art; it's a lack of money. Any cure to
the looting crisis, he indicates, must take that into account.
The Why Files Caught up with Appiah by phone, then edited our conversation
into interview format...
The Why Files:
You grew up in Ghana. How has that affected your view of antiquities?
Kwame Anthony Appiah:
Ghana was home, but I went to England at nine for boarding school. I grew up
with lots of mostly Akan artifacts around the house. My mother bought brass
weights and pots, starting in the 1950s. People were selling their collections
because they didn't use them any more. These brass figures were used to weigh
gold dust, which was the currency. Once gold dust was replaced by coins,
people did not need the weights, so they sold them. As a child, I would go on
the veranda, the traders would open up a cloth, and there they would be. They
were commonplace objects, but I liked them, some were beautiful, very finely
made. My mother acquired a lot of knowledge, and after a while, people
interested in African art would come to look at her collection. When I started
writing a book about globalization, it struck me that the exchange of art is
one of the main ways in which we interact with other cultures. What was
important about art did not have to do with thinking of it as belonging to
Museums and archeologists say cultural property should largely remain in the
country where it was found. What's your take on this?
Ripping off is bad, but because my model case [the Akan brasses] was where
people sold objects because they wanted to, the rip-off argument did not
apply. Somebody put an awful lot of effort into making the Akan brasses, but
the people who inherited them clearly did not think of them as particularly
precious, and wanted to sell them.
UNESCO says antiquities are national patrimony, but you write about
inconsistencies in that view [including the Afghanistan example already
discussed, and an 1874 British expedition in Kumasi, Ghana. The colonists
thought they were collecting, their actions would now be against international
These things were taken in the context of warfare; it was assumed that the law
of war allowed you to take them. The English did not think it was illegal, and
to the Asante, conquering and looting were a basis for collection as well.
[Some of what the British were procuring had been "collected" during
previous Asante conquests -- in modern terms, the Brits were looting loot.] My
Asante ancestors did not think that was illegal, they thought it was perfectly
proper. [Note: Asante is also spelled Ashanti.]
Elisofon National Museum of African Art
Just because something is found in one country, you don't think it is
necessarily "national patrimony"...
National patrimony is exactly the wrong way to see it. In Italy, people are
looting things that were made by the ancient Greeks. They were not made by the
Italian people. Italy has only been a country for 150 years; it's nutty to say
this stuff belongs to the Italian people. [In his article, Appiah put it this
way: "I confess I hear the sound of Etruscans and Greeks turning over in
their dusty graves: patrimony, here equals imperialism plus time."
However, he does agree that Italian law should govern activities on Italian
Doesn't the UNESCO treaty protect local cultures from exploitation, the
destruction of heritage?
No. What is going on is bad, because we humans lose information that would be
important to understand these objects. But the pieties about national heritage
have gotten in the way of productive sharing of these things, and would lead,
if you follow the museum director's view, to thinking that American museums
should contain only native American and American-made art, and all Norwegian
art should be in Norway, and all Nigerian art should be in Nigeria. It leads
to a bunch of artistic ghettos.
What might be a better approach to handling cultural property, antiquities?
You should know where it came out of the ground, that's part of
trying to figure out what the object is. But under the current scheme, if you
reveal where something was found, you are unable to do anything with it. Under
my scheme, you would take the object to the national museum and tell them what
you knew. They could decide to buy it, or let you keep it. Everybody would get
more information about the object -- and the culture -- and the museum system
would know what is there. [Appiah also suggested taxing antiquity exports to
support local acquisitions...]
Nothing in international law prevents a country from establishing
this mechanism, does it?
No. In Ghana, the law requires export licenses for antiquities, which means a
museum person gets to see everything going out of the country, although I may
be only person in Ghana who has ever used it. [It's hard to fight the global
consensus about cultural property.] The other side is so extreme, and they are
in charge. The archeologists and their professional body endorse these strange
views. We have all these laws, rules that are supposed to stop it, so why are
the looters still digging? Because they can, because the objects are rightly
regarded as objects of great interest and value. Some people will still
procure them, especially when the objects are in poor countries and the people
who want them are rich.
Poor people don't care much about this stuff, but they
do care about getting some money, do care about feeding their kids... They may
even know it's illegal, but they almost certainly don't think it's bad, how
are you going to persuade them? Significant cultural works are a contribution
to the culture of the world. ... The rule should protect the object and make
it available to people who will benefit from experiencing it."