Obelisks for all

The decision to return a 1,700-year-old stone from Italy to Ethiopia was motivated by narrow cultural determinism.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Culture

The first section of a 1,700-year-old stone obelisk taken by Italian troops nearly 70 years ago has been sent back to Ethiopia. The obelisk is one of the largest of the some 100 stone monoliths created in the third and fourth centuries as funerary markers for the aristocracy of Axum, the capital city of the ancient Axumite kingdom. The obelisk weighs approximately 180 tonnes and cannot be transported in one piece; it had to be cut up into three sections to get it into the plane.

It took two years to cart the monument from Axum to central Rome during Fascist Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia in the build-up to the Second World War. Italy pledged to return the monument in 1947, 10 years after it was taken, but has been procrastinating about it ever since.

While Italian troops should not have trampled over the historical artefacts of Ethiopia, or indeed invaded the country at all, the arguments made in support of the return of the monument are troubling. The advocates of repatriation express popular but flawed ideas about cultural artefacts and cultures that must be challenged.

Supporters of return argue that ‘source communities’ – those deemed to be descendants of the artefacts’ creators – have a greater and more significant connection to the monument. This view is formulated right at the top of today’s museum profession: the Museums Association code of ethics asserts that ‘”cultural descendants” have a greater connection and ownership to historical artefacts’.

According to this position, someone in Ethiopia in 2005 has a stronger relationship to the monument than someone from another part of the world, simply because of where they were born. This is argued despite the obelisk’s age, and origin in a community that bears little resemblance to present-day Ethiopia.

If we look at culture in this way, it shuts down the possibility that we all can appreciate the obelisk no matter where we are from. It promotes the misguided notion that those who are of the ‘right’ birth and background can relate to an artefact because of their cultural experience, not because the artefact is historically significant, interesting and stunning.

This backward idea is based on a deterministic understanding of culture; the obelisk isn’t open for anybody to research or to appreciate, reacting to its historical importance or intricate beauty. In the end this view reduces all our reactions to the monument as culturally determined, and shuts down appreciation of cultural artefacts that are deemed to be separate and different.

Rather than take objects back to where they were created thousands of years ago, we should send packing the cultural deterministic thinking that dismisses everyone’s appreciation of artefacts.

Tiffany Jenkins is arts and society director of the Institute of Ideas, and is chairing the debate Should we junk collections? on 16 May 2005 at the Wallace Collection, London.

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Topics Culture


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