A possible solution to the Parthenon Marbles dispute between the British Museum and the Greek government has come from a most unlikely source — a gathering in Greenland. Meeting in the depths of the Arctic winter, museum professionals and representatives of indigenous peoples recently assembled in the tiny capital of Nuuk (formerly Godthab) to discuss global strategies on repatriation of cultural heritage.
The Greeks had originally decided to send Minister of Culture Georgios Voulgarakis, but when his officials examined the flight schedule, they realised that he would have to leave Athens for a whole week, missing too much government business. Instead, Greece was represented by Nikoletta Valakou, director of the Athens Ephorate in the Ministry of Culture. In her address, she spoke of the importance of the New Parthenon Museum which is scheduled to open later this year.
Immediately afterwards, Jonathan King took the floor. As the British Museum’s keeper of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, he gave an ethnographer’s view of restitution. He argued that repatriation represents a focus on the past, and "cultural diplomacy" is the way forward.
Both sides politely and eloquently put forward their positions, and a resolution of the century-old dispute seemed just as far away as ever. But following the Nuuk meeting, the director of the Greenland National Museum and Archives, Daniel Thorleifsen, told The Art Newspaper that he hoped the "Greenland example" would be an encouragement to the British and the Greeks.
In an unusual example of cooperative repatriation, Denmark has returned museum material to its former colony, which achieved home rule in 1979. Greenland remains part of Denmark, but is internally self-governing. Its population is only 56,000, living in an area almost ten times the size of the UK. Nuuk is the smallest capital in the northern hemisphere with 13,500 people.
The repatriation was organised at the level of museum professionals, and was based on the principle that both Greenland and Denmark should hold “a representative collection” of objects from Greenland. The first items restituted in 1982 were a collection of 200 watercolours by Aron of Kangeq (1822-69), an Inuit seal hunter and the country’s most important artist.
By 2001, 35,000 objects (mostly archaeological) had been returned from to Greenland from Denmark’s National Museum, leaving around 65,000 pieces in Copenhagen. The Nuuk museum, established in 1966, now receives around 7,000 Greenlandic visitors and 15,000 tourists a year.
When the conference closed on 15 February, it was hoped to issue a Nuuk Declaration, but the wide range of participants (from organisations of Maori to Sami people) meant that immediate agreement could not be reached. Instead a set of general principles were accepted, which included a call on museums to divide material “in equitable ways”. Among the participants was Professor Jack Lohman, director of the Museum of London, who left Greenland having heard a wide range of views, but still feeling that there are “a lot of issues to be addressed” on repatriation.
I'm not sure how this can be applied to the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles dispute ... do they think that the BM and Greece could actually agree to 'split' the collection? With Greece declaring unilaterally, it seems, that some objects 'cannot be moved', can the BM trust Greece to return anything which came from an agreement? I won't even mention the difference in tourist numbers ... apples and oranges.