• June 2nd, 2020

Above all else, the hallowed and venerated voice of cultural heritage

I am caught once more between the competing worlds of reading and current world affairs. Reading leaves me assessing the value of ‘snap judgements.’ Do first impressions work? I have also followed the recent controversy over the sale of the Tutankhamun statue with hungry curiosity. I have a point where both subjects intersect.
   Malcolm Gladwell opens his book, Blink, with the story of “The Statue That Didn’t Look Right.” Gladwell says the book is “about the first two seconds.” Alternatively, call it rapid cognition or judging a book by its cover. 
The Association of Psychological Science says “understanding the ways our minds put together information about other people not only alerts us to how other people judge us at first sight, but also helps us to avoid making bad choices when evaluating them.”
   My mind strays. There is a quiz among students in the country. It’s apparently boring until the lesson comes out. Then you take subsequent questions more seriously. How is the abbreviation CAL pronounced? What about VES? Before you have time to digest, the final blow is unleashed: combine the two and pronounce them. I have heard the word ‘kal-ves.’ The correct answer is simpler; it is CALVES. 
Remember – it’s about the first two seconds. In 1993, the then-Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze opened a Coca-Cola plant in Tbilisi. After taking a sip, he joyfully announced that “it tastes just like Pepsi!” Pepsi, which entered the Russian market in the 1970s, celebrated. 
   My reflections on the pros and cons of snap judgements end with businessman Danny Meyer. At a workshop in Kariba, Zimbabwe, in 1992, he gave participants a 1-minute quiz. As a journalist, I savoured the possibility of a second story. But Meyer also wanted journalists to participate. It was an ambush; ready, steady, go! Twenty-five questions in a minute. I scribbled furiously. When I turned over the page, the test required participants to answer just one question. The failure rate was high! 
Gladwell’s statue is the story of an art dealer named Gianfranco Becchina. “In September 1983…Becchina approached the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. He had in his possession, he said, a marble statue dating from the sixth century BC. 
   It was what is known as a kouros – a sculpture of a nude male youth standing with his left leg forward and his arms at his sides. There are only about two hundred kouroi in existence, and most have been recovered badly damaged or in fragments from grave sites or archaeological digs. But this one was almost perfectly preserved…It stood close to seven feet tall. It was an extraordinary find. Becchina’s asking price was just under $10 million.”
My abbreviated version of the story lacks the full flavour. It is funny as it is instructive. After all, Walter Rodney defined culture “as a total way of life.” The Getty Museum took the statue on loan in order to ascertain its authenticity. For fourteen months, the statue went through “an electron microscope, electron microprobe, mass spectrometry, X-ray diffraction and X-ray fluorescence.” The museum concluded that the statue “wasn’t some contemporary fake.” It bought the kouros. 
   But in a harrowing and mind-blowing twist, Gladwell says the fourteen-month verification process failed. The people who had “a hunch, an instinctive sense that something was amiss” were correct. 
“The kouros, however, had a problem…it was fresh. And ‘fresh’ was not the right reaction to have to a two-thousand-year-old statue.” The Getty then submitted the statue for expert Greek analysis in Athens. “This time the chorus of dismay was even louder.”
   Further investigations revealed that Becchina’s papers were forged. “The letters the Getty’s lawyers used to carefully trace the kouros…turned out to be fakes. One of the letters dated 1952 had a postal code on it that didn’t exist until twenty years later. Another letter dated 1955 referred to a bank account that wasn’t opened until 1963.”
I now draw closer to current affairs: in December 2018, the Getty Museum was ordered to return an ancient Greek statue by the sculptor Lyssipos to Italy. The museum had paid $4 million for it in 1977. The Getty is appealing against the court judgement.
   The museum bought the statue from Heinz Herzer who is a Munich-based art dealer. Interestingly, news reports show that Herzer supplied the bust of the pharaoh Tutankhamun which was controversially sold for $6 million by Christie’s of London on 4 July.
   Gladwell writes about the “hunch, an instinctive sense that something was amiss.” A similar feeling came out of Egypt. The country’s minister of antiquities Khaled El-Enany was sad that Christie’s had sold “human heritage that should be on public display in its country of origin.”
Acclaimed Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass – whose passionate work I experienced while covering a presidential visit to the Giza Pyramid complex in 1991 – raised further suspicion over the sale of the Tutankhamun statue. He said; “we think it left Egypt after 1970 because in that time other artefacts were stolen from Karnak Temple.” UNESCO adopted a convention on combating the illicit import and export and transfer of ownership of cultural property in 1970.
   In addition to the 3,000-year-old statue of Tutankhamun, thirty-two other Egyptian artefacts were sold. Protestors stood outside Christie’s with placards which read “Egyptian history is not for sale.” The Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities has vowed to monitor the movement of its prized historical relics. 
The Guardian newspaper notes that, “Egypt has long demanded the return of artefacts taken by archaeologists and imperial adventurers, including the Rosetta Stone kept in the British Museum – campaigns paralleled by Greece’s demands for the Pantheon sculptures, Nigeria’s for the Benin Bronzes and Ethiopia’s for the Magdala treasures.” At present, there are eighteen British archaeological missions in Egypt. Norwegian politician Linda Hofstad Helleland says “taking responsibility for our cultural heritage is vital if we are to preserve our shared patrimony and if future generations are to understand their past.”
   Stories about the sacred value of cultural artefacts echo throughout the world. In February this year, Namibian president Hage Geingob led the county in welcoming the return of national hero Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi’s Bible and whip from Germany. Geingob reflected thus: “The genocide of 1904–1908 was an event which has left a deep scar on the Namibian people.”
Sixteen years earlier, in May 2003, Zimbabwe welcomed back a soapstone fragment of the mythical Zimbabwe bird from Germany. Described as evidence of “ruthless colonial plunder,” the bird had finally found peace after a troubled sojourn in a German museum.
   Germany has also returned skulls from the mass killings of 1904-1908 to Namibia. On her part, Zimbabwe announced in 2015 that she would send experts to the United Kingdom to find the skulls of freedom fighters who were decapitated by the settler colonialists. 
After the Tutankhamun sale, Christie’s released a statement which conceded that “historic objects raise complex decisions about the past.” This is an emotive subject. It transcends the possibly narrow confines of scholarship. In 2008, Italy’s Reggio Emilia Cathedral was renovated. Workers meticulously recovered bones “making up two nearly complete skeletons.” That is how consuming culture and heritage are.     

Staff Reporter
2019-07-19 09:59:17 | 10 months ago

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