The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman consistently writes against repatriation; he is back at it with “When Ancient Artifacts Become Political Pawns,” published today, focusing on recent Egyptian repatriation claims. In particular, he suggests that the claims by Egypt’s chief archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, are a kind of political payback for election loss of the Egyptian culture minister, Farouk Hosny, as Unesco’s new director general. (Note: This last sentence was corrected, thanks to a posted comment.)

Kimmelman argues that all of Egypt’s claims are just moves in an global chess game, played by a handful of high-powered cultural brokers who are motivated only by their own narrow political and nationalist interests. He writes, “The country’s only potent weapon left may be antiquities. It plays to popular sentiment and national pride. While the art world likes to ponder the merits or misfortunes of seeing art from one place in another place or the inequities that have resulted from centuries of imperialist collecting, the real issue behind the Egyptian claims, as with so many others, is nationalism.” This article, in other words, is the newspaper equivalent of the art world’s Who Owns Antiquity?

It’s a fascinating story, and an important one, but Kimmelman’s editorializing which characterizes these claims as just another skirmish in the “culture wars”–where the “repatriation card” is a key tactic–is willfully simplistic and probably quite wrong. Hopefully, museum anthropologists can pick up where Kimmelman leaves off, creating more nuanced and anthropologically-grounded analyses that reveal the complex role heritage plays on the global stage.

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