Displaying Returned Antiquities

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Or: Who wore it better?

[[UPDATE: Ignore nearly everything I said below. I’ve just spoken to the actual powers behind this here and they are planning on having a whole gallery in the museum devoted to returned cultural objects. The gallery will have a shifting display with freshly returned objects coming in. There will also be a set of books that tell the stories of the return of a number of objects that will be available in multiple languages. I shouldn’t have doubted Egypt on this one. I can’t wait to see it!]]

This week I am in Cairo for the first time, speaking at a, EU-funded regional conference concerning financial crimes and antiquities. My task yesterday was to give an introduction to the structure of antiquities trafficking to financial crimes investigators from North Africa and West Asia and to give a case study that linked the illicit antiquities trade to financial crime. This is a pretty easy task: trafficking in antiquities produces what are obviously the proceeds of crime and that money has to go somewhere. Often it is somewhere shady. I enjoyed giving the talk.

The first day of this meeting was held in Egypt’s new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. Not to be confused with the GEM, which isn’t open yet, this is a much smaller experience, but also a surprise experience for me. It didn’t realise until I was standing before the recognisable remains of Rameses II that *THIS* is where the royal mummies are, not in the GEM. Wow. It was a lot for me.

Another thing I didn’t know, this is where the Gold Coffin of Nedjemankh is displayed. This is the coffin that was seized from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC by the District Attorney’s Office team in 2017 and returned to Egypt in 2019. You know, the Kim Kardashian coffin.

Coincidentally I had included the Koffin Kardashian photo in my presentation following our museum tour, which resulted in my heavily suggesting that everyone should take their own absurd social media photos next to the piece several times in my talk. I’m nothing if not professional folks.

What was striking, however, was how little the museum said about the return. Such an interesting case, and such a “win” for Egypt would seem like something worthy of signage. The public is VERY interested in such things (e.g. you are reading this blog, no?) and on a PR level, it shows an active Egypt getting its cultural treasures back. This is all that was said:

I was speaking to an expert colleague about this, and collectively it was our impression that it is rare to see much interpretation about successful returns in museums. We could think of a few examples of signage and fanfare, but that was the exception not the rule. If the countries of origin are not going to tell these stories, who will? It seems such a missed opportunity.

I don’t wish to criticise my hosts here, I am sure they had a number of concerns to weigh in deciding how to display this coffin. However I’d love a larger conversation on the display of returned cultural objects. As I always say, there’s a PhD in this one for someone…