From Berlin’s plan to return Benin statues to trouble at the V&A, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Berlin is negotiating to fully restitute hundreds of the Benin bronzes in a shift of policy that has been welcomed in Nigeria but will put pressure on museums in London and Oxford to also return artefacts looted from Britain’s former west African empire in 1897.
More than 500 historical objects including 440 bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria, are held at the Ethnological Museum in the German capital. Half of the collection was due to go on display this autumn at the Humboldt Forum, a newly opened museum of non-European art in the city centre. However, Hartmut Dorgerloh, the director of the Humboldt Forum, told German media on Monday that the complex could instead exhibit only replicas of the bronzes or leave symbolic empty spaces, and that the sculptures and reliefs could be returned to Nigeria as soon as the autumn. [continue reading]
The Cause of Anti-colonialism and Liberation is One: Fayez Sayegh’s Zionist Colonialism in Palestine
The Syrian-Palestinian academic and diplomat, Fayez Sayegh (1922-1980), a delegate of Kuwait’s Mission to the UN in the mid-1970s, was the principal author of the landmark resolution quoted above. Much to the chagrin of the US, whose representative described it as a “great evil… loosed upon the world”, the resolution was sponsored by the Arab states, and strongly supported by the Soviet Union and a large swathe of the newly independent states of the Global South. Sixteen years later, Israel refused to participate in the Madrid Conference without its abrogation.
With the opposing influence of the Soviet bloc gone, the US then exerted all its influence to ensure the resolution was repealed.1 It remains the only UN General Assembly resolution to meet such a fate. Although short lived, it had served as global recognition of a position that Sayegh and his colleagues advocated for tirelessly over the preceding decades – one which had already been endorsed by a number of non-Western international organisations including the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of African Unity. [continue reading]
Basant Kumar Mohanty
The University Grants Commission has come out with a draft undergraduate history syllabus that some teachers and students said attempted “saffronisation and distortion” by playing up the Vedic period and Hindu religious texts and diminishing the importance of Muslim rule. This is the first time the higher education regulator is attempting to draw up a full-fledged history syllabus instead of issuing general guidelines, academics said. The commission had in the past suggested that individual universities would be allowed only “20 to 30 per cent deviation” from any syllabus it framed.
The commission put up the draft Learning Outcome-based Curriculum Framework on BA (history) on its website on February 15 and sought feedback by February 28. The first paper of history (honours) in Delhi University (DU) now covers pre-historic times and the early historic period. But the first paper in the new syllabus is on the “Idea of Bharat”, and includes topics such as “Eternity of Synonyms Bharat” and religious literature like the Vedas, Vedangas, Upanishads, Smritis and Puranas. [continue reading]
The New Rambler
Talking politics with cabdrivers is a time-honored ritual for visitors to Jerusalem. Yet from time to time the conversation leaps the bounds of cliché to enter more revealing territory. On one such recent occasion, I found myself riding across the city with a Palestinian taxi driver from East Jerusalem. As we drove, he casually inquired about my work, and I answered that I had just written a book about the history of human rights. At the mention of those last two words, his tone abruptly shifted. “There is no such thing as human rights,” he exclaimed, his voice rising in anger, “Not in this world. They simply don’t exist.”
His cynicism was not hard to fathom. As a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, the half of the city annexed by Israel after the 1967, my driver is one of nearly 350,000 people living in Jerusalem under Israeli rule without formal citizenship. Israel considers the land to be sovereign Israeli territory and treats it as a hotbed of national security threats. To the rest of the world, East Jerusalem remains illegally occupied Palestinian territory. On the ground, meanwhile, local Palestinians have long suffered from an array of rights-violations, many related to private property, religious worship, and administrative detention. Despite decades of attention from the international human rights community and scores of UN resolutions, the situation has only worsened in recent years thanks to the Israeli government’s policies, including the construction of a security barrier walling off two Palestinian neighborhoods from the rest of East Jerusalem. [continue reading]
Margot Finn and Haidy Geismar
London Review of Books
In a ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ released in 2002, the directors of the British Museum, the Louvre, the State Museums of Berlin, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and others argued for the value of ‘universal’ museums in Europe and North America as repositories of the world’s heritage.
The declaration’s notion of the universal followed a familiar template. Each of these museums is renowned for its collection of ‘civilisational’ masterpieces. A visitor can start with the ancient worlds of Egypt, Greece and Rome, then follow the path of progress through European history, century by century, up to the present. Art and artefacts from places now variously called the non-European, the non-Western or the Global South are generally excluded from this impressive lineage, and placed instead in the peculiar departmental category of ‘Africa, Oceania and the Americas’. There are local variations – for obvious historical reasons, the British Museum has an Egypt and Sudan department – but the idea of the ‘universal’ museum is structured by a Eurocentric worldview. [continue reading]