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‘Not Everything Was Stolen’: British Museum to Defend Collection From Loot Claims

In further news: Pro-refugee obelisk to stay in Kassel, Natural History Museum under fire over Saudi event

Granite sculptures of Sesostris III, British Museum, 2010. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Granite sculptures of Sesostris III, British Museum, 2010. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Granite sculptures of Sesostris III, British Museum, 2010. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The British Museum in London is to host a new series of monthly talks, ‘Collected Histories’, which will explore the origins of artefacts in its collection, in an attempt to counter claims that much of its collection is colonial loot. The museum has been the subject of criticism for holding various pieces whose ownership is contested, including the Parthenon Marbles. British Museum curator Sushma Jansari said that she thought up the ‘Collected Histories’ talks in response to art historian Alice Procter’s ‘Uncomfortable Art Tours’ which seeks to highlight the colonial provenance of London museum collections. ‘We’re trying to reset the balance a little bit,’ Jansari told The Guardian. ‘A lot of our collections are not from a colonial context; not everything here was acquired by Europeans by looting.’ The news received a frosty response from some social media users, with critics expressing disappointment with the institution for opting to defend its collection’s problematic history. Historian Charlotte Riley tweeted: ‘Excited to see the new British Museum slogan, We Didn’t Steal *All* Of It.’

Meanwhile London’s Natural History Museum has been forced to justify hosting an event for the Saudi embassy, as concerns grow over the disappearance of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The museum said that the evening reception was held to mark Saudi Arabia Day, none of its staffers had attended, and that commercial events were an ‘important source of external funding.’ But it has come under fire for agreeing to the event, as claims around the alleged killing of Khashoggi grow, and amidst renewed scrutiny over the kingdom’s bombing campaigns in Yemen, and use of the death penalty. In a statement, the museum clarified: ‘We hold a wide variety of commercial events and it is made clear to any host that doing so is not an endorsement of their product, service or views.’ It refused to back down from the event, despite criticism of its decision from groups including Amnesty International. Writer Owen Jones first broke the news of the event on Twitter, writing: ‘The Saudi dictatorship is massacring thousands in Yemen and is currently accused of killing and murdering a journalist. The NHM must cancel and apologise.’ Don’t miss Rahel Aima writing on the limits to Saudi Arabia’s soft power push.

Nigerian-born American artist Olu Oguibe’s pro-refugee obelisk Monument to Strangers and Refugees (2017) is to remain in Kassel, Germany, after months of speculation about its fate, and mounting pressure from far-right politicians lobbying for its removal. Inscribed with the Bible verse ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’ in four languages, the artwork was installed in the city’s Königsplatz as part of last year’s documenta 14. A crowdfunding campaign was launched in an attempt to keep the work in the city permanently, but the artist and city reached a deadlock after Oguibe refused to relocate the work elsewhere in the city – the piece has also been targeted by vandals and been the subject of far-right criticism, with one AfD politician calling it ‘deformed art’. A week ago, the obelisk was dismantled from its central square location, sparking fears that it had gone for good. But now Oguibe and Kassel have agreed on a new site on the pedestrianized shopping street Treppenstrasse. Read the editorial from the latest issue of frieze on Europe’s new culture wars and the art world’s responsibility.

And after years of heated debate, Jeff Koons’s controversial Bouquet of Tulips sculpture has finally found a home in Paris. The memorial to terror victims, conceived as a gift to the French capital, has been the subject of furious criticism since its inception, with critics pointing to the work’s production and installation costs not being covered in the artist’s ‘gift’ – an open letter emerged earlier this year, signed by various leading art world professionals, which said: ‘We appreciate gifts, but free, unconditional, and without ulterior motives.’ The city has finally announced that the artwork will be placed in the gardens of the Petit Palais, home to the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts. Emanuelle de Noirmont of the artist’s Paris representatives NoirmontArtProduction told Artnet News that Koons had left the city with ‘a great smile on his face.’

The British Army is recruiting for a ‘Monuments Men’ team to save art in war zones. Former Gulf War tank commander Tim Purbrick is seeking out art experts and archaeologists to join the Cultural Property Protection Unit, which has been newly formed in response to the destruction of various ancient sites by Islamic State. ‘The idea will be to identify sites so that we don’t drop bombs on them or park tanks on top of them,’ Purbrick told The Daily Telegraph.

In representation and awards news: New York and Paris-based Galerie Lelong & Co. represents Michelle Stuart, with a solo show planned in New York for February 2019; Independent Curators International have named the Istanbul curator Merve Elveren winner of the 2018 Gerrit Lansing Independent Vision Curatorial Award; at the 57th edition of the Carnegie International, Lynette Yiadom-Boake has been named recipient of the Carnegie Prize, and Postcommodity have scooped the Fine Prize; and Tavares Strachan has been awarded the 2018 Frontier Art Prize.

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