The Lady of Elche causes a political storm

In the summer of 2017 an ant set off the alarms at the National Archaeological Museum. No one gave a convincing answer to how the insect had gotten into the airtight display case that protects and preserves the icon of the institution, in which almost 100 million euros have been invested in its reform. The ant that put in check the protection measures of the jewel that is not lent or moved from the room can remain an anecdote if the Minister of Culture and Sports, Miquel Iceta, fulfills his commitment to the mayor of Elche, the socialist Carlos González. The latter demanded the return of the Iberian figure last July to celebrate at the end of 2022 the 125th anniversary of the discovery of the figure, which occurred on August 4, 1897, in La Alcudia. The Lady’s displacement is not the only one that Iceta’s team is considering, although the Ministry denies that there is a strategic plan or a decision made.

The Government affirms that the Lady of Elche stays in Madrid because it is "common historical heritage" from Spain

Hemeroteca: The Government affirms that the Lady of Elche stays in Madrid because it is “common historical patrimony”

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The mayor and the minister were summoned to address the “temporary” return of the Lady and to do so within a large exhibition of Iberian art. All the parties in the City Council have supported the initiative. The condition for the delivery of the precious piece is to adapt the Museum of Archeology and History of Elche (MAHE) and that in the long term the transfer is permanent. The Lady was temporarily exhibited for seven months at the MAHE, on the occasion of its inauguration in 2006. The new plan of the consistory will culminate with an agreement with the University of Alicante for the delivery of pieces from the La Alcudia site, which complement the Iberian bust . The movement aims to reach one million tourists for the MAHE, which had 36,821 visitors in 2019 and 41,000 in 2018, as reported by the center. In 2020, as a result of the confinement, they fell to 16,773 people.

Last April, the plenary session of the Valencià de Cultura Council unanimously approved the claim for the return of the Lady of Elche, with the justification that the MAHE has “model facilities” that could preserve the bust “with a full guarantee”. However, for now the reality seems different: this museum shares with three others (Museo de la Festa, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo and Museo del Palmeral) a budget of 172,000 euros per year to be distributed among the four centers. They also share the staff: a restorer, a curator, an ordinance, an administrative and a director (Miguel Pérez Blasco) for the four museums. From the MAHE they inform this newspaper that the City Council has approved a game of just over 400,000 euros to reform rooms 10 and 11 where the piece would go.

Political relocation

The sculpture from the 4th century BC most representative of Iberian art and one of the icons of Spanish heritage has blown up the team of the current Ministry of Culture and Sports. Miquel Iceta has opened a debate on the decentralization of the historical and artistic heritage that has started with an explosion: the resignation of the greatest expert in the Ministry. As announced this Tuesday, Dolores Jiménez-Blanco has left her position as General Director of Fine Arts after a strong discussion with the minister and his number two, Víctor Francos. Jiménez-Blanco has refused to sign the transfer of the Lady of Elche to her place of origin. The art historian, considered by the sector as one of the best techniques in heritage, had on the table technical reports that advised against the movement due to the delicate state of conservation of the iconic piece of the National Archaeological Museum, where it remains since 1941.

For your part, Compromís, claim since 2016 the return from the iconic piece of Iberian art to “the land where it was found”, reaffirming his request when the Senate Committee on Culture voted in favor of the transfer to Granada of another piece of Iberian art, the Lady of Baza.

From the PSOE they convey concern about the “domino effect” that the return of an icon such as the Lady of Elche can cause. In fact, the return of this piece is not the only claim, there are also the spectacular Costitx bulls, three Talayotic heads (5th-3rd centuries BC) that happen to be the first great work of art in Mallorca. The Balearic government (PSOE) raised the claim at the beginning of the legislature and is waiting for a response from Culture.

“The day after the return agreement will be very worrying, because we will have thousands of petitions claiming the same thing. We need to know what plan the minister has to anticipate this avalanche, to know where the limits are,” explain party sources in the Congress of Deputies. . They think of several cases that could be affected, such as the claim of the PNV of the Guernica by Picasso or the wall paintings of Sant Climent de Taüll, in the Archaeological Museum of Catalonia (MAC). The socialist group does not deny the debate on decentralization and restitution, but prioritizes the safety of the pieces upon leaving them. “Ensuring the integrity of these has a high economic cost that must be seen if the autonomous communities that claim them are willing to pay,” they add.

A strategic plan

“We cannot dismantle one museum to set up another,” explains Teresa Reyes, president of ICOM in Spain, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary. “You have to analyze each case, of course. You have to develop a strategy not to improvise, very well debated. The problem is the politicization of the custody of assets. It is very complicated and you have to talk at a technical level,” he adds. From ICOMOS Jordi Tresserras indicates that if the collection of the National Archaeological Museum is to be dismantled and we move towards a new museum model, “we need a well-defined strategy, within a legal framework, but not a political improvisation”.

In the PP they already anticipate that they are drafting some questions for the minister to respond in parliamentary headquarters to the unexpected movement: “It has surprised us. We do not understand what these types of movements are pursuing. I do not know that from any autonomous community governed by the PP has demanded a refund, “explains the deputy and spokesperson for popular culture, Sol Cruz. In fact there are other high-profile cases that could be activated such as the Zamora boat (also in the MAN), sold 22 years after the declaration of the Cathedral of Zamora as a monument to protect. Also the wall paintings of San Baudelio de Berlanga (Soria), which now rest in the Prado Museum, although they were acquired after its declaration in 1917.

Alberto Velasco, former curator of the Lérida Museum, is in favor of depending on which restitutions. He says that each case must be studied because not all places of origin are prepared to recover these pieces. “It is very complex because we are setting precedents that can be disastrous for museums. The Lady of Elche is fine where she is, although there are thousands of cases and all situations are different. We must analyze case by case. The case of the Lady of Elche has nothing to do with the controversy of Sijena nor with the Greek colonial looting of the Parthenon “, adds Velasco, professor of art history at the University of Lleida. He warns that removing any piece from its conservation place with technical reports against displacement would be” a lack of respect for the heritage already its conservatives. ”

While Iceta raises the restitution of assets to the autonomous communities, European and North American museums debate about the decolonization of their collections and the return of works of art that were stolen from their countries of origin during colonial rule and those looted in the contentions. Last year an advisory committee to the Dutch government recommended the return of all appropriate items without consent. Expert Claire Moses wrote in that non-binding report that the Netherlands must return looted art to its former colonies. In France a similar committee made a similar recommendation in 2018 and an object has since been returned. With these initiatives, the injustices of colonialism and unconditional devolution are recognized.


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