January 28, 2008

Are the Lewis Chessmen becoming political pawns

Posted at 11:32 am in British Museum, Similar cases

Chess pieces seem to lend themselves to even more analogies for copywriters than marbles do… This particular one though seems fairly apt & could equally apply to many other restitution cases once they get seized by governments as a way of driving forward their own political agendas. On the other hand though, is the British Minister of State for Culture, Media & Sport the best one to take an unbiased opinion on this?

The Scotsman

Published Date: 27 January 2008
Source: Scotland On Sunday
Location: Scotland
Lewis Chessmen are pawns in Salmond’s political game

CHESS is sometimes a game of deception and cunning. Bobby Fischer, who died this month, famously won the “game of the century” in 1956 by sacrificing a Queen in order to make the space to inflict huge damage on his opponent and win outright. Things are seldom what they seem in chess.

And that’s just how it is with the call by Alex Salmond for the Lewis Chessmen to be seized from the British Museum in London and moved to a permanent collection in Scotland. Sure, it’s tempting, isn’t it? Instinctively there’s something cosy about the idea of bringing things home. I suspect it’s as true overseas as it is here. It’s not hard to imagine someone overseas wanting the glorious mummies and antiquities in the National Museum in Edinburgh sent back to Egypt, or the Burrell’s Impressionist paintings repatriated to France. And maybe we could redress the balance still further. How about slapping in a claim for the pink granite of the Albert Memorial in London to be stripped out and ‘sent home’ to Mull?

It’s a lot of nonsense, isn’t it? Mr Salmond’s clarion call is all about creating conflict, not culture. It’s an ounce of policy mixed with a pound of posturing, because museums and galleries in the 21st century do not have static collections. They lend and borrow. They acquire. Imagine how dull the National Gallery in Edinburgh would be with nothing but Scottish pictures on the wall. And how much richer Glasgow’s GoMA is for being able to set modern Scottish artists alongside their international contemporaries.

The point is that culture, like so much else that defines our civilisation, offers us a choice: to look in or to look out. For my part, I think a successful and effective country in the 21st century is one that shares its culture and creativity with the rest of the world. And I couldn’t be happier to know that there are iconic British works of art represented in collections around the world, and that our heritage is a living thing, not a dusty relic to be kept for our eyes only, under lock and key.

The Lewis Chessmen are, in fact, a perfect example of this. Made in Norway around 850 years ago, they were buried on Lewis for safekeeping on their way to Ireland, where they were to be sold to capitalise on the popularity of chess, an Indian game. At that point, by the way, the Western Isles were part of the kingdom of Norway, not Scotland at all. In due course, 11 of the 93 pieces ended up in Edinburgh while the remaining items went to London to take their place in a ‘British’ museum – as symbols of European civilisation – to be enjoyed by millions of visitors every year from all corners of the world.

But they work for their keep as well, because the British Museum chooses to be outward looking and has made a point of lending the Chessmen to many collections both in Scotland and much further afield. Since 1995, in fact, these mysterious little figures (made, by the way, from walrus ivory, which is not, I believe, a strictly indigenous species to these islands) have been busy indeed. They’ve gone periodically to Museum nan Eilean, Stornoway, and also to Edinburgh, Washington and New York. That’s not to mention Cardiff, Manchester, Newcastle and Norwich as part of an exhibition entitled Buried Treasure, and a tour of the Far East where they were enjoyed by 2.7 million visitors in 10 different venues.

So it seems to me that they’ve been doing a pretty good job promoting the importance of European medieval culture – and Scotland’s place in it – without any help from those who would round them up into a single, static place. Next year, incidentally, they will form the centrepiece of a brand new gallery at the British museum, so getting yet an
other lease of life.

And that’s not all. The Chessmen are just one example of what I believe is a truly enlightened approach from the British Museum. Just a couple of years ago, for instance, the same museum was pleased to loan 84 pieces from their Egyptian collection on long-term loan to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery. Three million people were able to see them in the first year. I wonder how many of them felt affronted to be presented with another nation’s heritage? Not very many, I suspect.

I believe that amicable arrangements between institutions are fine examples of what a living cultural policy should look like. As I said at the beginning, culture gives us a choice: pull up the drawbridge and turn your back on the world, or throw open the doors and share what you’ve achieved with pride and good grace. I know which I prefer.

Margaret Hodge is a Culture minister at Westminster

The full article contains 816 words and appears in Scotland On Sunday newspaper.
Last Updated: 26 January 2008 5:26 PM

The Scotsman

Published Date: 28 January 2008
Source: The Scotsman
Location: Scotland

Artefacts are not cultural pawns

BY DEFINITION, museums exist to preserve mankind’s heritage. If every museum simply looked after artefacts found within a three-mile radius of its front door, few museums would have the resources to do their job. So there is a commonsense argument for accepting that some museums will be repositories of artefacts from around the world, and that we should resist the populist call to break up these wonderful collections and send them back to their points of origin. Besides, in these
days of cheap air travel, most great museums are within easy reach of most people.

However, that said, there are important artefacts that deserve to be held in their place of origin. The so-called Elgin Marbles are a prominent part of an existing building – the Acropolis in Athens. There is a very sound argument for saying they should be returned from the British Museum to be reunited with the building they were expressly designed to decorate.

A similar case can be made for the Lewis Chessmen, 82 of which are in the British Museum and 11 at National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. It makes no scientific or cultural sense for this amazing collection to be split up and they should be reunited in Scotland whence they were discovered. There is also a strong argument for taking the chessmen back to Lewis itself, as a way of reaffirming the glories of that ancient island civilisation.

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