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British Museum lends treasures to China

Last September the British Museum agreed to exchanging loans [1] of archaeological artefacts. An exhibition has opened at the new Capital Museum of Beijing, which represents the first example of this collaboration.
Many people are asking questions though, regarding the various Chinese treasures held in the British Museums collections which are carefully ignored by this current exhibition.

The Guardian [2]

UK to lend world treasures to China
No Chinese artefacts in exchange as questions over ownership remain
Jonathan Watts in Beijing
Friday March 3, 2006
The Guardian

The British Museum will try to avoid a diplomatic minefield later this month when it lends 272 of its most precious artefacts to the Capital Museum of Beijing in one of the highest level cultural exchanges between the two countries.

None of the items in the Treasures of the World’s Culture collection will be Chinese because many people in Beijing refuse to recognise British claims to porcelain, statues and books they say were acquired by imperial force.

The exhibition, which will run from March 18 to June 5, has been hailed by both sides as a breakthrough in relations between the world’s oldest national museum and one of the newest of a host of giant cultural institutions being built in the Chinese capital.

Ancient Egyptian tablets, Greek busts and the world’s oldest tool will be among the items on display in the first major overseas exhibition staged at the new museum – a gleaming structure of glass, steel and stone that opened in December.

But for the visitors, the closest the display will come to home will be a few items of Japanese and Korean art. There are several items in the British Museum collection of Chinese art that curators in Beijing say they would like to have, some of which have been displayed in similar exhibitions in Japan and South Korea, but none will be making the journey to Beijing this time.

“There are political and legal questions about ownership,” said the director, Guo Xiaoling. “The British Museum acquired many of its items before other countries had drafted laws to protect their cultural relics. If we exhibited these items it would imply that we recognised their ownership.”

The director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, said both governments had endorsed the exchange and the UK had not imposed any restrictions on the choice of objects. “We would be perfectly happy to lend the items to them, but they did not ask us,” he said. “Our understanding was that they have better examples of Chinese art than us. Instead, they wanted items that told a story about the rest of the world. Only the British Museum can do that.”

Chinese officials say they are concerned about a diplomatic row similar to the one between Britain and Greece over the Parthenon marbles. In Chinese schools students are taught that their country’s treasures were plundered or unfairly acquired by Britain and other imperial nations during and after the opium war in the 19th century.

According to the United Nations, 1.64m Chinese artefacts are scattered in 47 museums around the world. Chinese authorities estimate that 10 times that number are in the hands of private collectors. For many Chinese, foreign ownership is a continued humiliation.

Zhang Yongnian is the head of the China Cultural Relics Recovery Programme, established in 2002 to reacquire lost items through appeals for donations and purchases at auctions. “A lot of treasures were stolen after the opium war, which opened China’s gates to the western world,” he said. “Others were looted soon after the Communist party came to power, when cultural management was weak. The British Museum has declared that it is opposed to restitution of all artefacts to their home countries on the grounds that they can look after them better. But that is an excuse. This is something that should be discussed face to face.”

The blend of cultural pride and the rising value of Chinese art has prompted the People’s Liberation Army to establish a unit to buy back relics. An affiliate – the Poly Group – has invested 800m yuan (£57m) buying Chinese art from abroad. “Foreign friends should come to China to appreciate Chinese art objects, yet too often we end up going overseas to see them in foreign museums,” said a spokesman. “Our national treasures should not be flowing beyond our borders. They are ours, parts of our roots.”

Curators on both sides say they hope for an improved climate for further cultural exchanges. In the next few years Beijing will lend the British Museum a number of items. The UK institution will also lend some Chinese treasures to the palace museum in the Forbidden City.

But Beijing’s Capital Museum also appealed for British owners, both private individuals and public institutions, to return their treasures. “As long as the British Museum keeps the items in a good condition then it is not too bad because they are part of the heritage of humanity, not just China,” said Mr Guo. “But they have such a huge collection of Chinese art that maybe they could return just a few items as a gesture of goodwill. That would make Chinese people feel very happy.”

Cultural exchange

For the British Museum, lending artefacts from its vast collection (“7m objects, depending on whether you count all the potsherds,” said its director, Neil MacGregor) to other countries is the logical extension of its founding principles.

When it was established in 1753 the point of the institution was to be “a collection of all the world, held for all the world”, in which the cultures of all mankind could be put together to show “the connectedness” of different peoples.

Under an agreement signed last year with the National Museum of China in Beijing, artefacts from China will be lent to the British Museum before 2008, focusing on recent finds and objects rarely seen in the UK.
Charlotte Higgins

Independent Online (Zaire) [3]

Museum to lend world art treasures to China

March 04 2006 at 02:42PM

London – The British Museum is to lend 272 of its most precious artefacts to China, but not porcelain and other objects that are at the centre of an ownership dispute, the Guardian reported on Friday.

The Treasures of the World’s Culture collection, to be displayed at the Capital Museum of Beijing later this month, includes Ancient Egyptian tablets, Greek busts and the world’s oldest tool, the newspaper said.

But Japanese and Korean works of art will be the closest Far Eastern items to go on show, it added in its report from the Chinese capital.

“There are political and legal questions about ownership,” the Capital Museum’s director Guo Xiaoling was quoted as saying.

“The British Museum acquired many of its items before other countries had drafted laws to protect their cultural relics. If we simply exhibited these items it would imply that we recognised their ownership.”

British Museum director Neil MacGregor was quoted as saying, however, that the Chinese had not asked for any Chinese items and no restrictions were placed on the choice of objects by either the London or Beijing governments.

Both administrations have endorsed the cultural exchange.

“Our understanding was that they (the Chinese) have better examples of Chinese art than us,” MacGregor told the newspaper.

The Guardian said that Chinese officials were concerned about becoming embroiled in a row similar to that involving Britain and Greece about the ownership of the Parthenon or “Elgin” marbles.

The marbles – 56 sculpted friezes depicting gods, men and monsters – were removed from the Parthenon in Athens by British ambassador Lord Elgin in 1810 and brought to the British Museum in London.

Repeated calls for them to be returned to the Greek capital have been consistently rejected.

China Daily [4]

British Museum to hold display in Beijing
By Li Jing (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-03-03 06:10

The world’s oldest national public museum the British Museum will display part of its collection in China for the first time this month.

Exhibits covering a vast range of time from 2 million years ago to the present can be viewed at Capital Museum of Beijing from March 18.

A total of 272 priceless articles, collected from the world’s five continents by the museum since it was founded in 1753, will be on show at a 1,400 square-metre exhibition hall in the newly-built museum until June 5, said Director of the museum Guo Xiaoling.

“Each of the 272 items is a masterpiece from the British Museum’s vast collections and together they demonstrate the long history of human civilization worldwide,” said Guo.

Including sculptures, paintings, jewellery, porcelain, and stone artefacts, the treasures on show are divided into 13 parts based on their origins and dates, such as ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, Europe in the Middle Ages, and modern art.

Several renowned items will be on display at the coming exhibition “Treasures of the World’s Cultures the British Museum after 250 years.”

“The exhibition will include the Rosetta Stone from Egypt, which is a slab dating back to around 200 BC.

“With a text written in hieroglyphs, Demotic and Greek, it enabled the crucial breakthrough in deciphering Egyptian writing,” Guo said

“And a stone chopping tool from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, which is the oldest object in the British Museum, will also travel to China and join the exhibition,” said Guo with excitement.

“The item was made nearly 2 million years ago and is so far the first known technological invention by human beings.”

World-famous sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome, and paintings from Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaello Sanzio and Rembrandt Van Rijn, will also be on display, Guo added.

“This is the first co-operation between our museum and the British Museum, and I hope we will have more exchanges in the future,” Guo said.

(China Daily 03/03/2006 page3)