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Damage to Egypt’s antiquities can not be a post-rationalised justification for the actions of other museums

A lot has been made in some news sources, of the amount of damage (or potential damage, because at the time that things like this are reported, it is often hard to make a full assessment) done to the collections of museums in Egypt during the recent protests there. Many sources then jump straight on to the next conclusion that this means that it is right to keep disputed Egyptian artefacts in the big museums of the West, despite the fact that even a year ago these riots could not be anticipated & that no one appointed certain big museums as official custodians of global culture.

Further to this, there is of course the fact that artefacts aren’t necessarily safe in any country [1].

One promising thing though, is that while some rioters were vandalising the museums, many more Egyptian citizens were making every effort they could to try & protect these places from damage.

From:
Wall Street Journal [2]

Egypt’s Antiquities Fall Victim to the Mob
A definitive answer to the question: Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece?
February 1st 2011

When Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, came to work at the Egyptian Museum on Saturday, he found that looters had broken in and beheaded two mummies—possibly Tutankhamun’s grandparents—and looted the ticket booth. Reports indicate that middle-class Egyptians, the tourism police and later the military secured the museum. But now it appears that many other museum’s and storehouses have been looted, along with archaeological sites. A vast, impoverished underclass seems less taken with either the nationalist narrative of Egyptian greatness that stretches back to the pharaohs, or the intrinsic value of antiquities for all humanity, and more intrigued by the possibility of gold and other loot. For his part, Mr. Hawass has now been appointed state minister for antiquities by President Hosni Mubarak.

These events make Mr. Hawass’s quest to return all Egyptian objects to Egypt misguided or at least poorly timed. Last week he again demanded the return of the bust of Nefertiti from Berlin. The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum has long been on Mr. Hawass’s wish list, along with the Zodiac Ceiling in the Louvre and statues in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and museums in Hildesheim, Germany, and Turin, Italy. And a few weeks back he complained bitterly that the obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle, a gift to the U.S. from the Khedive of Egypt that has graced Central Park since 1881, was in poor condition and might have to be reclaimed. He has made similar demands for the repatriation of Egyptian artifacts around the world, whether purchased, donated or stolen. But can Egypt even look after what it has? This question is now out in the open.

One problem lies in the relationship between the past and present in Egypt and other authoritarian states, where antiquities and sites are used as a means of glorifying and justifying modern repressive regimes. In Iraq in 2003, during the U.S. invasion, the Baghdad Museum was looted by local residents, insiders and possibly professional thieves. The Americans took the blame. But it was Iraqis who did the looting, after Saddam Hussein’s soldiers had fired at U.S. forces from in and around the museum. They did not share the regime’s regard for the Mesopotamian past and correctly associated Saddam with both unspeakable repression and—as he intended—patronage of museums and archaeology. The small Iraqi middle and upper classes may have understood the importance of museums and heritage for the collective identity and memory of all Iraqis, but they were overwhelmed by the poor and the angry. The Baghdad Museum has yet to reopen, stolen artifacts are still being recovered from around the world, and Iraq’s archaeological sites are still being looted.

Ungovernable places treat the past even worse. In 1994, the National Museum in Afghanistan, built in 1922, was destroyed by the Taliban. Fortunately, many of the artifacts had been hidden by the museum’s staff, while others were even removed from the country. The Taliban were more successful obliterating other aspects of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic past, notably the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan, which were blown up with the help of Saudi and Pakistani engineers.

In the past Egypt also experienced outbursts of Islamic radicalism that claimed artifacts and monuments. Napoleon usually gets the blame for destroying the nose of the Great Sphinx at Giza, but historical sources blame the 14th-century iconoclast Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr. The outer casing stones of the pyramids at Giza were carried off, also in the 14th century, by the Sultan An-Nasir Nasir-ad-Din al-Hasan to build the mosques of Cairo. But today Egypt’s past is one of the country’s most important sources of income. Some 14 million tourists visited Egypt in 2010. Still, in the modern era the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has made it clear that it wants to Islamify all aspects of Egyptian life. This will inevitably reach into the Egyptian treatment of the past.

Objects stolen since modern international treaties went into force must be returned. But at the moment Mr. Hawass must be more concerned about the Egyptian treasures he currently oversees. His crusade to restore artifacts to Egypt is being overtaken by events, much as the Greek campaign to get the Elgin Marbles back has been affected by the 2010 economic riots in Athens. Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Athens from London’s British Museum, where they have resided since the early 19th century? Leaving aside the argument that recent centuries are inextricable parts of the history of these objects, the simple answer is “no.” Unfree and unstable countries, regardless of their tourist numbers, have a long way to go before they will treat antiquities in the manner of most European countries or the U.S. Attempts to undo the recent past to assuage postcolonial guilt or appease renewed nationalist sentiments by emptying museums of legitimately acquired items is unlikely to be in the best interest of the artifacts, scholarship or the global public.

Might Mr. Hawass be wondering if the contents of his museums would be safer in Europe or America? Though perhaps justifiable in the sense of preserving artifacts, such a scenario is incredibly unlikely if not inconceivable. The heritage of Egypt on Egyptian soil belongs to Egyptians and should remain in Egypt. It is up to the Egyptian people to decide whether to preserve or destroy it.

Mr. Joffe is a Middle Eastern historian and archaeologist. He is the author of “Museum Madness in Iraq” which was published in the Middle East Quarterly in 2004. His website is http://www.alexanderjoffe.net.

From:
Associated Press [3]

Looters rip heads off 2 mummies at Egyptian Museum
(AP) – Jan 29, 2011

CAIRO (AP) — Would-be looters broke into Cairo’s famed Egyptian Museum, ripping the heads off two mummies and damaging about 10 small artifacts before being caught and detained by army soldiers, Egypt’s antiquities chief said Saturday.

Zahi Hawass said the vandals did not manage to steal any of the museum’s antiquities, and that the prized collection was now safe and under military guard.

With mass anti-government protests still roiling the country and unleashing chaos on the streets, fears that looters could target other ancient treasures at sites across the country prompted the military to dispatch armored personnel carriers and troops to the Pyramids of Giza, the temple city of Luxor and other key archaeological monuments.

Hawass said now that the Egyptian Museum’s collection is secure from thieves, the greatest threat to the collection inside is posed by the torched ruling party headquarters building next door.

“What scares me is that if this building is destroyed, it will fall over the museum,” Hawass said as he watched fire trucks spray water on the still smoldering NDP headquarters.

The museum, which is home to the gold mask of King Tutankhamun that draws millions of tourists a year, also houses thousands of artifacts spanning the full sweep of Egypt’s rich pharaonic history.

“It is the great repository of Egyptian art. It is the treasure chest, the finest sculptures and treasures from literally 4,000 years of history,” said Thomas Campbell, the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art by telephone. “If it is damaged through looting or fire, it would be a loss to all humankind.”

The museum is located near some of the most intense of the mass anti-government protests sweeping the capital, and Egyptian army commandoes secured the building and its grounds early Saturday morning.

Before the army arrived, young Egyptians — some armed with truncheons grabbed off the police — created a human chain at the museum’s front gate to prevent looters from making off with any of its priceless artifacts.

“They managed to stop them,” Hawass said. He added that the would-be looters only vandalized two mummies, ripping their heads off. They also cleared out the museum gift shop.

The prized King Tutankhamun exhibit had not been damaged and was safe, he said.

An Associated Press Television News crew that was allowed into the museum saw two vandalized mummies and at least 10 small artifacts that had been taken out of their glass cases and damaged.

Fears of looters have prompted authorities elsewhere to take precautions to secure antiquities at other sites.

The military closed the pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo to tourists, and armored personnel carriers could be seen outside the famed archaeological site.

Archaeologist Kent Weeks, who is in the southern temple town of Luxor, said that rumors that attacks were planned against monuments prompted authorities to erect barriers and guard Karnak Temple while tanks were positioned around Luxor’s museum.

Sharon Herbert, director of the Kelsey Museum at the University of Michigan, which is home to a collection of Egyptian artifacts, said any looting or damage at Egypt’s museums would be a tragedy.

“Anything can happen when crowds get out of control,” Herbert said. “You’re hard put to put any monetary price on these things. They’re priceless. They’re parts of the whole world heritage that can’t be replaced.”

Associated Press writer Chris Hawley in New York contributed to this report.