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Is it time to relinquish the Rosetta Stone?

The British Museum may want to hang onto the Rosetta Stone [1], but many people feel that now is the time to return it to Egypt.

The Independent [2]

Letters: The Rosetta Stone
It’s time to gracefully relinquish the Rosetta Stone
Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles are priceless, culturally significant antiquities brought to Britain under arrangements that were perfectly legal at the time, and so Egypt and Greece have no claim that could succeed in any court (The Big Question, 9 December).

In the past, that has been considered sufficient justification by the British Museum for it to reject any requests for their return. When you add the facts that Egyptian museums have been less secure, and that had the marbles remained in position on the Parthenon they would have decomposed in the atmospheric pollution so as no longer to be recognisable, then most rational people would have supported that position.

The situation has changed, however, gradually with the passage of time; Egypt and Greece are now perfectly capable of providing dedicated, secure environments using the latest technology to preserve these artifacts intact. And it is now possible to produce close-to-perfect copies that could be put in place of the originals in the British Museum, so that the experience of the visitor would in no way be diminished.

The time has come when the British Museum should recognise the change in relative status between Britain and the rest of the world. We are no longer the imperial masters and increasingly need to build constructive working relationships as between equals. We can no longer demand and bully, but must request politely that others join with us in collaborative ventures against terrorism and other global threats.

These artifacts are of immense cultural significance to Egypt and Greece. To return them would not require any admission of legal title, or of any past wrongdoing, but would simply be a gesture of goodwill. They would be very well received (perhaps an understatement of the response that should be expected), and it would reflect well on Britain that we didn’t have to give them back, but chose to do so anyway.

Peter Groome
Berrow, Somerset

The National (Abu Dhabi) [3]

The Rosetta Stone and a new code of cultural exchange
Alan Philps
Last Updated: December 18. 2009 1:26AM UAE / December 17. 2009 9:26PM GMT

Why should anyone visit a museum these days? If I want to look at the treasures of the Abu Dhabi museums, I can – thanks to uaeinteract.com – have a virtual museum on my computer. On my screen I can twirl the artefacts around and see them in far more detail than when looking into a glass cabinet.

If I want to look at the Rosetta Stone, the Egyptian basalt stele with trilingual inscriptions that allowed scholars to crack the code of ancient hieroglyphics, the British Museum will e-mail me detailed pictures free of charge. With this I can trace the three scripts at my leisure. Then I can read some of the correspondence of the early scholars as they wrestled with the hieroglyphic code. When energy levels flag, my eye is drawn to the offer of a chocolate Egyptian mummy, available to purchase for a small fee.

These thoughts on virtual museums were inspired by the campaign waged by Zaki Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s supreme council of antiquities, for the return of the Rosetta Stone. Dr Hawass is a combative figure and has a list of items he wants returned from European museums, including the bust of Queen Nefertiti held by the Neues Museum in Berlin. Dr Hawass has just persuaded the French authorities, under threat of a cultural boycott, to return five fragments of wall paintings which he said had been stolen. The Louvre museum said it bought the fragments in good faith.

Dr Hawass says the British Museum must return the Rosetta Stone to the motherland because it is an “icon of Egyptian identity”. It was discovered by one of Napoleon’s soldiers at Al Rashid (“Rosetta”) in 1799 and transferred to Britain after the defeat of France, with the acquiescence of the enfeebled Ottoman authorities.

The British Museum has held the inscribed stone slab since 1802 and is used to fending off demands for the return of “looted” materials. It argues that the stone is at the centre of the museum’s Egyptian collection and this should not be broken up. The museum says it is holding its collections in trust for the world, and makes them available to everyone for free. As many as six million people visit the museum each year, far more than come to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo – about two million.

All this is true, but not really the point. The stone slab is indeed physically at the centre of the exhibition, but it hardly has the “wow” factor of the mummies. It is not an object of surpassing beauty like the bust of Nefertiti (which incidentally was removed from Egypt thanks to German sleight of hand). It is an artefact of linguistic and scientific interest.

I would argue that the Europeans have done their work with the Rosetta Stone. They have rescued a piece of builder’s rubble, unlocked its secrets and kept it safe for two centuries. There is no reason why the British Museum should not retain a copy – which would be indistinguishable from the original and would be available for visitors to touch. If it were returned to Cairo, there would be no question of admitting guilt: the acquisition was legal by the standards of the time, even if the agreement falls into the category of an unequal treaty. It would be a gesture of goodwill and, it is to be hoped, would be accepted by the Egyptians as such, and in turn encourage the Egyptian Museum to share its treasures around the world.

The strongest argument against this is that it would set in motion a domino effect. If Britain admits that it has no right to hold the national treasures of other lands, the argument goes, then the museum would soon be denuded. This argument has been deployed with force against Greece, which is demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles, the priceless sculptures from the Parthenon acquired by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman court, in the early 1800s.

Without European collectors in the 19th century, many treasures would have been lost: they would have been used as building materials, or disappeared into private collections, or in the case of the Elgin marbles been damaged by the polluted air of Athens. But times have changed – Greece and Egypt are as capable as any country of displaying these treasures. Having looked after them for two centuries, the British museum (and other European collections) have some rights, but these cannot be eternal and exclusive.

Ultimately the world needs the freest exchange of ideas and artefacts. Questions of ownership should be resolved in the interest of freedom of exchange. The Rosetta Stone exemplifies these ideals: scholars from Britain and France put aside their natural rivalry to crack the code, and when the Frenchman Francois Champollion won the prize, his British rival, Thomas Young (who had described the stele as “worth its weight in diamonds”) shared his joy.

The continuing dispute over who owns what provides part of the answer to the question why should anyone visit a museum. Museums have to display the crowd-pulling artefacts which have the ability to rouse us from our screen-based sloth.

But this is only part of the answer. As more collections are available online, museums have to create events, and that means special exhibitions to get people through the door. They have to put on eye-watering shows that excite and challenge the mind. That requires the ability to borrow and barter from other museums around the world. The ideal of the 21st century should be that museum collections are constantly on the move around the world, so that all can share. That is the only way to keep museums in business in the digital age.

African Press Agency [4]

UK – Egypt – UK -Relics demand
Egypt pressures Britain to return ‘ancient artefact’
APA – London (United Kingdom)

jeudi 17 décembre 2009, par daj
Barely 48 hours after France handed over stolen relics to Egypt, the authorities in the North African country have demanded that Britain returns their Rosetta Stone, an ancient Egyptian artefact.

The Egyptian Council of Antiquities (ECA), states Thursday that the stone, which was discovered by Napoleon and given to Britain as part of a peace settlement more than 200 years ago, contains translations which first enabled archaeologists to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.

As one of the British Museum’s most valuable and extraordinary items, trustees are unwilling to give it up on a permanent basis, and argue that it legally belongs to Britain.

Campaigners led by Dr Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of the ECA, had initially asked to loan the stone but they were angered by the museum’s stringent security requirements and they are now insisting that it should be returned to Egypt permanently.

The pressure on Britain emerged two days after fragments of ancient wall paintings, which have been the subject of a long-running dispute between Egypt and French Louvre Museum, were handed over to the North African country.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy showed one of the five fragments to his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, some minutes after the two leaders arose from a memorable lunch in Paris on Tuesday.

Egyptian officials said the artefacts (a slab with sepia and blue tones featuring two figures in profile) from a 3,200-year-old tomb near Luxor, were stolen in the 1980s.

Egypt severed ties with the Louvre museum in October 2009, as France insistently claimed the fragments had been acquired “in good faith” in 2000 and 2003, amid lingering doubts as to whether the artifacts had been taken from Egypt illegally years before.

Egypt’s chief archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, has been leading aggressive strategies ; aimed at reclaiming what he insists are antiquities stolen from his country and sold to leading world museums.