September 11, 2005

Is the British Museum condoning the Chinese destruction of Tibet?

Posted at 9:06 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

A pair of articles here highlight an interesting aspect of international loans of artefacts by the British Museum. The British Museum has just arranged a groundbreaking deal with China to exchange artefacts between the two countries for temporary exhibitions. The question this raise though, is whether this agreement entered into by the British Museum is in some ways condoning China’s ongoing destruction of artefacts in Tibet. While the arrangement of cultural exchanges by the British Museum if in theory an admirable approach to introduce its collections to a wider audience, should it be arranging such exchanges with a country that has a record of continuing to destroy its own culture?

The Guardian

London and Beijing to exchange archaeological treasures
John Ezard
Tuesday September 6, 2005
The Guardian

London and Beijing capped their status as Olympic cities yesterday by announcing an unprecedented exchange by loan of archaeological treasures over the next five years.

This could lead to one or more of China’s world-famous terracotta warriors going on show at the British Museum and to Chinese crowds having their first chance to see Egyptian mummies and cuneiform tablets from London.

The directors of the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum, who are in China with Tony Blair, unveiled the exchange deals after two years of secret preparations.

The first result could be as soon as next year, when the V&A expects to host an exhibition of 17th century Chinese porcelain.

The other most wanted objects on each country’s list will be agreed in a memorandum of understanding in the next few months.

Britain is likely to be keenest on recent Chinese archaeological finds and on treasures such as jade burial suits from the Han dynasty, which reigned from 206BC to AD200.

China, it is thought, will be avid to see British-owned treasures such as bas reliefs from the Mesopotamian cities of Nineveh and Nimrod and tablets telling the story of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s earliest creation myths.

One Egyptian artefact, known as the Unlucky Mummy, is to be exhibited soon in China.

The country’s aspiration is to show its citizens more of the objects which would be found in a “universal”, not just a national, museum.

Under the agreement, the National Museum of China has agreed to lend a major exhibition of its antiquities to the British Museum, whose Chinese collection dates back to its foundation in 1753. To coincide with the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the V&A will host an exhibition of the best of Chinese design.

Yesterday Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, said the agreement would allow “many in China to explore other civilisations and ensure that the audience in London can appreciate the cultural achievements of China”.

Mark Jones, the V&A’s director, said: “There is enormous interest in both our countries in seeing cultural treasures from the past as well as learning about the latest design ideas from across the world.”

The Observer

How Britain helps China destroy Tibet
Tristram Hunt
Sunday September 11, 2005
The Observer

As well as ending the great Sino-Euro bra war, the Prime Minister’s diplomatic triumphs in Beijing last week included a series of cultural exchanges. The Victoria and Albert Museum has agreed a major Chinese design exhibition to coincide with the 2008 Olympics. Darcey Bussell will give tutorials to China’s best ballerinas. And the British Museum has secured a ground-breaking deal with the National Museum of China to share collections.

All of which is highly regrettable. Governments have to involve themselves in mucky compromises with distasteful regimes, but world-class cultural institutions do not. By lending their prestigious names to the Chinese government, the British Museum and others implicitly sanction Beijing’s cultural policy and, with it, the ongoing artistic, linguistic and religious genocide in Tibet.

Over the past 10 years, mainland China has rediscovered its pre-communist past. The iconoclastic modernism of the Great Leap Forward has been replaced by official respect for China’s ancient civilisation. But this admiration for heritage has come too late for the people of Tibet.

The terrible truth of Mao’s Cultural Revolution bears repeating. Between 1966-1977, an entire civilisation was gutted as 2,000 years of Tibetan history was razed. Prior to China’s invasion, there had been 6,259 Buddhist monasteries and nunneries; by 1976, eight remained. In the name of socialist purity, untold numbers of statues, artefacts, ancient manuscripts and paintings vanished.

A few high-profile palaces and temples were restored in the 1980s. But since 1994, the Chinese government has opted for an active programme of destroying the nation’s sense of its autonomous history. The British Museum and V&A are lending their names to this cultural suppression.

In human terms, it has meant savage treatment of the monks and nuns who embody centuries of Buddhist teaching. The arbitrary arrest of religious leaders Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche and Ngawang Phulchung is just the tip of an iceberg of human-rights abuse. Currently, hundreds languish in jail without trial for ‘crimes’ including raising a Tibetan flag, while others suffer the hideous inventiveness of the People’s Liberation Army’s torture tactics.

With the people has gone the historic fabric. China is currently engaged in a wholesale demolition of the ancient neighbourhoods of the holy city of Lhasa. Despite its unique world heritage status and any number of objections from Unesco, the ancient architecture is being ruthlessly replaced with communist concrete.

Lhasa, a site of supreme significance for Tibetan Buddhists, is awash with brothels and barracks. The meditative rhythms of a monastic city have been replaced by the sonic blare of go-go bars and neon glare of tacky commerce. An aggressive, militaristic capitalism overwhelms the pacifist tradition of centuries. Meanwhile, in the schools, the Tibetan language is under sustained assault.

Perhaps the final indignity is that, under Chinese beneficence, some gutted monasteries are being restored, not as functioning religious sites, but as heritage attractions. An authentic culture is being transformed into faux ‘living history’. Tibet is being turned into a theme park.

Sometimes, the remit of our national museums and galleries fruitfully coincides with official policy. In the wake of the war in Iraq, the British Museum worked tirelessly with diplomatic staff to save Mesopotamia’s endangered treasures. But in this case, the geopolitical needs of the British government and the proper calling of the V&A and British Museum are not the same. What their directors must realise is that when modern China hears the word culture, it all too often reaches for its revolver.

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