March 25, 2009

The Lewis Chessmen & the British Museum

Posted at 1:57 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

The British Museum is trying to make the Lewis Chessmen the central feature of a new gallery, in the hope that this will weaken the argument for their return to Scotland.

Evening Standard (London)

Your move … Scots want chess set back
Louise Jury, Chief Arts Correspondent

THE BRITISH Museum has put a set of elaborately carved chess figures at the heart of a new gallery despite demands that they be returned to Scotland.

The 82 Lewis Chessmen, which are between 800 and 900 years old and made from walrus and whale ivory, were seen in a Harry Potter film and inspired the children’s TV series Noggin The Nog.

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, wants them repatriated to Edinburgh to be reunited with the rest of the set discovered on the Outer Hebrides in the early 19th century.

Just as the Greek government wants the Elgin Marbles in London to be returned to Athens, Mr Salmond claims it is “unacceptable” for the British Museum to have 82 of the figures while the other 11 are in the National Museum of Scotland.

But the British Museum is refusing to back down and insists the chessmen are the highlight within the new Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery of Medieval Europe.

The gallery aims to show that medieval Europe was as important as ancient Egypt and Rome. The lushly decorated display includes relics of the bones of 11,000 virgins of Cologne said to have been massacred by Attila The Hun and a reliquary of St Oda, Archbishop of Canterbury who died in AD 958; the so-called Royal Gold Cup originally owned by Charles VI of France, and the only surviving citole, a precursor to the guitar, owned by Elizabeth I.

James Robinson, curator of the medieval collections, said of the chess pieces: “They act as the gateway for all the different themes. They speak about feudal society because all the orders in society – king, queen, bishop, infantryman – are there.

“But also we’re showing the influences coming into Europe from the Islamic East. Chess is a game that comes to Europe through the Islamic countries of southern Spain and Sicily.” The chessmen were probably made in Norway when chess was popular among European aristocracy. It is thought they were on their way to being traded in Ireland but ended up in Scotland.

The pieces were bought by the British Museum after their discovery in 1831. It emerged later that 11 pieces had been already sold. These are the ones now in Scotland.

A spokesman for Mr Salmond said: “The Scottish government believes it is unacceptable that 11 Lewis Chessmen rest at the National Museum of Scotland while the other 82 remain in the British Museum and will continue to campaign for a reunited set of Lewis Chessmen in Scotland.”

The British Museum stresses it often lends the works and a new tour to Lewis and Edinburgh is planned for next year. Mr Robinson said putting them in the context of world cultures at the British Museum gave them their “proper global status”.

The new gallery cost around £2million. Paul Ruddock, who helped fund it, is chief executive of Lansdowne Partners, an investment management firm, who fell in love with the medieval collection of the British Museum when he was given a replica set of the Lewis chessmen as a child.


The Elgin or Parthenon Marbles

The Greek government has been calling for the reliefs and sculptures to be returned since they were taken from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin in 1799 in a dubious deal with the Ottoman authorities and given to the British Museum.

The Benin bronzes

About 1,000 brass plaques were stolen from the royal palace in the kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, by British troops in 1897 and given to the Foreign Office. Around 200 were handed to the British Museum. The Nigerian government has made repeated calls for repatriation of the bronzes.

The Axum obelisk

In 2004 Italy agreed to return a 1,700-year-old 160-ton granite obelisk looted by Mussolini’s forces from Axum in Ethiopia in 1937. It was a symbol of national identity to the Ethiopians.

Aboriginal remains

In 2006 the Natural History Museum repatriated the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aboriginal people after a claim from the Australian government and following new legislation on collections of human remains. Opponents of the move argued they were a loss to science.

Statue of Aphrodite

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed in 2007 to return a limestone statue of Aphrodite bought in 1988 for $18million and 40 other Italian antiquities to Italy.

Nazi looted art

Galleries and museums including the Courtauld, Tate and British Museum, have returned or paid compensation for works of art to the heirs of Jewish owners who were robbed by the Nazis.

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1 Comment »

  1. Nick Brand said,

    04.12.09 at 11:19 am

    Not just the Lewis Chessmen, there are a number of Scottish artefacts held in England that should be brought back home. The Book of Deer in the Bodleian springs to mind – some of the earliest written Gaelic is contained therein. How many Gaelic scholars at Oxford University? None would be a pretty accurate guess. The Wallace letter at Kew is another – entirely irrelevant to England but Kew won’t return it. Something that need to be looked into very soon, and as a matter of urgency.

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