April 25, 2006
Writing in the Guardian, Philip Hensher starts off his article on restitution cases positively, saying that it seems likely that in the end the Elgin Marbles will be returned to Greece. From that point however he drops into focusing on the specific case of a museum in Sudan which eh saw whilst on holiday, complaining about the way in which the pieces were presented there. He then continues to add that no one is currently requesting the return of any artefacts to Sudan, making the whole of this section o the article relatively worthless.
He seems to feel that the Elgin Marbles only gained much of their prestige through being in London – as though (if this is the case) the Greeks should actually be thanking Elgin for publicising their culture. All this of course ignores that fact that these ideas are presented as some sort of unanimous decision for what is best, yet in all of the various arguments of this type which are presented, one party was never consulted nor agreed on what was happening.
Why stolen treasures should be returned,
Honour amongst thieves
Our museums may be full of stolen treasures, but as long as they’re cared for, why give them back?
Monday April 24, 2006
These days, we are less and less comfortable about having the monuments of other countries in our museums. When we go to the British Museum, or drive alongside the Thames and notice Cleopatra’s Needle, the immediate response is not what it used to be. Fifty years ago, we might have thought: “How wonderful to live in a country with all these wonderful treasures.” Now, we are just as likely to speculate as to who stole them, and how long it is going to be before they are handed back.
For some, this is uncontroversial. In many cases, such things were not come by honestly; sometimes they were stolen, or seized by force, or bought in dubious circumstances. They were not ours in the first place, never have been truly ours, and the time is fast approaching when we are probably going to have to give them back.
National sentiment often runs high in these matters. I remember once going round a temple in Egypt with some Italian friends, and the Egyptian guide remarked of a sarcophagus that its pair had long ago been “stolen” and was now “nel Sir John Soane Museo a Londra”, giving me a very accusing glare. The Greek campaign to have the Parthenon marbles – previously the Elgin marbles – returned to be housed in a handsome new museum in Athens seems quite likely to succeed in the end. No one could doubt that they would be looked after very well.
Other countries have admitted the principle. Italy recently sent back to Addis Ababa, with apologies, a monumental column seized by Mussolini on one of his imperial adventures. It seems unlikely that museums here will be able to resist this trend much longer, and can look forward to a series of both serious and frivolous applications.
I would like to put the case for the other side. In many instances, national treasures are better off outside their countries of origin – better cared for, receiving more attention, and more accessible. Last week, I was on holiday in Sudan. The territories now lying within Sudan form a minor but fascinating part of the ancient Egyptian story, and I wanted to see what treasures were still there. Of course, it was difficult. Until recently, to visit historical sites outside Khartoum, you had to go to various ministries, asking civil servants to stamp your letter of request to see the pyramids at Meroe or the temples of Naqa. It is only in the past month or so that you have been able to just turn up and pay the price of admission.
Even in Khartoum there are problems. When I visited the National Museum, the employee at the till tried to refuse me entry as she didn’t have 400 dinars change from a 500-dinar note, letting me in only after a long argument. There are some extraordinary Christian frescoes, but I have no idea what they are or where they are from. There is hardly any labelling, and the guards prowling about are mostly interested in extracting “baksheesh” from you, or selling you 30-year-old Christian evangelical pamphlets.
Downstairs, there is an interesting-looking room of early Kushite artefacts – but I couldn’t tell you much about them. There were five guards sitting outside, arguing noisily, and three or four well-dressed people inside; the guards refused me entry, for no obvious reason. In the gardens are three reconstructed temples, covered with juvenile carved graffiti, and with birds making nests in the crevices. All over Khartoum, vast and fanciful villas and hotels are shooting up but, frankly, nobody much cares about its museums. The staff of the National Museum would openly prefer it if nobody visited at all.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, several sets of European archaeologists pilfered the pyramids and temples of Sudan. The consequences were not entirely happy: one Italian archeologist had the fortune to discover a burial chamber near the top of one of the Meroe pyramids, and went on to decapitate all the others, nearly 100 of them, like boiled eggs in the desert – with no result.
But many important treasures, such as a hoard of Kushite gold jewellery, ended up in Berlin and London. There, they are well lit, beautifully labelled, carefully looked after, and accessible to whoever is interested. It is not easy to get into Sudan, and such objects act as small, precious ambassadors for an unfamiliar country. If you object that, in Berlin and London, such things are not easily accessible to the Sudanese, it is fairly clear that they wouldn’t be accessible in Khartoum either.
Sudan is an extreme case; as far as I know, nobody is yet talking about sending anything back there. But was it not a mistake for the Italians to return that wonderful Ethiopian column? Very few people ever make it to Addis Ababa; the world comes to Rome. Ethiopia is rich in antiquities, and ought to be able to spare this one.
It may be, too, that Lord Elgin acquired the Parthenon marbles in dubious circumstances. But even the marbles, for most of their modern history, gained authority and lustre from the fact that they were on show not in a provincial capital such as Athens, but a world city: London. It is one of the paradoxes of culture that museums confer as much as acknowledge beauty. Strangely, one of the reasons people visit Athens – and will, in the end, visit Khartoum – is that a significant part of those cities’ treasures is not there, but in London or Berlin. One ought to recognise that fact before too hastily handing anything over.
- Should stolen treasures be returned to Turkey? : February 26, 2005
- Why Greece should be trusted to look after the Elgin Marbles : January 14, 2004
- Should the British Museum return the Mold Golden Cape : September 26, 2005
- The marbles should not be returned, because of Greece’s past record : January 26, 2006
- The New Acropolis Museum is nearly complete : July 7, 2008
- Its time to return what was stolen from Africa : June 27, 2007
- To survive in splendid isolation, or to be lost forever in their native environs : April 6, 2006
- Scottish museum to open archives to public : September 11, 2005