April 15, 2006

Are artefacts safer in Western hands?

Posted at 12:50 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The Daily Telegraph has published a misleading & highly inaccurate article by A. N. Wilson about the foreign cultural relics in Britain’s museums, prompted by the paper’s previous article on Kiprop Lagat & the British Museum’s current exhibition in Kenya.
Starting off with loaded statements that add little factually, but depict one side in a bad light: “The Greeks persistently whinge…”, he moves on to blatant untruths “…those that were not blown to bits during the First World War.” – I would be intrigued to know this could have happened when Greece was only involved in the first World War for eighteen months in the far north on the border with Bulgaria.
Wilson goes on to add subjective statements about how he’d much prefer to see the later Byzantine mosaics than the harsh classicism of the marbles, before leaping onto the British Museum’s argument du jour – That the marbles belong not just to one country but to all of humanity. Notwithstanding the fact that the previous argument does not explain why they should be in Britain to be enjoyed, he goes on to a completely new line of reasoning – That “humanity enjoys them in the British Museum much more than it would in a hideous visitor centre in modern Athens.” without bothering to explain why the British can build great museums, but the Greeks could only manage to produce a hideous visitor centre. Even if the visitor centre (I assume that he is referring to either the current Acropolis Museum, or the proposed New Acropolis Museum) is hideous (in his opinion) at least it is within sight of the Parthenon itself, so visitors stand some chance of relating what they are seeing to the original context of the sculptures.
He then drifts on to how “Whatever the political rights and wrongs of those historical characters who have removed artefacts from a country, there has nearly always been a motive of love for the objects themselves.” – as though this somehow makes it more acceptable. In his eyes should courts also treat crimes of passion such as many murder cases differently?
The rest of the article continues in a similar way, extolling the greatness of the museums of the west – places that it would appear that Wilson believes other nations are not capable of replicating on their own.

Daily Telegraph

Friday 14 April 2006
Artefacts are safer in Western hands
By A N Wilson
(Filed: 14/04/2006)

Controversy has been aroused by the Kenyan curator of an exhibition of artefacts being loaned by the British Museum to a museum in Nairobi.

Kiprop Lagat, who is organising the exhibition of some 140 items, chosen from the museum’s holdings of 12,000 East African artefacts, has said that precious objects are often far better off in European museums, being properly looked after, than being allowed to rot in their country of origin. “Western museums have better facilities and the items are better taken care of there, whereas here in Africa the concept of museums and curating is a relatively new one,” said Mr Lagat.

He can be sure of plenty of brickbats flying in his direction, not only from East Africans who want all the artefacts sent back from the British Museum, but also from the Egyptians who want the return of the Rosetta Stone, the Greeks who believe the British Museum should send the Parthenon marbles back to Athens, or the Indians who think that, for example, Lord Curzon’s collection of Indian art assembled at Kedleston in Derbyshire should be sent back to the subcontinent.

Mr Lagat is stating a simple fact. The point of museums is to conserve. The fate of the Parthenon marbles is a very strong case in point. The Greeks persistently whinge and make political capital out of the British Museum’s possession of the Parthenon marbles. They claim that the marbles were damaged by over-zealous cleaning, and of course they believe that Lord Elgin “looted” them in 1801.

They neglect to mention that the marbles that Elgin left behind have mouldered almost beyond hope of recovery – those that were not blown to bits during the First World War.

The Greeks also neglect to mention that, for much of its life, the Parthenon was a Christian church, first consecrated in 697. The Byzantines hacked holes in the marbles to cover them with Christian icons. Then came Frankish crusaders, more hacking, to make way for an apse of gilded mosaics. (How much I’d have preferred this to the cold classicism of the marbles!) When Elgin first saw the marbles – and he paid a lot of his own money for them rather than looting them – a Turkish janissary was chipping away at the bas relief with a blunt instrument.

The marbles had left Athens before there was such a country as modern Greece, and rightly so. They belong, not to a nation, but to humanity, and humanity enjoys them in the British Museum much more than it would in a hideous visitor centre in modern Athens.

Whatever the political rights and wrongs of those historical characters who have removed artefacts from a country, there has nearly always been a motive of love for the objects themselves.

The British fleet that beat the French in Egypt after Napoleon’s invasion did not do so out of antiquarian passion. But one consequence of that campaign was that the British took the Rosetta Stone from the French, who had looted it from the Egyptians.

Napoleon had imported many scholars to research the antiquities of Egypt and, without them and the work of British antiquaries, no one to this day would be able to understand Egyptian hieroglyphics and the whole history of Egyptian civilisation would be a closed book. Of course, in the current nationalistic climate, the Egyptians want the Rosetta Stone back from the British Museum, and there are also calls for the return of Cleopatra’s needle.

I want Kiprop Lagat to be given more voice. Obviously the 35-year-old is primarily a scholar, but he is also a first-rate advocate for the principle of museums, which those of us who love the artefacts of the past, and have learnt and feasted from them, have enjoyed in our travels round the world.

Attempts to undo the wickedness of our forebears will very seldom result in the beneficial effects the petty nationalists hope for. No doubt the money of many great American collectors was made in ways that exploited their fellow human beings. No doubt many of the artefacts in Rome were plundered from the Greeks in vile acts of war, just as stuff taken from Rome by northern Europeans on the Grand Tour was sometimes bought in dodgy circumstances. We all acknowledge that.

But what survives is the stuff – the paintings in the Louvre, the Prado, the National Gallery of Washington and the Met in New York, the innumerable artefacts in the museums of the world.

Once looted, or bought, or moved, these artefacts change. They become the possession not just of the collector, but, through the wonderful invention of the modern museum, they also become the property of all of us. Some of the finest minds, most delicate eyes, and deftest fingers in the world are employed conserving, arranging, classifying the objects these museums contain and explaining their secrets to us, the interested public. I find it hard to think of any activity more virtuous or more conducive to the greater good.

Museums, by bringing different cultures before our eyes, expand our sympathies and our understanding. They are more truly international than the UN and they do more good than any number of fatuous summit meetings by politicians. While Western leaders make terrifying deliberations about Iran, and while we wait to see what that country intends to do about building a nuclear warhead, the British Museum’s recent Persian exhibition reminded us of all we owe to that part of the world.

In the museums, as we look at the china, sculpture, masks, carvings, paintings and tools of vanished dynasties, we are reminded of how petty and ephemeral politics are. The colonisation of Africa, no doubt undertaken for very mixed motives by Europeans, has left an appalling political legacy. But, in the gesture of lending back to Nairobi the African artefacts in the British Museum, the scholars have done something very deep. They have reminded us that, as in the case of Greek sculptures plundered by Romans, the conqueror often learns from the conquered.

In museums, far from Europe lording it over the rest of the world, we all discover how much different cultures have to learn from one another.

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