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Lewis Chessmen to return temporarily on loan – but never permanently

As anticipated [1], an announcement has been made that some of the Lewis Chessmen will return to Scotland. The British Museum has also used the announcement though to make it clear that they never intend on these artefacts to leave the institution permanently – if anything making their views on the subject clearer & more emphatic than before, falling back again on the justification of the widely discredited Universal Museum [2] argument.

Press and Journal [3]

October 2, 2009
Lewis Chessmen go north — but they’re just visiting
Tom Maxwell

The Lewis Chessmen are being brought north for an important tour of Scotland after the SNP government said it would contribute £75,000 towards the costs of a new exhibition to be staged by the British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland.

Nationalist ministers remain committed to the long-term goal of bringing the 12th-century figures to Scotland on a permanent basis, and hope the exhibition will further that aim.

While welcoming the fact that 24 of the pieces would enjoy a “homecoming” to the Isle of Lewis alongside six pieces from the museum in Edinburgh, Mike Russell, Scotland’s Culture Minister insisted: “We haven’t moved in our position, but of course the overall purpose is to give people in Scotland better access to these items. We’ve able to negotiate that, at least on a temporary basis.

“I think this tour has arisen from the British Museum recognising that we want better access.”

Described by museum keepers as “priceless and unique”, the chess pieces, believed to be Norwegian in origin, were discovered on a sand dune on the Isle of Lewis in 1831. Of the 93 pieces, 82 are on permanent display at the British Museum in London, while only 11 are housed at the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh.

For the past two years, the figures, which are intricately carved from walrus ivory and whales’ teeth, have been at the centre of a political row, with the SNP seeking the repatriation of various historical artefacts.

During the announcement of the tour in Edinburgh yesterday, however, it emerged that the museums in the two capital cities had already been discussing the possibility of a small exhibition of Chessmen in Stornoway.

The Scottish government’s financial contribution will allow a far greater number of people to view the Chessmen, with 30 pieces set to go on display in the National Museum of Scotland, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Shetland Museum from next May.

The tour will finish with a five-month exhibition at Museum nan Eilean, in Stornoway, in May 2012.

Mr Russell added: “The Lewis Chessmen are a significant part of our culture and this major touring exhibition will give people across the country an opportunity to see some of the most significant archaeological artefacts ever discovered in Scotland.”

The British Museum has been home to the chess pieces since shortly after they were discovered, when the Scottish Antiquaries Society in Edinburgh was unable to raise enough money to keep them in Scotland.

Mr Russell yesterday said the Scottish government would have to “agree to disagree” with the British Museum over where the Chessmen rightfully belong.“What we have here is a useful step. I think it’s a step sideways rather than a step forward but we’re grateful to the National Museum of Scotland and to the British Museum for bringing the exhibition about. However, it is clearly not a permanent solution.”

Bonnie Greer, deputy chair of the board of trustees at the British Musuem, said there was no question of the Chessmen moving back to Scotland. “We are a museum of the world, for the world,” she said. “We see the Lewis Chessmen as part of that idea. They are a grand, beautiful example of the human story so, for us, they have pride of place. They are the highlight of the medieval gallery and they are much loved.”

The Scotsman [4]

Chessmen ‘will never come home’
By Tim Cornwell
Arts Correspondent

THE deputy chairman of the British Museum all but closed the door on the complete return of the Lewis chessmen to Scotland yesterday, even as a 16-month tour of 30 historic pieces to four venues north of the Border was unveiled.
Broadcaster and playwright Bonnie Greer said she and fellow board members believed the historic pieces should “absolutely” be retained by what she called a “museum for the world”.

She spoke as details of a Scottish tour of 30 of the iconic early

-medieval chess pieces – to Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Shetland and Stornoway – were announced.

Scottish culture minister Michael Russell said it would “give people access, across the country, to some of the most significant archaeological artefacts ever discovered in Scotland”.

But more than 18 months after First Minister Alex Salmond stoked a cultural row by backing calls for the chessmen to be returned, Mr Russell said the Scottish Government and the museum had “agreed to disagree” over their eventual fate.

Ms Greer stressed the British Museum (BM) loaned out 2,669 objects around the UK last year.

“The BM’s credo is that we are a museum for the world and that is not just a motto,” she said.

On the chessmen’s future, she added: “As far as I’m concerned on a personal level, they will always remain at the British Museum – they will always be available for everyone in the world to see them, they will always go on tour, they will always be ambassadors for Scotland.”

Asked if fellow trustees agreed, she said: “Absolutely. No question.”

Ms Greer’s remarks mean both the museum’s board, its influential Scottish director Neil McGregor, and the UK government have spoken out in unison on nationalist claims.

The chess pieces, thought to have been made in Norway in the 11th or 12th century from walrus ivory and whales’ teeth, were discovered in Lewis in 1831. An initial 82 ended up in the British Museum, while another 11 went to the National Museum of Scotland.

The Scottish exhibition of 24 pieces from the BM and six from the NMS opens in Edinburgh on 21 May next year. It moves to Aberdeen Art Gallery in October, the Shetland Museum and Archives in January 2011, then on to Stornoway’s Museum nan Eilean from April to September

The Scottish Government awarded £75,000 of funding for the free exhibition. “This will be an exhibition of international significance and we expect this will be a major attraction not just for the people of Scotland, but actually will bring people to Scotland,” Mr Russell said.

It will include other gaming pieces, as well as Scandinavian art, and explore the new research on the chessmen’s origins.

The exhibition is not a complete set of chessmen but will include all the major pieces. It is designed to leave some pieces on show in both London and Edinburgh.

The BM has loaned the chessmen around the world, but usually only about ten pieces. It last sent 13 pieces to Stornoway and Edinburgh in 2000.