March 17, 2011

The case for the restitution of the William Wallace passport

Posted at 2:07 pm in Similar cases

Another week, another restitution case that gets compared to the Parthenon Marbles. While these cases may well have their own merits for return, any sort of comparison with other cases can be very misleading, particularly where the Parthenon Sculptures are concerned. setting aside any issues of how they were acquired, the Parthenon Marbles were part of a greater whole, both in terms of the remaining surviving sculptures & in terms of the building of which they formed an integral part. In other words, their context was fixed – they were not designed to be seen anywhere else other than in the context of the Acropolis. Many other artefacts however, were never designed for a specific location – their cases is purely one of ownership, meaning that it has far less weight to it than the Parthenon Sculptures do.

Slugger O’Toole

From the Elgin Marbles to An Gal Gréine via William Wallace
Sat 29 January 2011, 9:42am

This week there have been renewed demands for the “repatriation” to Scotland of the 14th Century “William Wallace Passport”, presently held in the National Archives in Kew. As The Scotsman points out:

The case is set to inflame cross-border tensions in a manner befitting Wallace himself.

The Passport, however, is only one of the eight artefacts which the Celtic League are demanding be returned “to the Celtic countries from where they have been originally taken”:

Scotland: Lewis Chessmen; William Wallace Passport; Book of Deer

Brittany: The bones of Pol Aorelian

Wales: Gold Cape of Mold

Ireland: An Gal Gréine, (Sunburst) banner of Na Fianna Éireann

Cornwall: Beunans Meriasek; Prophecy of Ambrosius Merlin concerning the Seven Kings

Isle of Man: The Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles

For history and culture buffs, the site descriptions and pictures on the site in themselves are well worth checking out; I found the stories and myths behind Prophecy of Ambrosius Merlin and the Gold Cape of Mold particularly evocative.

The chances of success for the campaign?

Following the rather unfortunately titled Munich Declaration in 2002, small. This agreement between the world’s leading museums (including the British Museum which holds several of these items) asserted:

… that today’s ethical standards cannot be applied to yesterday’s acquisitions; but in return it acknowledges that encyclopedic museums have a special duty to put world culture on display.

So, no, Greece ain’t getting the Elgins back any time soon…

However, one side effect of the agreement has been a much higher level of cooperation between museums, resulting in thousands of artefacts now being lent each year between museums on every continent.

Rather than pushing for the full ownership of the items and thus denying the wider audience the opportunity to see them, perhaps this would be the better route for the Celtic League to follow? Put pressure on museums in the relevant countries and regions to set up exhibitions incorporating the artifacts, which could then be requested on loan from their present resting places?

I don’t know what kind of interest there would be in Dublin for the display of An Gal Gréine as an individual item. Put in its historical context, as part of a larger temporary exhibition, I’d certainly pay to see it. I’d pay even more if it ever were to arrive at the Ulster Museum- a possible revenue-raising idea there for Nelson and his DCAL team to work on…

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