Thursday, September 14, 2006

The British Museum

The British Museum houses what must surely be the largest and most valuable collection of stolen property anywhere in the world. From Bablyon to Egypt, to Greece, to the East Asia, there's no shortage of priceless cultural stuff that belongs someplace else. (It puts Belgium's far more jingoistic Africa Museum to shame.)

The justification for this has usually been the protection of valuables. Turn of the century Egypt, we were asked to believe, was unable to protect its own cultural heritage; hence the British stepped in to do so themselves (and enjoy it on their own turf). Such claims have, at least some of the time, been quite true. In Iraq recently, the British government managed to create the need for the protection of artifacts themselves, by manufacturing a failed state, utterly incapable of protecting its own history. Witness the looting of Bagdad's museums a few years ago. If only they'd stepped in with the same perservationist mindset in that case.

But then, how often does this argument hold up? Are we really to believe that the Greeks are still somehow incapable of taking good care of the Elgin Marbles? And why are they still named after the British general that stole them, anyway? All this vexed me the other day, as a friend and I strolled through the Greek and Mesopotamian galleries of the Museum, shortly before closing. I've often thought that a trip round the world should really end right there, in the Museum's stunning new Great Court. After seeing all cultures and all peoples, one could see their creations, gathered together in one place.

I suppose one can reasonably as whether or not it even makes sense to return these things after so long. I don't know, myself. There's a unique pleasure in being able to see that much in one place. The real tragedy is how many Greeks and Egyptians and Iraqis never get to see their own cultural heritage, because of this leftover of empire. What to do? Perhaps the UK government should think in terms of redressing this. If they learned to think of themselves as responsible for connecting cultural works with their cultures of origin, they might catch less flack for hoarding them. Alternately, it might simply make them more amenable to returning these things. Surely the Greeks have been around long enough to know how to take care of a few statues themselves.


***Sorry for the gap lately folks. It's likely to continue, I'm afraid, until I get situated in London. My best to all my people elsewhere in the would.
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