The British Museum was the first public institution to use the prefix “British”. However, she never considered her vocation to be national. It was designed from the start as an encyclopedic place, a place to exhibit curiosities from all cultures and continents.
This universalism was more unusual than one might think. Visit the national museums in Budapest, Copenhagen or Prague and you’ll discover institutions created to tell the story of a particular nation. The most recent foundations are often even more targeted by their ethnic identitarianism. Go to Washington, DC, for example, and you’ll find, among other things, a National Museum of the American Indian, a Chinese American Museum, and a National Museum of African American History and Culture.
But 18th-century Britain, confident in its identity, aimed wider. As Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum between 2002 and 2015, says: “The museum remains a unique repository of the achievements of human activity, and there is no culture, past or present, that is not represented within its walls . It is truly the memory of humanity.
This, in a word, is the case for preserving various works contested here. If you view museums as weapons in your patriotic arsenal, you might have plenty of arguments over who owns what. But the people most inclined to donate select relics tend, in other contexts, to abhor nationalism, emphasizing that there is a common human heritage.
The relevant question when considering the future of a given object is not: “Who claims a geographic or genetic connection to its creator?” The question is rather: “Where will it be most carefully maintained?” Where can we better appreciate its cultural impact? Where is it accessible to specialists and academics? Where will the greatest number of people have the greatest pleasure in seeing it?
Several of the British Museum’s properties are claimed by foreign governments, and rumors are circulating that a dealing with Greece on the Elgin Marbles.
The impressive Culture Secretary, Michelle Donelan, proves to be just as tough as the white Pentelic stones themselves. “I don’t think they should be sent back to Greece,” she said. last week, reinforcing his terse determination with a mixed metaphor. “It opens a real Pandora’s box, it would be a slippery slope.”
She’s right. Take for example the Rosetta Stone, considered the most viewed object in the museum and currently the centerpiece of an exhibition on the discovery of hieroglyphics. It is by no means a thing of beauty. His interest is rather intellectual. It relates the tax reforms decreed during the reign of Ptolemy V in three languages: Greek spoken by the Ptolemies themselves, demotic Egyptian and ancient hieroglyphic Egyptian. For about 1,400 years, no one had been able to decipher the hieroglyphs, and the discovery of the stone sparked a race among linguists and antiquarians to decode the symbols – won, as it happened, by a French scholar who understood that hieroglyphs had such great phonetics. as well as a pictographic function.
More than 100,000 people have signed a petition demanding the return of the gray tile to Egypt. “The Rosetta Stone was undeniably a spoil of war and an act of plunder,” they say. “The presence of these objects in the British Museum to this day supports past colonial efforts at cultural violence.”
The British actually acquired the stone as spoils of war – from the French. Napoleon, then a young general, had invaded Egypt in an attempt to cut ties between Britain and India. In the summer of 1799, while rebuilding an ancient fortress near the village of Rashida (or Rosetta), French soldiers found the old rock that supported a wall. When the British expelled them from the country shortly afterwards, they considered this part of the terms of surrender.
The French commander protested furiously. “We have never plundered the world! » he shouted – never has the world been so plundered. This greatly amused the British, who had just seen their rivals systematically ransack the region.
What is the meaning of the Rosetta Stone? The languages carved there and the worldview they express are as foreign to Arabic-speaking Egyptian Muslims as they are to us. And, in all likelihood, the slab never had an owner: it was a billboard, abandoned once it had served its purpose and discovered as debris. But even if we put all that aside, its meaning is more about Egyptology than about Egypt. It interests the world of reverse engineering languages, archaeology, ancient history – and precisely, in fact, the world of the British Museum.
Now let’s apply the same test to the Parthenon marbles. Unlike the Rosetta Stone, these are stunning objects – eerily lifelike, with their flowing robes and flaring horse nostrils, yet numinous in their naked, bleached delicacy.
It is precisely because of their beauty that their removal was controversial from the start. Many critics shared Byron’s distaste for “gratuitous and unnecessary degradation.” Although a few misplaced sculptures have found their way to different European museums, most are divided between the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum in Athens, which depicts the missing pieces with crude plasterwork intended to highlight their absence.
The question of legal ownership is simple. The British Museum purchased the collection from Lord Elgin, who had acquired it with permission from the authorities. Elgin had not planned to remove the sculptures. Rather, he wanted to draw and measure them. But he changed his mind when he saw passers-by taking them away.
“The Turkish government attached no importance to it,” he told a parliamentary committee. “Each traveler coming added to the general degradation of the statuary within reach. » Worse still: “The Turks continually defaced the heads and, in some cases, pounded the statues to turn them into mortar. »
There might be an aesthetic argument for restoring the marbles of the Parthenon itself, but everyone agrees that this is impractical. The argument is therefore to move them from one museum to another. The Acropolis Museum is impressive and it is nice to see the stones while catching a glimpse of the Acropolis through the windows. Likewise, the British Museum beautifully houses its collection and is among the most visited places in the world.
What about the claim that the marbles are part of what it means to be Greek? As it happens, Greek independence came a few years after their ouster and its leaders, notably under the Bavarian monarchy, sought to link their national identity to the era of city-states.
The Parthenon was then a church, a mosque and an arsenal, reflecting the tumultuous history of the peninsula itself. The modern Greek republic is in no way the heir of the political system known to Demosthenes. There is no ancestral claim either. Byzantine emperor and historian Constantine VII tells us that in his time the entire region had been “overrun by the Slavs and lost to civilization.”
But even if the Greek Prime Minister could prove his direct lineal descent from the sculptor Phidias, so what? Our legal order is based on the notion of property. If your grandparents had bought your house from my grandparents, I would not have the right to evict you.
Collective ownership not only denies freedom of contract; it is necessarily ambiguous. As Tiffany Jenkins says in her wonderfully researched book, Keep their marbles: “The sculptures have been at the British Museum for two centuries: visited, written about, discussed, sketched, painted, mentioned in parliamentary debates and above all venerated. Surely, by the logic of identity politics, they are also part of British history?
Common property claims deny actual ownership. They elevate the collective above the individual and categorize us as a group – often arbitrarily. A year ago, I spent hours at an exhibition of largely pre-Inca Peruvian objects at the British Museum, peering into an alien world of human sacrifice, hallucinogens and the conception of time as a single block, in which the past and the future were only illusions.
Was my experience different because I was born in Peru? Not really. Part of the purpose of museums is to delight us with the unknown, which is why the Peruvian authorities were so happy to stage their exhibition in London. True fans of the muses, from whom museums take their names, should feel the same way.