By Paul Iddon, Yasmine Issa and Robert Edwards
The British Museum in London, one of the world’s largest exhibitors of historical and cultural objects, is mired in a controversy over the theft of valuables from its collections and the failure of museum officials to properly investigate , which forced its director to resign.
The irony of the British Museum being robbed has not escaped nations around the world who have long accused the institution of displaying – and refusing to return – a vast amount of treasure looted during centuries of British imperial expansion.
The controversy has once again raised pertinent questions about the right of the museum to exclusively own and exhibit such objects from various ancient civilizations and countries around the world while it cannot guarantee their preservation or protection.
Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s most renowned archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities, told Arab News: “What happened at the British Museum is a crime in every way.
“The presence of Egyptian antiquities in American, European or anywhere in the world museums does not mean that they possess these antiquities.”
He said these items would be much better protected, carefully cataloged and properly restored to their original location.
Up to 2,000 items, ranging from gold jewelery to rare gems and semi-precious stones dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century, have been stolen from British Museum storage over several years, aided and abetted by a lack appropriate cataloging or registration. .
Museum director Hartwig Fischer announced he would resign after acknowledging the failure of investigations into the thefts. However, his resignation did little to allay those nations’ concerns about the valuable artifacts in the possession of the museum.
“The theft of artefacts from the British Museum and the resulting investigation into its former director is considered a crime against the whole world,” Hawass added.
The ex-politician has made significant archaeological discoveries across Egypt in recent years, including a major discovery at the Saqqara necropolis in October 2020.
He said: “Because stealing antiquities from a museum in this way is unreasonable, I request that Egypt issue a popular demand that this museum does not deserve to display Egyptian antiquities there.
“It belongs to Egypt, and Egypt must protect its property from theft or improper restoration operations.
“We affirm that the presence of the Rosetta Stone inside the British Museum is a serious error because this stone is the icon of Egyptian antiquities and its place must be in Egypt.
“I also demand that UNESCO and the Department of Tourism and Antiquities organize an international conference to explore the possibility of removing our antiquities from the British Museum,” Hawass added.
A spokesperson for the British Museum told Arab News that it had “not received any formal request from the Egyptian government to repatriate the Rosetta Stone”.
The spokesperson said: “The British Museum works with partners around the world, including colleagues across Egypt on projects, exhibitions and research, and we have a long-standing collaborative relationship with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. »
The museum acknowledged the sensitivities surrounding the return of objects “in the care of” the institution and other similar institutions around the world, the spokesperson added.
“The British Museum understands and recognizes the importance of the issues surrounding the return of objects and works with communities, colleagues and museums around the world to share the collection as widely as possible.
“The restitution debate raises important and nuanced questions around objects and collections held in many countries around the world.
“The British Museum fully recognizes the complex history of the objects in the collection and acknowledges our responsibility to engage the public in their interconnected story in the modern world,” the spokesperson said.
Regarding the recent thefts, museum chairman George Osborne, a former British finance minister, was quoted by Reuters as denying any suggestion that there was a cover-up, in light of the museum’s rejection of a warning two years ago.
In an Aug. 16 press release, he said museum administrators “have taken decisive action to address the situation” and “have set up an independent review of what happened and the lessons to be learned.” shoot, and have used all the disciplinary powers we have to deal with the person we believe responsible.
Osborne admitted to the possibility of “potential groupthink” within the institution, which could not even conceive of an insider looting its vast and invaluable collection. He also admitted the thefts had “certainly damaged” the museum’s reputation as a trusted place to store and display many valuable relics.
His admission may seem like an understatement. After all, the museum has justified owning its vast collection by claiming that it is safer in its hands than many areas of origin, including conflict-ridden parts of Africa and the Middle East.
This justification has sometimes seemed to be validated in recent years, at least on the surface. For example, when Daesh was unleashed in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2019, it intentionally destroyed many objects from the Mosul museum and sold others it had looted from these sites on the black market to finance its terrorist activities.
Iraq has since rebuilt the Mosul museum after the city was liberated in July 2017 and recently reopened the Baghdad National Museum, infamously looted in 2003.
In May, Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid announced the recovery of 6,000 objects, dating back to various phases of Iraqi civilization, which had been loaned to the British Museum in the 1920s for study but had never been returned.
Similar instances of destruction have occurred elsewhere. In 2012, al-Qaeda invaded the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali and intentionally destroyed its centuries-old manuscripts. UNESCO has called this intentional destruction of World Heritage sites and objects “cultural cleansing”.
When he was Mayor of London in 2015, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoked this cultural cleansing to justify, among other things, the removal of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Greece two centuries ago, which remain in the British Museum. Nowadays.
His reference to the Elgin Marbles, in particular, was bizarre since Daesh had invaded much of the Middle East, not Greece.
The sculptures were removed from the wall of the Parthenon in Athens in the early 19th century, when Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, by the seventh Earl of Elgin, a British antiquities collector and diplomat.
After their removal, under dubious legal and ethical circumstances, the British government purchased the objects and duly returned them to the British Museum in 1816.
Their removal continues to irritate Greece and Greeks. When the new Acropolis Museum in Athens opened in the late 2000s, it featured an exhibit showing where the Elgin Marbles would be placed should Britain decide to return them. This exhibition rightly demonstrates how their removal continues to disfigure a World Heritage Site.
Claims like Johnson’s justifying the UK’s continued use of these systems more than two centuries later arguably ring hollow after recent revelations of theft.
“We want to say to the British Museum that it can no longer say that Greek (cultural) heritage is better protected at the British Museum,” Despina Koutsoumba, director of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, told the BBC.
In a recent interview with Greek newspaper To Vima, Greece’s Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said the security issues raised by the missing items “reinforce our country’s ongoing and just demand for the permanent return” of the marbles. of Elgin.
“The loss, theft and deterioration of objects from a museum’s collections is an extremely serious and particularly sad event. In fact, when this happens from within, beyond any moral and criminal responsibility, a major question arises as to the credibility of the museum organization itself,” she added.
The return of objects from British museums is not unprecedented. The Benin bronzes – thousands of items looted from European collections – are being repatriated to Nigeria, having been recovered by British forces during the sack of Benin City in 1897.
The British Museum is also home to several other disputed objects, including Aboriginal artefacts from Australia, the Maqdala collection from Ethiopia, Hoa Hakananai’a from Easter Island and the Cylinder of Cyrus from the Persian Empire.
The last Shah of Iran touted the cylinder as proof of Persia’s progress, invariably describing it as the first bill of rights or bill of rights thousands of years before that of the United States.
In a clear reference to the British Museum, he once told a British journalist: “You have the real parchment in your museum. You took it from us.
The events of the past week and revelations of neglect potentially dating back many years make the present moment ideal to objectively re-evaluate the wisdom of bringing together so many of the world’s historical treasures and artifacts under one roof.