Thursday, 31 March 2011

Response to Mary Beard's suggestion

This post originally started out as a comment on Rafael's post called "The looting of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and dispersal of major treasures around the world", but I've put it down as a post now because the blog said it couldn't post the comment because it was too long. Anyway, this comment took far too long to write, mainly because I can’t figure out a way to put my thoughts down without offending someone and partly because I find this entire debate extremely frustrating because there is no easy way to resolve the dilemma that Mary Beard brings up! I feel extremely conflicted about what she says. Like I’m standing with one leg in the ‘nationalist camp’ and the other in the ‘internationalist camp’. However, I promised Rafael that I would comment, so here goes my futile attempt at making a contribution to the debate…

In a way I can sympathise with what Mary Beard is saying (but yes, depending on your viewpoint her timing is either perfect or rotten). After all, she’s calling for a dispersal of major antiquities through the world because it’s not always such a clever idea to keep all your artefacts in one location (as this makes the location an easy target for looting and destruction). It therefore seems logical and sensible to disperse antiquities and it’s far from the first time I’ve heard someone put this argument forward, but I will explain why I don’t think this idea will ever work out.

Before you start throwing stones at me, think about the following for a moment. People seem perfectly willing to support the ideas of ‘world heritage’ and the ‘cultural heritage of mankind’ (1954 Hague Convention) until the matter of ownership is touched upon. Countries such as Greece and Italy, which have made and still make claims to have artefacts returned, seem more than willing to share their heritage by lending objects out to international museums. The issue therefore seems to be the ownership of the artefacts, and perhaps not their actual location? I’m not sure how I should interpret Mary Beard’s recommendation about the dispersal of antiquities. Is she ‘merely’ advocating the relocation of antiquities or is she talking about the transfer of ownership to other countries?

I recently had a very interesting class about the ‘nationalist vs internationalist’ debate at UCL in which Marina Papa Sokal, one of my lecturers, put forward the idea of ‘the international circulation of art and antiquities among public institutions’. She suggested that countries should collaborate more with each other in ‘museum-to-museum exchanges’ in order to ensure the circulation and accessibility of cultural heritage. She even went as far as to suggest that museums should be allowed to sell off their objects to museums in other countries and then use the money in order to enrich their own collections by buying antiquities from perhaps yet another museum.

The problem I have with her idea is that I don’t see how it could work out. Or perhaps the problem is that I can see EXACTLY how this would work out. Where would poorer countries get the money from to be able to acquire these artefacts and conserve and protect them? In the end it would still be the rich Western museums that would end up with the largest and best collections because they are the only ones who can afford to acquire and keep them. And if you follow that up, you have to decide whether what some internationalists in Western countries are trying to accomplish with this is actually, as Prott suggested, a new sort of cultural imperialism ‘based as it seems to be on the activities of those from wealthy countries with each other and with poorer states whose cultural resources are flowing in one direction, without an equal exchange’.

I liked that Marina said that ‘inhabitants of poor countries might want or deserve access to objects from other cultures and not just their own’. But to me it sounds too idealistic and not realistic enough. Which of its major British antiquities do you think the BM will send to Sudan or Congo for safekeeping?

Papa-Sokal, M., 2009. Beyond the nationalist-internationalist polarisation in the protection of archaeological heritage: A response to Professor Merryman. Art Antiquity and Law 14: 237-274.

Prott, L.V., 2005. The international movement of cultural objects. International Journal of Cultural Property 12: 225-248.


  1. I think you're right (when you quoted Ms Beards that there has to be a dispersal of major antiquities throughout the world, because it’s not always such a clever idea to keep all your artefacts in one location) that it’s not clear if she is ‘merely’ advocating the relocation of antiquities or if she is talking about the transfer of ownership to other countries. I would add that we must consider the reasons why different countries want those artefacts back, whether just for pride or for other reasons, because I don’t agree when it’s said that everybody would have access to the collections if they were rotated. I also think that, instead of seeing national objects in international museums as a bad idea, it is publicity for your country. In the UK, I have met some people who, after seeing the Moctezuma exhibition in the BM, wanted to know more about the Aztecs. Instead of returning Mexican artefacts to Mexico, perhaps the English should send some spare English artefacts, as we could learn more about England through these objects. However, I know that the situation is changing around the world, and I like what some of the world’s great museums are doing, organising an exhibition by using/borrowing some artefacts from other museums, then afterwards showing the exhibition in other countries. I went to an exhibition in Paris, ‘Les Grands Maîtres et Picasso’. A few months later the same exhibition was in London. Another exhibition took place in Lille (France) on the relations between Europe and Mexico, and later that exhibition was shown in Mexico. Lastly, I should add that there are some artefacts that in my point of view would be better shown either where they were created or in the country with the greatest connection with the object. For example, I saw one of Degas’s Dancers in Paris and another in New York. I think my experience was more satisfactory in Paris, since it is where this statue was created; it’s more meaningful, and I even had the chance to go to Montmartre, the area where the artist got so much inspiration and created that statue.

  2. Hi Rafael,

    I agree with you that seeing objects from other cultures in international museums can be a good thing. Have you been to the Afghanistan exhibition in the British Museum? I have and it’s simply magnificent! I would never consider going to Afghanistan myself (currently not safe enough for me), so I really appreciated that the artefacts came to us and that we were given the opportunity to see them in the BM. The fact that they weren’t in their original context didn’t matter to me. And even if it did, there were images of the Afghan landscape printed on canvasses that were attached to the walls of the exhibition so you still had the idea that these objects weren’t dug up from the English countryside. (Though a small bit of advice, if you think about buying the exhibition catalogue – apparently according to Kathy Tubb it’s 5 pounds cheaper on Amazon than in the BM itself…)

    And considering context I have to say that even when objects are situated in their ‘home country’ the context is not always that clear. Take the Archaic Gallery in the Acropolis museum in Athens as an example.

    Follow the link to go to the Gallery

    To me that just looks like a large room with a lot of statues in it. From the display of these statues I wouldn’t be able to tell where they came from, or what kind of connection they have with each other. Perhaps their tags might give more information about this, but still!

  3. Regarding the other comment by ?. So you have about a thousand problems with Mary Beard’s suggestion? Please name a few. I’m very interested in reading your critique of her proposal! I wouldn’t call her suggestion daft. Idealistic and perhaps naïve, yes… And why would you consider it dangerous? I’m not sure what to do with the ‘world poverty’ comment, as 'world poverty' has nothing to do with museums and the dispersal of objects. Poverty only really comes into play in regards to looting.

    I had read that particular comment by Mona El-Tahawy on another blog before and found it disturbing on many levels. With the disaster of Iraq still fresh in most people’s mind it’s no wonder that the AAA is anxious about the safety of Egypt’s antiquities! I doubt anyone, including the Egyptians, would want to have that particular disaster repeat itself. And remembering the chain of people standing in front of the museum in Cairo, trying to protect their heritage by preventing the museum from being looted, I think I can safely conclude that the Egyptians worry about the artefacts too. So no, I don’t consider it improper of the AAA to spend such a large percentage of their statement on covering their concern about the safety of Egypt’s cultural heritage.

    And considering the AAA, we are talking about anthropologists and archaeologists here. If these specialists do not care about cultural heritage, who will? One person said in a comment “If the museum is destroyed; another museum can replace it”. To that person I would like to say, “Why don’t we ask the people in Iraq and Afghanistan how they felt about the destruction and looting of their museums? I seem to remember that they were rather upset about this.” Perhaps he does not realise that Egypt’s cultural heritage is not a renewable resource? You can rebuild the museum, but you can't replace the destroyed/missing artefacts.

    I furthermore found the suggestion of another commenter that the AAA instead demand and defend social justice for the Egyptian people rather absurd. I think it’s a good thing that the AAA sticks to an area where they might actually make a difference (protecting heritage) and don’t try to meddle in, or comment on situations that are beyond their reach (like the current political situation in Egypt).


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